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COVID-19: How a bird’s song signals human devastation

Is India prepared to face the economic crisis that the pandemic has triggered?

India has not had a recession in the lifetimes of the majority of citizens now alive.
India has not had a recession in the lifetimes of the majority of citizens now alive.

On the first morning of the lockdown, our ears were gladdened by the chirping of songbirds, hitherto drowned out by the noise of traffic. It left me wondering whether the birds had communicated with each other unimpeded all this time, their auditory apparatus attuned to particular frequencies, or were revelling in easy interactions after a lifetime of struggling to be heard. News came of animals spotted in unusual locations: a nilgai wandering down an avenue in Noida, monkeys running amok in Thailand and wild goats strolling around a Welsh coastal town.

Some of these, like sika deer in Japan’s Nara city, were foraging after losing their normal source of food due to the decline in tourism. A few animals in specific contexts gain from their interactions with humans. For the most part, however, the march of prosperity tramples the habitats of all other life forms. Though we wish it were otherwise, a sudden improvement in the quality of life of the world’s fauna can only mean a concomitant decline in the living standards of humans. Those songbirds on my street are canaries in the coal mine, signalling the devastating cost of the lockdown.

Mocking the ugliness of industrial society, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “You utilitarians, you too love everything useful only as a wagon for your inclinations; you, too, really find the noise of its wheels intolerable?" The noise of the modern economy’s wheels is pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. We hate how the wheels sound but depend on them to fulfil all our desires except one, the wish to be free of that noise. On a Turin street one winter morning, in a fit of madness, Nietzsche tearfully embraced an exhausted horse that was being whipped by its owner. If that animal represents nature, our hearts want us to be the demented philosopher soothing it, but our minds, if we permit them to look dispassionately, understand we are the coachman wielding the whip.

In a column four weeks ago, I wrote we should hope the novel coronavirus would approximate the SARS scare of 2003 but prepare for it to resemble the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that took 50 million lives. It is clear by now that we are staring at 1918 rather than 2003, and that we are woefully unprepared. This is not to say covid-19 will claim 50 million lives. One nation after another, on being hit by the virus, has chosen to save lives at all costs, those costs being the self-inflicted wounds of shutdowns. Since the wheels of the Indian economy have ground to a halt, our homes are less dusty, the skies clearer, and the air fresher. The pleasant view distracts us from the catastrophe now unfolding.

We have had three major global shocks thus far in the 21st century. The first was triggered on 11 September 2001, by terrorists flying into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The second, a crash caused by greedy bankers, was symbolized by the bankruptcy of the financial services firm Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008. The best guess about the commencement of the current crisis is 10 December, when Wei Guixian, a shrimp seller in Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market, developed a cold that became the first recorded case of infection by the novel coronavirus now called SARS-CoV-2.

The impact of covid-19 is likely to be worse than the financial meltdown of 2008, which, in turn, was worse than the downturn of 2001. This is not a certainty, of course. Economists and epidemiologists have differing opinions on the issue but I cannot see how the lockdown in India, even if extended beyond three weeks, will mark a decisive turning point. We might bend the infection’s curve but are unlikely to break its back. The economy will not return to full capacity until an effective treatment or vaccine is found, and, as a consequence, many livelihoods damaged by the shutdown will be destroyed forever.

The travel, hospitality and entertainment industries will suffer for months, if not years. A deluge of new bad debt will hit the financial services industry. Burdened by loans to industry that have gone sour, banks have found solace in individual Indian consumers saving less and borrowing more. Large-scale defaults on unsecured retail loans now appear inevitable and will corrode what has been the strongest pillar of the banking edifice.

The economy is an abstraction built on a material, human foundation. Individual tragedies underlie the depressing figures reported in business columns. As the lockdown extends into a long slowdown, it will mean people suffering, abandoned, unable to afford care. It will mean workers hanging on in quiet desperation on land that can barely feed them but is preferable to the harshness of jobless cities. India has not had a recession in the lifetimes of the majority of citizens now alive . We have been spared mass unemployment, even during past global economic meltdowns. We are psychologically unequipped to handle the storm into which we are now headed.

Politically, the novel coronavirus represents the greatest challenge faced by Narendra Modi. The prime minister’s place in history depends on whether he can retain the confidence of India’s populace and avert widespread social unrest as the slowdown bites hard. The enthusiastic banging of thalis during the Janata curfew on 22 March and lighting of lamps on 5 April demonstrated that middle-class and affluent citizens are firmly on his side at the moment. Recessions, however, are never kind to political leaders and Modi, having thrived during a crisis of his own making called demonetization, could well plummet in the public’s estimation thanks to a far larger disaster he could have done little to avert.

I, meanwhile, will seek signs of the ungreased wheels of India’s economy coming to screechy life. When I wake to the sound of honking rather than birdsong, find my surroundings obscured by dirty haze, block my ears against the clanging of pile drivers building a neighbourhood Metro station and cough from the burnt chilli garlic emanating from a street-side wok, I will grow convinced we are on the road to recovery, long and winding though it may be.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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