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Coronavirus - Is This Apocalypse?

By Miss Sapna Jayantilal Mehta

“May you live in interesting times” – Chinese curse.

Coronavirus. The current global pandemic originated in Wuhan, China in 2019 and has touched every class of society, rich or poor, First World or Third World and has laid bare the inadequacies of even the strongest of nations. The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is the most significant global health crisis of our time and presents the greatest challenge the globe has faced since the Second World War.

So, is coronavirus or rather COVID-19 a harbinger of the Apocalypse? Is this the end of the world? Is it time to rejoice for Kingdom Come? To answer this essay’s question or attempt to, let’s go back and delve into the scientific history of coronavirus. Coronavirus is actually a large group of viruses. Some of them cause the common cold in humans and some affect animals, such as bats, camels and cattle. The pandemic was started by the coronavirus variant called SARS-CoV-2, the new novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 emerged in December 2019, setting off an epidemic of acute respiratory syndrome (COVID-19) in humans, with its epicentre in Wuhan, China. Within three months, the virus had spread to more than 118,000 cases and caused 4291 deaths in 114 countries, leading the World Health Organisation to declare a global pandemic.

Experts say SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats just as the coronaviruses behind the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 (approximately 35% of all patients with MERS have died to date, officially) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) did. SARS is a viral respiratory disease that was first identified in February 2003 in China and which spread to four other countries. SARS was “the first severe and readily transmissible new disease to emerge in the 21st century and showed a clear capacity to spread along the routes of international air travel”, (WHO). SARS mostly affected previously healthy adults aged 25 to 70 years and the official mortality rate was around 3%. SARS-CoV-2 made the fatal jump to humans at one of Wuhan’s open-air “wet markets” where customers buy fresh meat and fish that are killed on the spot. Different animals may swap genes due to crowded conditions and the viral genetics may have changed so much that ultimately, experts say, humans were infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 then spread quickly inside and outside China and started the global pandemic which has changed all our lives irreversibly for more than two years. So, this virus isn’t new to the world but it is new to humans.

The currently designated Variants of Concern (VOCs), as of typing this essay, are (according to the WHO) Alpha variant (18 December 2020, earliest documented sample UK), Beta variant (18 December 2020, earliest documented sample South Africa), Gamma variant (11 January 2021, earliest documented sample Brazil), Delta variant (11 May 2021, earliest documented sample India) and Omicron variant (26 November 2021, multiple countries).

While writing this essay, the latest news is scary from Delhi, to say the least, which is that with a positivity rate of over 32.82% every third person in New Delhi is infected with a coronavirus strain which leads to COVID-19.

The whistleblower. Dr Li Wenliang, a Chinese medic, originally raised the alarm about a disease he said looked like SARS, another deadly coronavirus but he was told by police “to stop making false comments” and was investigated for “spreading rumours”. He died on 7 February 2020 after contracting COVID-19 while treating patients in Wuhan. Dr Li’s death prompted a rare wave of grief and public anger over the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Only when anger reached an overwhelming crescendo did the Chinese government yield and Dr Li was exonerated and hailed as a hero by the government of China, a so-called coronavirus warrior.

In mid 2021, debate over the proposition that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is a bioweapon that was manufactured by mad scientists in a laboratory escalated. After last year’s WHO assembly, the WHO agreed to sponsor the first phase of an investigation into the pandemic’s origins. Most scientists say SARS-CoV-2 probably has a natural origin and was transmitted from an animal to humans. However, a lab leak has not been ruled out and Australia, the European Union and Japan have called for a tough, no holds barred investigation into the hypothesis that the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located in the Chinese city where the first COVID-19 cases were reported. However, China has asked that the probe involve other countries, fuelling misgivings that China may be launching a cover up and that there is some truth to the conspiracy theorists’ suggestion of a man-made out of control mutant virus. In theory, COVID-19 could have come from a lab in a situation where researchers might have collected SARS-CoV-2 from an animal and maintained it in their lab to study, or they might have created it by engineering coronavirus genomes. A lab scientist then injects himself/herself with the virus accidentally or deliberately, infecting others and thereby starting the pandemic. This is conjecture but not impossible. A number of arguments have been raised supporting the premise that COVID-19 has a lab/man-made origin. One holds that it’s suspicious that more than two years after the start of the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2’s closest relative has not been found in an animal. Another argument states that it cannot be entirely coincidence that a top lab studying coronavirus, WIV is located at the cradle of where COVID-19 was first located, at Wuhan in China. Other evidence to support a lab leak are the virus contains unusual features and genetic sequences signalling that it was engineered by humans. Another theorist contends that SARS-CoV-2 spreads so fast amongst humans that it seems engineered for that very purpose. Another argument suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is derived from coronavirus found in bats in an unused mine by WIV researchers in between 2012 and 2015.

How has the world’s economy fared under the baleful watch of COVID-19? As of 14 May 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had said that the coronavirus pandemic had instigated a global economic downturn, the likes of which the world has not experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to the World Bank’s most recent estimates, despite a strong rebound in the world’s economy in 2021, the global economy is entering a slowdown due to fresh threats from coronavirus, amongst other negating factors. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant indicates that the pandemic will likely continue to disrupt economic activity in the near term, at least.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to people questioning their very existence, finding comfort in apocalyptic prophecies. The apocalypse is differentiated into a religious intonation and secular one. Those who believe in God believe the apocalypse will signify the rapture of the faithful to heaven and the secular apocalypse refers to sociopolitical change. Historically, pandemics and apocalyptic prophecies have been held close together. For example, during the Black Death scourge (bubonic plague) (1347-1352), bad air, divine punishment and witchcraft were believed to be the reasons behind the deadly plague and signalled the end of the world. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic is another case in point where the clergy related the disease affliction to the Day of Judgment and Christ’s Second Coming, warning that this was just the beginning as stated in the Book of Revelation.

Pandemics engender and enhance a type of paranoia, where a sense of the fragility of life and the world, the ever-present spectre of chaos and anarchy and a feeling that the world as we know it is disintegrating is highlighted. Self-isolation and quarantine create a sense of being separated from the community and the world generally and a feeling of dashed expectations is predominant. While the global threat from COVID-19 has been phenomenal, the virus cannot be divorced from its sociocultural context. It is religious fundamentalists who generally associate coronavirus with Judgement Day but apocalypses can be secular as well as religious.

Me or you may define apocalypse as a violent or catastrophic end of the world. The Book of Revelation, the final book in the Holy Bible states apocalypse is a time when some truth or understanding, previously unknown is revealed. Fundamentalist Christians hold that the Book of Revelation predicted the pandemic 2000 years ago. The millennial years, 1000 and 2000, heightened apocalyptic expectations. The Black Death in 1348 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 gave the common man a sense of foreboding of the imminent end of the world. History is replete with such groups suggesting Judgement Day is upon us, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. Revelation describes four horsemen of the Apocalypse who appear when the seven seals are opened. The first symbolises Christ. The second represents war and bloodshed. The third is identified with famine and the fourth is associated with pestilence and death. Some Christians claim that COVID-19 is proof that the plagues of the book of Revelation are occurring now and Jesus’ return is imminent. For them, Revelation has indeed predicted the COVID-19 pandemic and corona has been associated with the fourth horseman.

According to the Gospels, Jesus himself stated that pandemics of pestilence would happen before His return. “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be … pestilences … in diverse places” (Matthew 24:7; also see Mark 13:8 and Luke 21:11). The meaning of pestilence here is full-scale disease outbreaks.

Secular apocalypse involves environmental factors and the nuclear doomsday scenario of nuclear holocaust. Apocalyptic belief has been emboldened by the World Wars, the Cold War and the spectre of nuclear annihilation. Fears pertaining to atomic destruction, germ and chemical warfare and inherent lethal disease and environmental catastrophe have increased in prevalence. Secular apocalypse has evolved out of religious apocalyptic belief. Religious belief still contends God utilises natural calamity (eg, tsunami) or technology (eg, nuclear power) to punish the sinners. Therefore, the natural, the divine and the human often overlap to explain suffering and misfortune. Science in the modern age is the primary lens through which people observe and contend with their world. While technological innovation provides mankind with hope, the secular apocalypse examines and interprets science as an inevitable stride to man’s self-destruction. Secular apocalypse is synonymous with cultural apocalypse with a sense that the age and the historical epoch is coming to an end.

What has the rationalist response of the world been to the COVID spectre? The basis of the religious apocalyptic theory is God. However, can rationalists believe in God? Rationalism is an approach to life based on reason and evidence. Most rationalists would agree with the premise that there is no evidence for any arbitrary supernatural authority, ie, God or Gods.

The world’s response to the pandemic threat has, at best, been reactive in the face of various challenges. The initial response was full, partial or weekend lockdowns, educating people to wear masks and practice social distancing, meaning keep 2 metres away from any other person in public, and asking people to use sanitising solutions to try and build a circle of immunity around themselves. People were asked to keep their social circle small and avoid the three Cs, ie, closed spaces, crowded places and close contacts. Different countries have had variable success. The number of total worldwide cases of coronavirus in the current pandemic has been 32.3 Cr with a staggering death count of 55.3 L and counting. The Top 3 countries affected have been United States, India and Brazil. New Zealand has had moderate success in fighting the scourge and at one point, due to New Zealand’s relative success in combating COVID-19, the New Zealand passport was named the most powerful passport in the world.

Social media and news media have launched information and education campaigns to educate people on how to grapple with the scourge. The psychological problems associated with the COVID-19 calamity are varied. In extreme cases, people may suffer from depression characterised by low mood, tiredness, pessimism, poor sleep and appetite, feeling helpless, guilty and hopeless with a gradual reduction in work output. The elderly are more vulnerable. One of the central emotional responses during a pandemic is fear. Targeting fear can be useful in some situations but not others. Educating people when they feel they can cope or protect themselves can change behaviours; however, defensive reactions predominate when people feel helpless. Another challenge to educating people to change accepted norms of behaviour is a bias leading people to feel they cannot be affected by the virus, are immune to contracting it or a false invincibility perception. The media also usually report on COVID-19 negatively, reporting on the numbers of people infected with COVID and how many have died of COVID as opposed to those who recover and who are only infected mildly.

Pandemics over the years have led to more intolerance towards minorities and ethnic groups. The bubonic plague, for example, unleashed massive violence in Europe, against clerics and beggars and progroms against Jews with over a thousand communities eradicated. Early on, COVID was being tagged as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese virus”.

Conversely, in the modern age pandemics can, ironically, reduce ethnic prejudice. Coordinated efforts amongst individuals, communities and governments to fight the spread of disease can spread strong messages of cooperation and shared values which the world needs, now more than ever, in the Brave New World.

The vaccination effort in India. The pandemic started a race against time worldwide for an efficacious vaccine against COVID. When vaccines were finally developed and approved after clinical trials, India started a massive COVID vaccination campaign as of 16 January 2021. By 21 October 2021, India had administered more than 1 billion COVID jabs, making it the second country after China to have achieved the milestone. India is utilising three vaccines, the AstraZeneca jab (Covishield), Covaxin by Indian firm Bharat Biotech and Russian made Sputnik V. India has also approved its first vaccine for people under the age of 18.

In conclusion, all forms of apocalypse ultimately try to tell a story of something positive coming out of misfortune, reminding us that the basis of the apocalyptic prophecy is what will happen after the end or in the post-apocalyptic scenario. The pandemic has certainly pushed individuals to reflect on the current status quo. The COVID crisis has revealed health care inequalities, class division, infrastructure challenges and unequal divisions of scarce resources. COVID-19 has changed the ways we live and interact in ways unimaginable to even the most futuristic thinker amongst us.

Over the course of history, plagues of diseases and such types of calamities have come and gone, such as small pox, bubonic plague, the Spanish influenza outbreak, etc, and humankind has been able to face up to such scourges and emerge stronger with the aid of science. Later scourges such as HIV/AIDS have had lingering and heartbreaking effects, with scientists often having to fight a war of attrition. The fact remains that science has failed to find a cure for the common cold. It remains to be seen if the world will ever manage to escape the coronavirus spectre once and for all. Apocalyptic fears are a direct outcome to the existential plight of mankind fomented by the virus and underlying inequalities in power structures. Is the current coronavirus scourge a sign of the end of the world? The debate rages on.

By Miss Sapna Jayantilal Mehta

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