There’s no let-up from COVID-19! News about the pandemic is following everyone like a shadow. All continents are affected. Its impact on everyday life has deepened everywhere. World Health Organization (WHO), having officially declared it as a pandemic, has now called Europe as its current epicentre.

Many countries have declared a state of emergency and even in those countries that have so far escaped its wrath, precautions on a war-footing have commenced. Most nations have tasked their militaries to be lead instruments to assist the health authorities for tackling the virus, thus indicating the seriousness of governments.

In China, where the virus first struck and where the lock-down is continuing in many provinces, the economic impact will be very high, but because most countries depend on China for running their own industries, there is already a slump in many sectors of the economy. Resultantly, unemployment is already increasing as industries, services, tourism and related fields are slowing down. In short, GDP’s of many countries are likely to see a reduction of 1.5 to 2 per cent. India too will be affected, although the virus has affected India only a few days back.

Specifically for India, COVID-19 is an economic catastrophe and every sector — from pharma to electronic goods — is set to face the heat. However, the silver lining is that closed factories in China could create opportunities for Indian manufacturing and softening commodity prices will ease the pressure on the fiscal side. So, the current upheaval is both an opportunity and a threat for India.

While all countries have closed schools; banned spectator sports; announced travel restrictions, which have affected airlines and travel companies worldwide; financial markets have been hit by panic selling; WHO feels the death toll may reach 5,000 globally. Social distancing is being imposed to slow the spread of the virus.

Most businesses, as well as the poor will need financial support from their respective governments. China has already cut banks' reserve requirements for the second time this year. The U.S. Federal Reserve has followed suit with $37 billion of Treasury bond purchases, in a bid to accelerate the enhanced market liquidity. Japan's central bank has pledged to buy 200 billion yen ($1.90 billion) of five to 10 year Japanese government bonds and also inject an additional 1.5 trillion yen in two-week loans.

The European Union has proposed a 37 billion euro ($41 billion) investment initiative as part of a package to cushion the bloc's economies from the Covid-19 impact. India has taken a politically wise step in inviting all SAARC members to devise joint strategies and has already announced setting up an Emergency Fund with an initial grant of US $ 10 million.

While the pandemic seems to be declining in China and possibly South Korea; Iran and Italy are the worst affected. Reason is initial complacency. Iranian traders visiting China before Chinese New Year, as they do every year, contracted the virus and were careless when they came back. In Italy and particularly Milan region, every year more than 10 world exhibitions are held in the last week of February, where Chinese traders display their products. While exhibitions were cancelled, traders from China had already come, infecting many locals.

Data from China suggests a death rate of 15 % for infected cases over the age of 80; 8 % for those in their seventies; and 3.6 % in their sixties. Democratic governments understand that a pandemic of this size and large numbers of fatalities can invite criticism of inept handling. Hence, most governments have initiated a slew of measures to fight the pandemic. No elected government in any democracy will survive if it lets such carnage unfold. Those democratic governments that have been most complacent or incompetent will not be forgiven by their electorates.

According to a distinguished economist of Britain, Covid-19 is turning into a strategic contest between the social control model of China and the pluralism of democracies. How that comparison plays out will shape the global order in the 21st Century. He opines that the world’s geopolitical order is likely to be unrecognisable once Covid-19 has done its worst.

There are two contradictory narratives about the origin of the virus, which need to be highlighted, as they are bound to come up once the pandemic peters out.

In an explosive interview American Dr Francis Boyle, who had drafted the Biological Weapons Act, has stated that COVID-19 is an offensive Biological Warfare Weapon, which leaked from the Biosafety Level 4 laboratory (BSL-4) at Wuhan. It is for this reason that the Chinese government originally tried to cover it up and took drastic measures to contain it later. He also contended that WHO has full knowledge of this.

This ties up with an earlier report that had stated that Chinese Bio warfare agents working at Canada's National Microbiology Lab (NML) at Winnipeg were involved in the smuggling of lab reports. Dr Boyle’s position is in stark contrast to the mainstream media’s narrative of the virus originating from the Wuhan seafood market. Many experts are increasingly questioning this.

China has been denying all such reports and instead had accused USA and some western countries that they were the ones who had used bio weapons that started the virus in Wuhan. My military mind feels that the virus occurred because of a leak from the NML, but so far it remains only a hunch! However, when linked to the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who in late December tried to sound a warning about the coronavirus, it seems to reinforce the suspicion. It may be recalled that instead of listening to him, Communist Party officials muzzled and criticized him.

A public health crisis can create risks for an authoritarian government that few other crises can, because of the vast numbers affected. That’s why Chinese citizens have been much bolder than usual in confronting their government over this virus, as has been reported by many analysts.

My penultimate comment is that while the whole world is globalised as never before, yet fighting COVID-19 seems to be only a national issue. The two exceptions are the EU earmarking funds to fight the virus and India’s initiative to jointly plan to tackle the virus by all members of the SAARC. The USA, despite the human tragedy facing Iran, has not thought it fit to relax or to hold in abeyance the sanctions against Iran! The tit-for-tat bombings in Iraq continue, as do the wars in Syria and Yemen. The so-called peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan is in tatters and there is no let-up in the bombings by the Taliban. The refugees and other displaced persons continue to bear the brunt of wars and conflicts, whether in Palestine, Libya, Syria or Turkey.

In short, it is every nation for itself, as if the rationale is that death is the same whether it is caused by bullets and bombs or a virus!

Finally, a doctor from Europe has advised thus: It is the civic and moral duty of every person, everywhere, to take part in the global effort to reduce the COVID-19 threat to humanity. This implies postpone all travels that are not vitally essential, and to spread the disease as little as possible.

Lt General Vijay Oberoi is former Vice Chief of Army Staff