People wearing masks attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, on March 20, 2020. But when religious gatherings must be avoided, technology can come to the rescue. Photo: AFP / Juni Kriswanto

The number of people infected and dying from the Covid-19 pandemic is increasing exponentially. A massive loss of humanity, as occurred during the “Spanish” flu of 1918 that killed 50 million to 100 million, is feared. The collapse of financial markets and economic supply chains, border and airport closings, lockdowns of communities, loss of personal incomes and life savings are deepening panic and despair around the world.

The multitudes in overcrowded refugee camps, detention centers and prisons as well as the millions without health insurance and employment benefits in the United States are especially vulnerable.

Controversy over origin and prevention

The origin of the virus and the disease is commonly attributed to an animal-to-human transmission (possibly from a bat) at a seafood market in Wuhan in Hubei province, China, in December. US President Donald Trump and some Western media refer to it as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” While the Chinese government initially mishandled the response to the virus outbreak, it claims to have brought the spread of the coronavirus largely under control. 

Chinese officials are now saying that the novel coronavirus originated in the United States and not in China. They claim that American soldiers brought Covid-19 to China and refer to a March 12 US congressional oversight committee hearing during which the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Redfield, stated that “some Americans who seemingly died from influenza were tested positive for novel coronavirus in the posthumous diagnosis.”

There is also speculation the US Army’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) research and testing involving bats and coronaviruses and gene editing bioweapons may have had a role to play in the outbreak of the virus in China. Scripps Research Institute in the US, however, has asserted that the Covid-19 epidemic has a natural origin and that no evidence exists that the virus was made in a laboratory.

At a time when global solidarity is needed to combat the worst pandemic to face humanity in more than a hundred years, the conflict over its origin only aggravates the growing economic and political rivalry between the US and China. 

Reports from China state that a pharmaceutical drug manufactured by Cuba, interferon Alfa 2B, has significantly helped to stop the spread of the virus there. However, this drug seems to be overlooked in the US. Trump has called for cutting red tape to quickly get experimental drugs to people outside of clinical trials although drug safety experts are concerned over long-term effects of such an approach.  

In the race to find a cure in the United States, “strategic allies” of the DARPA agency including the two pharmaceutical companies, Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Moderna Inc, are being funded to develop vaccines that “controversially involve genetic material and/or gene editing.” Again, there are safety and ethical concerns over possible future mandatory use of such biotechnologies.

In 2015, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates warned of a huge threat of a global pandemic and conducted a simulation in late 2019 predicting up to 65 million deaths due to a coronavirus. Controversially, the Gates Foundation also funded the Pirbright Institute, which “owns” the patent to the deadly virus and is working on a vaccine against it.

Notwithstanding dire predictions and calls for preparedness, the United States, considered the most advanced country in the world, now finds itself without adequate testing kits, respirators, hospital beds, medical personnel and the like. Policies promoting privatization and slashing state social welfare, introduced to developing countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, will also make it difficult for them to face the Covid-19 pandemic now. Is the lack of crisis preparedness a reflection of the pursuit of corporate profit over universal health care and human well-being?

Lessons learned?

While the future course of the Covid-19 pandemic is unknown, it has brought to light the dangers inherent in the dominant military-industrial complex. It is said that a crisis is a turning point, an opportunity to change. To understand where and how to turn, it is necessary to question the values and the unsustainability and inequality of this system.

How has prioritizing unbridled economic growth over environmental sustainability and human well-being contributed to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic? Is human expansion into the habitats of other animals a factor in easier transmission of viruses between species? How has the reliance on goods and products, including food and medicines produced mostly in China and transported across the world, resulted in massive shortages at this critical time?

Both the US and China want to return to “normalcy” and jump-start their economies as soon as possible. Trump has avowed that in the post-pandemic world, US economic growth will be bigger than ever. China too will move forward with its massive Belt and Road Initiative despite social and environmental concerns associated with it.

The coronavirus crisis in the US has already led to calls for corporate deregulation (vaccine development) and corporate bailouts (airlines and cruise lines), which could further consolidate corporate and elite control over the society. Currently, the three richest billionaires in the US (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) own more wealth than all of the bottom 50% of the people in the country. The further shift of life online due to the coronavirus could widen and deepen surveillance and social control by the large tech companies. The pandemic could make helpless people succumb to experimental mind and gene altering vaccines of pharmaceutical corporations.

It is time to fashion a more balanced, ecological civilization that respect the environment, upholds bioregionalism and local communities as well as ethics and accountability in use of technology and online activity. The unprecedented global crisis brought forth by the Covid- 19 pandemic is making people more sensitive to the fragility and insecurity of life and our physical and emotional interconnectedness to each other and all of nature.

The crisis can teach us to open our hearts and minds, to overcome excessive greed and individualism and see the common suffering across cultural and ideological boundaries. It offers an opportunity to overcome despair and powerlessness and to collectively challenge oppressive social structures shifting the world in a more equitable and ecological direction.

Many faith traditions offer prayers and healing for troubled times, and they are now widely available online. During the Buddha’s time, the city of Vesali was plagued by disease and the townspeople called upon the Buddha for support. The Buddha arranged for the Ratana Sutta (Jewel Discourse) to be recited across the town resulting in the dispersal of the town’s fears and afflictions: “May all beings be healthy, happy, strong and safe.”

Asoka Bandarage's latest book, Crisis in Sri Lanka and the World: Colonial and Neoliberal Origins: Ecological and Collective Alternatives, was released by De Gruyter Contemporary Social Sciences on May 22, 2023.