The Levellers: Death, Disease and Calamity

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

During my student days at Royal College Curepipe studying poetry, and reciting it when ordered by the class teacher, was an integral part of our learning right from Form I onwards, in both English and French. Some of these poems left a lifelong impact on several of us, even those who took to the science stream, like myself.

One such poem was a 17th century remembrance poem by James Shirley, titled ‘Death The Leveller’, and the following lines will no doubt strike a chord with many:

Death lays his icy hand on kings:

Sceptre and Crown

Must tumble down,

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

 As can be seen, the poem is about ‘the dismal march of death that tramples down human pride and pomp. It presents a vividly personified picture of death as the ultimate conqueror in whose realm perfect equality prevails,’ as much as it portrays the ‘transitoriness of mundane glories, the permanence of death and the reality of dying.’

‘War, disease and famine’ make up the triad that used to affect all countries and decimate populations in all countries before the advent of industrialization and modernity. Wars and famines are less frequent, thought the risk still exists as Ukraine demonstrates.

The major infectious diseases that used to affect all countries equally are now under control with the availability of vaccines and the application of well-known public health measures, though in some lesser developed and developing countries diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis are still endemic.

Relatives at a mass burial of Covid pandemic victims at the Parque Taruma cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, mourn a family member. Pic- Getty Images

The democratization of risks

However, in the past couple of decades there has been what one could call a ‘democratisation of risks,’ that is, both the rich and the poor world — and those in between – are threatened in equal measure by calamities that are regularly occurring on a large scale, as well as by emerging new diseases in epidemic and pandemic proportions on the backdrop of a rising burden of non-communicable diseases or NCDs. Along with death, they have become the new levellers across all countries whatever the level of development.

As regards disease, one could start with HIV-Aids which began in the 1980s and has spread to the whole world. It is far from being under control, has caused millions of deaths, and no vaccine is in sight as yet, although treatment is available to those who can afford it.

The most dramatic recent example of a leveller disease is undoubtedly the Covid-19 pandemic. The rapidity with which it spread from Wuhan in China to the rest of the world not only generated panic, but overwhelmed the health systems in even the richest countries. Besides the gaps in the resources needed for treatment and for disposable of the mounting dead numbers, it brought the countries to an economic and social standstill that soon became a worldwide phenomenon, including our own country. Even as its impacts are still being felt, it has now become endemic, with variants that are expected to keep surfacing and that will perpetuate the threat. On top of that, there is also the quasi-probability of new pandemics appearing, and most likely caused by a respiratory virus, which spreads more rapidly through air since we all have to breathe.

The story of the global non-communicable diseases epidemic, with diabetes on top, is well-known and need not be dwelt upon, save to add that we are also struggling to control them since they started to surge in the 1980s as industrialization accelerated and we began to adopt a corresponding ‘fast’ lifestyle with a heavy dose of unhealthy fast foods that continues. Unfortunately, poorer countries which are still reeling under the burden of infectious diseases and are modernizing at the same time suffer from what is known as the double burden of disease, that is infectious disease and NCDs.

Now we come to the calamities which have become a regular occurrence. They are taking place on a scale resembling natural calamities, but in fact they are being associated with climate change as a result of increasing greenhouse gas emissions and consequential atmospheric warming. It is widely accepted that the sum total of human activities is largely if not solely responsible for such warming, and therefore too climate change. To that extent therefore these calamities could be said to be human induced if not manmade. But their impacts are as devastating as natural catastrophes wherever they occur.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released its Synthesis Report, which confirms that ‘humans are unequivocally increasing greenhouse gas emissions to record levels.’

The resulting global warming is responsible for widespread and rapid extreme weather resulting in harm to lives, livelihoods and natural systems which, though they often disproportionately affect vulnerable people in developing countries, impact even the developed countries causing as much damage too. Thus, floods, droughts, heat waves, fires and cyclones are seen on all continents with increasing regularity – but are sudden and unpredictable with, often, two or more hazards occurring simultaneously.

A few examples confirm this. In Europe unprecedented heat waves have caused droughts, forest fires, water shortages in Spain, Portugal, France. In the latter country one summer heat wave saw nearly 20,000 deaths from dehydration and heat exhaustion among the elderly. Floods in Germany and Italy left thousands of people stranded and without power for days on end. Such scenarios were hardly ever witnessed in Europe – and for that matter in Australia, and New Zealand more recently where an earthquake doubled up on extensive flooding.

Similar phenomena have been affecting the US, paralyzing vast areas of the country such as in California where in the northern and central parts what are called ‘atmospheric rivers’ have caused havoc, forcing people to abandon whole townships. Earlier, there had been forest fires that destroyed millions of acres of forest. Further, in the past weeks snow and cold waves have affected almost half of the country starting from the east and spreading westwards and southwards.

On the other hand, there were the two tsunamis that unfurled in relatively prosperous Thailand, with a second one hitting Japan later. But these were due to natural geological phenomena.

Our tiny island has not been spared either, as we have been pounded with heavy showers, thunderstorms and lighting almost every day in some part of the island or the other since the beginning of the year. These have been occurring so haphazardly that they have caused severe disruptions in normal life, such that for example last week educational institutions were closed for almost the whole week. That left both young children and their parents in particular in distress, as the latter were at a loss about emergency arrangements that had to be made for the children’s care.

This extreme weather has affected the region as well, as the unusual trajectory of cyclone Freddy has shown – said to be a first in regional meteorological history –, ending up in Malawi where it has devastated the country with upwards of 400 deaths and counting.

We need urgent solutions to tackle these new levellers – but it would seem that no country is ever prepared enough – and that is certainly worrisome, for the risks are ever present.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 24 March 2023

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