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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-12-2021 08:26

The virus horde strikes back

Like it or not, human beings will simply have to learn to live with Covid just as they have with countless other threats, whether natural or man-made.

A few weeks ago it was widely believed that, thanks to the achievements of scientists from half-a-dozen countries, humankind would soon win the great war it was waging against the virus kingdom so the survivors could resume their peacetime activities. But then, to the dismay of the many who thought something akin to “normality” was about to be restored, Covid launched a counter offensive by throwing into battle a ferociously contagious new variant that was given the name Omicron. Within days of its arrival, in the countries it attacked it took over from Delta and quickly spread into places its predecessors had left alone.

Viruses may not be able to say “I think, therefore I am,” even if it is in some impenetrable code, but that does not prevent scientists from expressing admiration for their capacity to adapt to new circumstances as though they were able to weigh up the available options before reaching a decision. Many have acquired the habit of treating them like rational beings, as indeed they are in their computer-like unselfconscious fashion. Ruthlessly meritocratic, viruses work by trial and error, replacing the less efficient with others such as Omicron which can break through the pharmaceutical defences which made it harder for previous varieties to cause serious harm to people.

Is this what they “want” to do? Probably not: it would be foolish for them to kill all their hosts because they too would share their fate. This seems to be behind the thinking of those specialists who suspect that even though Omicron is highly contagious, it is a bit less lethal than its close relatives. From a virus’ point of view, as it were, that would be an ideal combination because it would make it more successful. 

Though Omicron is a newcomer whose characteristics have yet to be properly analysed, its depredations have already led to barriers which had been tentatively lowered going up again, with travellers suddenly finding themselves barred from entering the countries towards which they had been journeying and governments everywhere threatening to turn the unvaccinated into social pariahs who, unless they submit, will have to be forcibly jabbed or locked away somewhere. One does not have to be an anarchist to find such proposals alarming.

Exactly how all this will end, if it ever does, is anybody’s guess, but there can be little doubt that Covid has made the world a far more authoritarian place than it was before it jumped into the human bloodstream from a bat, a pangolin or a laboratory located in the Chinese city where it first made its appearance; a laboratory which, as chance would have it, at the time just happened to be investigating the possible uses (the preferred euphemism is “gain of function”) of the very same kind of virus that would go on to take millions of lives and, while about it, wreck large parts of the international economy.

By forcing governments to choose between respecting individual rights and subordinating them to what they assumed was the general interest, Covid confronted them with a dilemma most democrats would have much rather sidestepped because they thought it belonged to the bad old days all civilised countries had left behind. As in old-fashioned wars between different nation states, the pandemic has favoured those who enjoy bossing people around by providing them with plenty of plausible reasons for telling others what they should not be permitted to do. Like Alberto Fernández, they can argue that as human lives are at stake, what those who protest against the restrictions they impose really want is for more people to die. For such politicians, it is virtue-signalling on steroids.

Of course, matters are not that clear-cut. Even if one agrees that governments have to be willing to do what it takes to save lives, they must also consider the likelihood that the long-term consequences of the draconian measures that being taken in order to slow the spread of the virus and give the local medical services more time in which to ready themselves will be far worse than was originally assumed. Even if in most places the economy does pick up sharply in the coming months and years, a great many people will remain in a vengeful mood for many years to come and will do their best to get their own back.

This is certain to be the case in Argentina where, even before Covid struck, economic woes were depriving entire social sectors of what their members had come to see as their birthright. Among the hardest hit are the young who, with many schools closed, for over a year were left to their own devices. The future they face looks even bleaker now than it did back in early 2020.

Like it or not, human beings will simply have to learn to live with Covid just as they have with countless other threats, whether natural or man-made. Until fairly recently, this would have seemed obvious enough, but Covid arrived at a time when Western societies were psychologically less prepared to confront it than would once have been the case because people had grown accustomed to going to almost any length to avoid running risks of any kind. For fear of being accused of negligence, several decades ago authorities of one kind and other took to warning the populace that it is dangerous to let kids climb trees, go anywhere near a river, try to run up a moving staircase or even, in some British schools, play conkers as did their feckless predecessors. Just why this happened is unclear. Some think the increasing feminisation of public sentiment was to blame, though it could be that the trend really got into high gear when lawyers discovered they could rake in huge amounts of money by suing companies or government departments for not taking all conceivable precautions to prevent accidents from happening.

It is also taken for granted that if someone dies it must be for a specific reason, not as a result of what used to be called “natural causes,” the implication being that mortality is somehow abnormal and could well be due to someone’s criminal behaviour. This suggests that the coronavirus was at most only partly responsible for the decrease of a large proportion of its alleged victims, many of whom were very old at the time or already suffering from other ailments. Perhaps this is why the British do not seem particularly alarmed when informed that most days over a hundred people die and have Covid mentioned on their death certificate.

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