This year will go down in history as the most unusual in a millennium, a year in which the world’s superpowers and greatest armies came face-to-face with the tiniest enemies on earth, no single shot was fired, the nuclear warheads went silent and the generals were nowhere near the battleground. Yet the results were devastating. The world’s economy wobbles as oil prices collapse and markets tank. Manufacturing, aviation, service and travel and tours industries are worst hit. Social life is affected, cities are locked down, schools shut and people are being encouraged to stay at home. ‘Social distancing,’ a phrase many people are hearing for the first time, is replacing social get-togethers. Our lives have changed dramatically.
Hard-hit are the temperate countries of Europe, Asia and North America. As I write this Sunday morning (March 21), over 304,000 have been affected and about 13,000 have died globally from the coronavirus disease that broke out in the Wuhan region of China late December. The United States alone has recorded 25,000 cases and 323 deaths. Italy has recorded more deaths, exceeding China’s figure. South Korea, Iran and Spain are badly affected, with mounting deaths. This is the Third World War! But it is not a conventional war.
These days, President Donald Trump is humble, striking a somber tone as he briefs his nation daily on his administration’s efforts in combating the outbreak. It is a long way from his boastful rant and braggadocio. Months ago, he was always bombastic about the superiority of his nuclear warheads, the strength of his army and the sophistication of his fighting force. He spoke glowingly of how he had spent over a trillion dollars in the last three years to upgrade the US army. Little did he know that the next war would be fought with the tiniest, invisible enemy that would threaten to bring down the biggest armies. What lessons should the world learn from this outbreak of coronavirus?
The first lesson is that, despite mankind’s quantum advances in science and technology in the last 300 years or so, our civilisation is still very vulnerable, humanity indeed is still facing an uncertain future. Yes, we have put man on the moon; we can cross oceans in hours and speak to one another at any point on earth. We have made tremendous leaps in medicine, food production and nutrition. Yet, there is so much to do to combat diseases. Infectious diseases caused by the tiniest of living organisms not seen by the naked eye can still kill thousands of people in weeks. While diseases like cholera and malaria have been eliminated in the developed world, some long-conquered ones like measles are making a rare comeback in those parts of the globe. The flaring up of COVID-19 in Wuhan, late December, is a clear indication that there is still so much we do not know out there, and so much to do to save humanity from untold devastation. Stunned and taken unawares by this attack, the scientific community does not even know what else would possibly flare up in the nearest future. Suddenly, our world becomes so uncertain and our leaders so helpless.
The second takeaway from this pandemic is that our nuclear weapons and great armies will not be useful in all situations. While these armaments could be used in fighting terrorists, they are not applicable in the emerging medial warfare. We need more vaccines than nuclear warheads. The world now needs to divert resources from arms buildup into research in science, life sciences, technology and medicine. Isn’t it so strange that the United States, the world’s biggest economy, is scouring everywhere looking for face masks to protect healthcare workers and ventilators to help keep the very sick alive? If half of the resources spent in building all these lethal arsenals were put in eradicating infectious diseases, the panic I keep seeing on the faces of Trump, Emanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel wouldn’t have been there.
Despite our voyage to the moon and several space travels, it is obvious that we still do not know much about our world, and this is the third lesson this crisis has taught us. Did coronavirus originate in bats or humans? Scientists can’t yet be sure. Can pregnant mothers pass this infection to their fetuses or could they be transmitted in breast milk? Are there other strains of viruses that will flare up in future? So many unknowns. And this brings me to the fourth lesson: nations need to continuously prepare for the future.
Now, with oil prices going below $30 per barrel, can you imagine what would have happened if Nigeria had not invested so much in local food production in the last four years? What if we had not closed our land borders in the last six months? What if previous administrations had invested much in infrastructure, rails, healthcare and education?
Let me conclude by commending the officials of the NCDC, Ministry of Health and all the healthcare workers who are in the frontline of the war to combat this virus. I call on world leaders to rethink the concept of development and power. There is more to national strength than ballistic missiles. The capacity of a country to quickly conquer rampaging microbes and provide personal protective equipment to frontline health workers and medicines and ventilators to citizens in sickbeds should be the focus of world leaders, going forward. In Africa, our governments’ focus should shift from acquisition of luxury items and building of skyscrapers to developing vaccines, building hospitals, schools and increasing food production with the use of modern technologies. Who knows? The next battle might just be waged by locusts.
•Etim is a journalist and PR specilalist