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Coronavirus and speculations on paradigm shifts

Published by The Nation on Sat, 28 Mar 2020


By UnderTowEven before the outbreak and intensification of coronavirus, the modern plague currently wasting hundreds of cities and whole countries; even before its cause and course had been properly understood and mapped, many analysts had leisurely begun to theorise about its long-term effects, particularly the revolutionary shifts the disease was bound to trigger in the global economy and national social and political structures. For now, much of their theorising is a little far-fetched; but at least the theories have drawn the attention of many critical thinkers to the fact that things are going to change, and that those changes, some of them fundamental, are bound to be upsetting in some respects. However, some of those conjectured changes are not complicated or controversial.Chief among the non-controversial changes suspected to be one of the aftermaths of coronavirus is how society celebrates itself in weddings and entertainments such as musical jamborees and sporting fiestas. All three social pastimes had until now been celebrated with profligate excesses. Not only has it now been shown that a wedding can be celebrated cheap, perhaps it is also an eye-opener to many who had been deterred by its costs that indeed it can be done without printed invitation cards, feeding hundreds of people at one sitting, with all the attendant decorations, and paying for a large retinue of musical artistes and masters of ceremonies. After the virus is caged, there will of course be some form of restoration of old habits, but like the place of radio in mass communications before the advent of television, the dominance of one over the other will likely become indisputable. Many weddings are often anchored on financial lockdown of some kind; celebrators will see a fresh and affordable angle to the whole exercise.Even though it is still jarring to the senses, the world is beginning to see that musical jamborees are overrated and sporting events are neither the oxygen of life, which they are thought to be, nor the indispensable leisure unthinkingly romanticised and accepted. Again, like weddings, there will also be some restoration, with perhaps coronavirus even becoming policy fodder for enterprising entertainers. Then, again, there is sports, long thought to be a sine qua none to modern living. Coronavirus has rendered many sportsmen idle, and stakeholders as well as spectators have begun to query whether funding that sector and paying outlandish wages are not after all so unrealistic as to be even offensive. Sports, in large measure, is a weekly fix for many people without which they cant imagine any other existence. For weeks on end, they will now have to contend with an existence shorn of sports. After the virus has dissipated, managers and spectators of sports will likely take a second look at the undergirding paradigms, including the endless bidding for players and payment of huge wages, upon which their sporting traditions are built.The world may in fact be witnessing changes that are fundamental to existence, changes very disproportionate to the size and inanimateness of the causative virus. No one can claim an accurate measurement of the impending changes, but the changes seem ineluctable. Sports, weddings and entertainmentsbut even these three are likely to be unable to hold the candle to the changes afoot in religion. Faiths of all kind, perhaps without exception, looked on in disbelief as a tiny, non-living virus sacked their congregations with disdain and annoying brusqueness. Faiths upon which slaughter of whole communities and races had for millenniums been predicated have proved impotent in raising a finger against coronavirus. The virus will eventually abate, perhaps in a few months, for even at its ferocious worst, it will not match the scale of other pandemics in human history. But religious organisations, many of which have meted extreme brutality to one another in the name of God, have shown how powerless they are in their confrontation with a virus that stole in on them while they snoozed in complacency.But no paradigm shift attributable to the virus is likely to match that which is likely to take place in politics. Having massed weapons of all grades and capabilities, and still threatening to wipe one another off the map, developed countries and superpowers have not only been embarrassed by the march of the disease, they have also been shown to be helpless and, for brief tantalising moments, hopeless. Those powerful countries may possess great economies and indomitable militaries, but they have lost thousands of their citizens to the virus, have panicked, and their leaders, when they are not infected, have scurried for cover. They have discovered not only the limits of their own powers as vouchsafed them by their constitutions, they have also discovered the limits of their national power, particularly as projected by their national militaries. Italy has been humbled, Britain has groaned under the virus, with its prime minister, Boris Johnson now afflicted, France is croaking, Russia incandescent, and the United States foaming with rage and prostrate with horror and anxiety. The helplessness of the great powers is accentuated by the fact that they must be wondering what other pathogen lies hidden somewhere that may eventually take down their civilisations, as the Inca Empire was terminated by disease, civil war and Spanish conquest in the 15th Century.The great powers are likely to engage in deep reflections on their vulnerabilities, particularly spurred by coronavirus. Even if their economies do not cave in to the disease, they are unlikely to stick adamantly to their underlying and propelling paradigms. Technology had before now triggered deep and sometimes disturbing changes in the way businesses are done and offices run. Before the advance of great technologies, much of it developed in the 20th Century, pandemics were unable to inspire revolutionary changes in economies. The story is bound to change, spurring further development in technology and birthing new principles and practices in office cultures. Huge office complexes are likely to give way to virtual offices, and companies may embrace radically redefined working relations. All said, changes are afoot.For those not averse to a little science, here is a definition of coronovirus, as contained in a medical microbiology book by David A.J. Tyrrell and Steven H. Myint: Coronoviruses are spherical or pleomorphic enveloped particles containing single-stranded (positive-sense) RNA associated with a nucleoprotein within a capsid comprised of matrix protein. The envelope bears club-shaped glycoprotein projections. Coronaviruses (and toroviruses) are classified together on the basis of the crown or halo-like appearance of the envelope glycoproteins, and on characteristic features of chemistry and replication. Most human coronaviruses fall into one of two serotypes: OC43-like and 229E-like. The virus enters the host cell, and the uncoated genome is transcribed and translated. The mRNAs form a unique nested set sharing a common 3 end. New virions form by budding from host cell membranes. Transmission is usually via airborne droplets to the nasal mucosa. Virus replicates locally in cells of the ciliated epithelium, causing cell damage and inflammation.It is this small virus that is threatening civilisations, locking down whole cities and countries, and paralysing economies, religions, social interactions, and many more. The world will eventually find a way to deal with it, but the virus and its rampage open up a whole range of possibilities for global power contests and domination. Weakening societies may eventually proceed beyond deploying weapons and technological innovations. As many conspiracy theorists are beginning to imagine, and far beyond the capabilities of cyber warfare specialists, just one virus may be all it takes to master the enemy or influence his behaviour, or even, in worst case scenarios, provoke a civil war. At least this generation will remember that nothing has so paralysed them in the past 70 or 80 years as coronavirus. The virus has had the capacity of concentrating their minds and consternating them. More than before, this generation will rue the fragility of human existence and ponder whether anything at all makes sense, especially seeing how one virus has levelled everybody, from kings to presidents, and from the rich to the poor.
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