Year(s) of the virus: Things we must not forget

The sheer power of the virus, our collective callousness, the sufferings of the working class... there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic to build back better 

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 30 August 2021

We must not forget that our arrogantly literate societies have been brought to their knees by a minuscule virus — not even a DNA but an RNA. We refused to wear a mask; believed that we could win over the pandemic without human pain or economic loss. We have struggled to make sense of the emerging science and even today, millions across the world are refusing to take the vaccine. The issue is not just about science or education, it is also about rebuilding trust in public institutions so that experts and their knowledge are not seen tainted by partisan or private interests.

We must not forget that this virus jumped species — it moved from wild animals, possibly a bat, to humans. We have an increasingly dystopian relationship with nature — from wild habitats to the manufactured food industries, which are weakening the barriers between viruses. The zoonotic diseases are here to stay and we need to understand why.

We must not forget the personal tragedies and pain that the virus has inflicted upon us. For us, in India, we must always remember how we saw bodies lined up for cremations; how the funeral pyres did not stop burning; how orange shrouds were uncovered in the sand along the Ganga. It has been a period of enormous human suffering; we all know someone who has lost someone near and dear; or who went to hell and back to save someone from near death.

The haunting memory of those frantic times must steer governments to invest in public healthcare and to improve surveillance systems for disease management, and must make us all mindful of our health. It is clear that preventing diseases — working on the co-markers of health, from clean water, sanitation, air pollution control and focus on nutritious food for malnutrition and obesity — will be critical. We need to take charge of this.

We must not forget the face of the informal workers, who left, because we turned our backs on them. Their livelihoods collapsed; they had no home to call their own; they then walked miles; even died as they lay down in exhaustion on railway tracks. The plight of the invisible people must be burnt into our combined memory — so that conditions are improved.

This also needs investment in building livelihoods and resilience in regions where migration begins. In the climate change risked times when extreme weather events are crippling lives, this will mean doing even more than the usual pace and scale of development schemes. It will mean massive investment in building jobs from nature — ecological security for economic security.

We must not forget the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the poorest of the world; they have lost lives to the disease and they have lost livelihoods. The virus year has pushed back countries many years behind; it has wiped out the years of development work to improve lives; it has exacerbated impoverishment in our world like never before.

We must not forget the smell of clean air and the sight of clear blue skies as pollution dropped in the locked economy; or of the chirping of birds as traffic noise abated. Nature took a moment of the silence to renew itself; to reclaim its space in our world. It brought us joy, even in the moments of distress; told us to renew ourselves and the world.

We must not forget the human scientific enterprise that brought us vaccines within one year. But in spite of our obvious self-interest in ensuring that vaccines reach the poorest and most remote parts of the world as fast as possible, we are not getting this done. It should teach us of the fundamental and fatal weakness that our economic systems are worked by the rich and are for the rich. COVID-19 is taking its revenge on our flawed model of growth.

We must also not forget every doctor and every nurse whose selfless hours of toil, often without breaks and at considerable risks to themselves, gave us the reasons to hope. We must also not forget all the energy, passion and commitment of people who cooked food, delivered care to the sick and found ways of providing help. These stories make the ordinary, the extraordinary. They make us human; and give us the hope for the future.

Finally, we must not forget that COVID-19 has hold a mirror up to our world but it has also brought us together in grief and in hope and in prayer. This is what we must use to build back better — a fairer, greener and more inclusive world.
The Pandemic Journal

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