It is ever more universally claimed that the global spread of the potentially lethal Covid 19 virus represents the greatest health and economic disaster that we have seen since the Spanish flu of 1918-19 and the First and Second World Wars. It also is a poignant reminder that the greatest threat to human well-being mostly emanates from the ranks of the smallest organisms. Before this virus struck, it was commonplace to remind children that the animals representing the greatest threat to human survival are not the predators (e.g. lions, tigers, sharks) that outranked our prehistoric ancestors on the food chain, but indeed one of the smallest animals we are aware of, viz. the malaria mosquito, which, last year alone, caused half a million fatalities in the world. Covid 19 re-affirms that realization.

Covid 19 chillingly reminds us of our vulnerability. We are, in spite of many faults (such as inventing chemical and nuclear warfare and screwing up the environment) a remarkable species. It is ironic that our vulnerability has now again been so vividly demonstrated by a health crisis, since it is particularly in the domain of health care that our most remarkable achievements (antibiotics, universally effective vaccinations, successful cancer treatments and organ transplants) have been acknowledged. In the invention of human aviation (a human dream since time immemorial) we progressed from Kitty Hawk (1903) to the Moon landing (1969) in a mere 66 years.

Yet, we are vulnerable. We are more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. This planet accommodates us, but does not need us; it survived billions of years without a twinkling of human presence, and could do so again. The story of our succession of achievements and failure demonstrates that we are, to formulate it philosophically, a dialectic of success and failure, achievement and loss. That, as the existentialists might formulate it, is both our grandeur and our misère, or pride and our predicament.

In spite of the disruption that Covid 19 caused, we are fortunate that, different from our ancestors’ situation during the Black Death (1345-1350) and the more recent Spanish flu, we know what we are dealing with, and universal efforts (research!) can co-operatively be made to seek a vaccine and a cure. The technologies of the alleged “Fourth Industrial Revolution” also hold the undeniable potential to, in future, curb and even destroy this kind of health menace. The literature in this field shows that, for example, nanno robots, infused in the bloodstream, might relatively soon be able to attack and destroy such viruses and their lethal effects.

This pandemic, however, ought not only to help us realise our vulnerabilities and make progress with scientifically based solutions and relief. It ought also to radically sharpen our vigilance against the usurpation and maladministration of power. The overkill of the so-called “lockdown” during April and May had a devastating effect on the South African economy (already crippled by corruption, maladministration and incompetence), and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

It was, in addition, both remarkable and alarming to see how easily the Constitution and the recognition of human rights were compromised by political apparatchiks who revelled in their new-found power to rule by decree. Equally tragic was the complacency with which this was apparently accepted and tolerated by the wider society. This phenomenon holds the potential of, in the long term, representing the greatest harm that the virus can and has bestowed on us.

Anton van Niekerk