Heavy smog affects New Delhi on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/Dominique Faget
Heavy smog that long affected New Delhi, as shown here on November 5, 2018, has largely cleared up. Photo: AFP / Dominique Faget

Cleaner air of recent days in New Delhi, a city that suffered toxic air pollution for years, served as a great paradox of the Covid-19 pandemic: of good emerging from one of the worst multi-pronged threats to normal life in history.

The mixed bag of the good and bad will continue, with the world’s largest lockdown set to be extended in India beyond May 3.

Bluer skies, cleaner rivers, healthier habits, fewer road accidents, less crime are not supposed to be products of a pandemic, but these lockdown gifts ask the global question: How to return to normalcy without the abnormality of a polluted life?

Seeing world cities without smog would have been a first experience for many in decades.

The answer as always rests with the individual choices made.

The choices of life ahead need an understanding that pandemics do not pop out of the blue one bad morning. There are accumulated causes before the effect devastatingly appears every 100 years or so.

From the first historically recorded plague, in Athens circa 450 BC, the cause of an epidemic was similar: unhygienic life. Athens was overcrowded when it was besieged by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The 1918 flu appeared from the bloodied, congested, muddy trenches of World War 1.

Grim was the outcome from ancient days. “The dead were heaped on top of each other, left to rot, or shoved into mass graves,” was how Greek historian Thucydides recorded the Athenian plague. “Sometimes those carrying the dead would come across an already burning funeral pyre, dump a new body on it, and walk away.” Mass graves appeared in New York in 2020, the world’s richest city.

Since the last epidemic and the last world war, human life has evolved into “normal” poisoning of the planet: contaminated water, radioactive waste, poisonous urban air, 4.5 trillion liters of untreated sewage and industrial waste dumped into US waters alone each year. There was a price to pay – and that price, once paid, came with positives attached.

In effect, Covid-19 unleashed one of life’s paradoxes, of how positives come attached with negatives and vice versa.

Covid-19 paradox

Positives of Covid-19 have unexpectedly produced stunning outcomes of a cleaner planet, even as some 211,000 people have died and the global economy is deep-frozen, with millions of jobs lost.

Ancient India attributed this paradox to a subtle law of nature, of kussala kammas from akussala kammas and the reverse. For example, a person develops a dangerous disease, survives and helps others fight the same life-threatening condition. The reverse applies when someone gets a high post, but inflates his ego, antagonizes others and makes mistakes that lead to his downfall.

The akussala kammas of Covid-19 negatives have produced the kussala kammas of positives of an alternative lifestyle forged through limited choices of a global populace confined at home.

Covid-19 unleashed universal suffering not felt perhaps since World War II. But will we apply the lessons from this round of suffering, or set the groundwork for the next one?

The different path

The force of a pandemic has forged a different path: of innovative home-based work that requires less traveling, less crowded public transport and vehicular traffic, less pollution, hygienic habits to stop getting and spreading disease, the enforced renunciation of the non-essentials and unwholesome addictions of life.

If the economy, jobs, making more money to catch up for the lost time is all we plan in the post-Covid-19 life, then the deeper message, louder warnings and the larger lessons of this pandemic, is lost.

After the lockdown, we can either resume sowing the seeds for the next health cataclysm or change the way we work and live.

It took a forced planet-wide confinement to see how quickly the Earth heals itself when the most intelligent yet most dangerous species is taken off the road of daily life.

The Himalayas needed the Covid-19 break. I have spent much of the last 13 years in the Himalayan gateway town of Rishikesh and the upper Himalayas, and the obvious reality was the strain on that crucial ecosystem by a million annual pilgrims and adventure tourists.

Non-existent road traffic during the past weeks except for army trucks helped strengthen a region prone to frequent landslides from vibrations of the river of vehicles. Traffic jams had become a daily reality in recent years on the Himalayan highway from Delhi to the India-China border.

Symbolic of problems quickly returning were traffic jams in the southern Indian city of Bangalore as soon as the lockdown was eased through contradictory local-governmental orders.

The lockdown will end as all things do. The challenge is ensuring that gains are not lost after the costs the world paid through Covid-19.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.