The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi

The herd instinct

The pandemic has changed the dynamics of the world politics like everything else

Farrukh Khan Pitafi April 18, 2020
During the lockdown, mostly cooped up in the house, I finally managed to finish the TV series that I have been trying to for a while. The Man in The High Castle. Loosely based on Philip K Dick’s novel of the same name, it is a dystopian take on what would have happened had the Axis powers won the Second World War, and Germany and Japan had divided the United States into three parts — one for each and one neutral zone. The author was a genius — albeit a bit disturbed — in his own right. But the production values and brilliant acting makes it worth watching. Where I struggled, however, was the exceptionally painful nature of dystopia in which people toiled to survive under the dominant strain of the political evils whose resurgence threatens our century. And the ugliness of the racism dominated authoritarianism. For instance, without much warning we are once told that the ashes suspended in the air are of the crippled, the sick and the elderly who are regularly killed and burnt. But I am glad that I watched it.

What stands out in the series is how ordinary people can make do with any form of government just to make the two ends meet. The common, non-confrontational, family men and women. This habit of making peace with any circumstance, no matter how unsavoury, ensures that life goes on but without a reset. When the reset comes, it is plain that the only thing that stood in its way was fear itself. The fear that robs us of the desire to ask for more, to seek our own perfection and the perfection of the world around us. This series takes an interesting turn when the world dominated by the Nazis tries to invade and change parallel realities with different outcomes — for example our own world.

Since 2016, I have heard many friends joke that we are trapped in a different and more morose reality where Nazism, racism and fanaticism are not regarded as almost forgotten nightmares from the past but active threats. In this space I have continuously theorised on what might be contributing to these changes. Mainstreaming of societies where inequality is culturally sanctioned — like India? The desire of presumed US rivals like China and Russia, and perhaps not so presumed like India, to witness the decline of the West through sponsored seeds of discord, confusion and disarray so that they can eventually rise? The clash of the civilisations between Islam and the West as a thesis and the contradictions of Huntington, its progenitor, who ended up defining American identity as that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants or WASPs as they are often called? Or the rise of the new breed of ultra-rich capitalists and their Ayn Rand inspired libertarian political allies who see governments as the enemy and free enterprise the only hero on the block? As is evident the members of this alliance have shown readiness to befriend any element, no matter how extreme, just to see their dogmatic and reductive worldview put into practice. Many libertarians, after all, cohabit happily with the racist alt-right in the loosely knit coalition that is often referred to as Trump’s base. The theorising continues. Regardless of whether one or all of these elements contributed to this mix, the outcome is getting deadlier by the day.

The ongoing global Covid-19 crisis has made humanity a target practice for the elements mentioned above. It is an inextricable part of human nature to yearn for the old normal. To demand return to how things were before the lockdowns. Consequently, they would turn to any alternative explanation that is out there. And in the same climate the cost of a prolonged shutdown is becoming too high for governments and businesses. The gradual dismantling of the lockdown was then to be expected. But the situation becomes dangerous when the desire for the old normal meets the impulse to justify the opening up of the economy in an environment full of dodgy characters. For instance the alt-right proponents of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” like Richard Spencer wouldn’t mind if members of the vulnerable minorities succumb en masse to Covid-19. Likewise, there are many among the hyper-capitalists who may see the depopulation of a significant chunk of the poor and the elderly not as a part of the problem but of the solution.

Consequently, the alt-right and some among the libertarian circles have mounted an aggressive campaign to promote what is called herd immunity. Based on past pandemics, they argue that if a significant segment of the healthy population gets infected the virus stops infecting the most vulnerable. It has worked in the past they say. And then they marshal the support of obscure scientists, doctors and experts to make their point. Sounds reasonable, right? Except it isn’t. The virus is very new, very lethal and hard to understand. Only six months ago most of the world did not even know that it existed. We do not know the length of the period of a recovered patient’s immunity, frequency of flare-ups and generally the long-term behaviour of the virus. And thanks to a constant propaganda campaign of another segment of the conservatives who want you to believe that the virus was genetically engineered, you realise the number of unknown variables keeps increasing. This then is another leap of faith and the one not supported by the mainstream medical position championed by the WHO and most governments. Perhaps that is why, and not because of hiding information on China, the Trump administration was compelled by its far-right allies to cut the funding for the WHO.

Consider another variable. With no vaccine in sight the proponents of herd immunity believe that it will take somewhere between 50 to 70% infections among the population to reach the level where the virus stops infecting the vulnerable. Given the above-mentioned variables we don’t know how long that will take. And until we get there it will be Italy, New York and Spain everywhere every day. Sounds a lot like eugenics. Acceptable cost? I don’t think so.

So, what is the alternative. The lockdowns cannot go on indefinitely? The best solution is to keep listening to the advice of the WHO and the mainstream experts as we relax the lockdowns. Keep social distancing, take necessary precautions, develop a healthy amount of skepticism for the outliers and hope for a vaccine or a breakthrough to soon emerge.

As for the nations who are still treating this situation as a zero-sum game, it is imperative to remember we are in the same boat. The pandemic has changed the dynamics of the world politics like everything else. About time we realise we are one race faced by a common enemy. The West will have to work with China and Russia, Israel and the Arab world with Iran, Pakistan with India. Without that this boat will sink sooner than we fear.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2020.

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