Divine tragedy: Humanity as illness, COVID-19 as vaccine

There were theories going around that humans were a virus and the new coronavirus was a vaccine for it

A large number of new COVID-19 cases were reported during the day from various cities in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. File photo: PTI

A few days ago, a cruel question popped up on some WhatsApp accounts: What if humanity were a disease and the new coronavirus a vaccine against it? In response, someone shot back: What if God is complicit in punishing the “virus” called humans? Both these hypotheses, though tossed about in a flippant tone, deserve some analysis.

For hundreds of years, humanity has believed in its inviolable right to immortality as a species. Helped by advances in technology, medical science and health-care, it has multiplied manifold and extended its lifespan by several years every few decades. Till a few weeks ago, if you were to ask if humanity could face an existential threat, people would have laughed at you. Never mind the fact that the earth has faced at least five mass extinctions, the last of them being around 250 million years ago when 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species were wiped out. Remember Noah’s ark?

As someone (perhaps it was Carl Sagan) once said, every species that once dominated the earth went on to beco me extinct. So, the dice is actually loaded against the concept of humanity’s immortality. Thankfully, the novel coronavirus outbreak may not be the end-of-days moment for the earth. Its low mortality rate—between 1-2 per cent—and penchant for bypassing children, youth and those with robust immunity is at best a warning sign.

Yet, the Homo sapiens had it coming.

Survival of the meekest  

The earliest sapiens evolved in east Africa around 2 million years ago. Over a period of time, they spread across the globe, moving on land and through water to spread to every continent. Much of this march of the humanity came at the cost of other species, especially the ones that were herbivorous. In Australia, for example, where they settled around 45,000 years ago, the local megafauna—the giant kangaroos, marsupial lions, dragon-sized lizards—got wiped out within a few years. Similarly, when sapiens settled in America around 15,000 years ago, it led to the extinction of the continent’s megafauna, including the mammoths and the sloths.

It may be unimaginable now but just around 50,000 years ago, our ancestors, the sapiens, were not the only species of humans around. But, in addition to replacing several animal species, sapiens replaced the other competing species—the Neanderthals, the Homo denisova, and the dwarf-like species that lived near Indonesia around 12000 years ago.

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Darwin called this triumph of sapiens—and other species that still exist—survival of the fittest, an evolutionary process that strengthened and propagated traits that helped in this battle for existence. But, there was another factor that helped sapiens outlive others—their ability to use fire, tools and weapons to kill and dominate bigger, stronger species.

It is, thus, a quirk of fate that humans are now locked in a battle of survival against something they can’t see—a virus that breeds at the rate of millions in a matter of seconds. And an entity that is, so far, immune to all the tools and weapons we used in the past to obliterate other competing entities.

The big hope, of course, is that the very entity—the human brain—that helped sapiens dominate the earth would once again find a weapon to deal with the virus. In all likelihood, a vaccine would be found, a treatment protocol would start working, and the virus would be pushed back. But, by the time this happens, humanity would have paid a heavy price in this war for survival. A complete generation may be killed, the economy may be ruined, and several million may be pushed into poverty, unemployment and years of misery. And, the belief that humanity is immortal, has exclusive rights on the earth and its resources would be ruthlessly destroyed.

The gods must be crazy 

For thousands of years, sapiens lived a life of hunting and gathering. Around 12,000 years ago, the discovery of farming made them settle down on vast stretches of fertile land near sources of water.

As sapiens settled down, they acquired assets—homes, equipment for farming, and domestic animals. And, finally, with the fear of losing whatever they had—their own life and that of those in the family, crops, immovable assets and animals—came the extant concepts of god and its byproduct, organised religion.

Before they organised themselves into societies, before believing in an all powerful divine entity, sapiens had learnt not just how to survive but also to prosper. Simply put, early humans did quite well without god. But, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this space, a large part of humanity surrendered its destiny to god.

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This same god is now reminding them that some of the concepts humanity believes in are flawed. For instance, the idea that an all-powerful divine entity (assuming it actually exists) is exclusively for the benefit and protection of humans is being challenged by an unfortunate coincidence—in countries around the world, places of worship are turning into epicentres of the pandemic. The outbreak in South Korea started from a Church, in Iran from a religious shrine, in Italy from a Church, in Malaysian from a religious gathering and in India from a shrine in Punjab and a centre of Islamic learning in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. It may sound like a quirk of destiny but shrines seem to be calling the faithful and sending them back in large numbers with the illness. (Bigots, please note, the illness, like justice, is blind.)

Atheists can, of course, cite this tragedy and the fact that no divine help is available—even the shrines are shut for the first time in history, depriving humans of the opportunity to test the power of prayers—in the battle against the virus as proof of their hypothesis that god does not exist. The devout would, of course, argue that gods are manifesting their presence with this wrath against humans, and that this is the promised karmic principle in action. Either way, it upends the human concept of god as a merciful entity responsible for protecting humanity and replaces it with the fear that the powers above and the virus on the earth aren’t exactly at odds this time.

Maybe, just maybe, humanity’s exclusive rights over earth, its resources and god’s mercy got revoked.