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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Life After COVID-19

India must, as the lockdown is gradually lifted, quickly establish export-oriented manufacturing capabilities. A once-in-a-century pandemic can create a rare opportunity. It is India’s to seize.

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The world hasn’t experienced a pandemic like this for over a century. The Spanish Flu sickened and killed over 40 million people in 1918-20.

Ironically, Spain had nothing to do with the pandemic. It originated in Kansas and travelled to Europe with American soldiers during the last stages of the First World War. Spain was a neutral non-combatant in the war. Newspapers from Germany, France, Britain and other combatant states were censored from reporting on the pandemic for fear of demoralizing their troops. Spanish media, however, reported widely on the devastating pandemic resulting in it being inaccurately named Spanish Flu.

COVID-19 originated in China’s Wuhan, a high-tech city of 11 million people with several biological research centres, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The story initially put out by the tightly censored Chinese media was that the virus sprang from bats in Wuhan’s wet animal market. Western media lapped up this narrative. Meanwhile, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) came to a very different conclusion: the real possibility that the coronavirus was the result of an accidental leak from one of Wuhan’s biological labs.                       

China denied the CIA’s preliminary claims. But it has provided no evidence to show that bats in Wuhan’s wet market – which sells exotic live animals for Chinese customers to buy and eat – were the cause of the outbreak.               

French virologist Luc Montagnier is a Nobel laureate (2008) in medicine. In an interview with French TV channel C News (part of the prestigious Canal+ media group), Montagnier said: “We came to the conclusion that there has been a manipulation regarding the virus. Part of the virus, not the whole, is manipulated. The virus follows a classic model that comes from bats; but on top of this model, they have added sequences of HIV, the AIDS virus. It’s not natural. It's a lab work of professional molecular biologists. It’s a very accurate work...we can say a work of a watchmaker.

“For what purpose...this is unclear. My job is to expose the facts. I accuse nobody. I don't know who did it; neither why. The possibility is they wanted to make a vaccine against AIDS. So they took small sequences of the virus and they installed them on the larger sequence of the coronavirus. The genetic material of the virus is a long tape of RNA; in a certain place, they have planted small sequences of HIV. And these sequences are not small for nothing; they have the possibility to modify what we call, for example, the antigens sites. This means that if you want to make a vaccine, we can modify the protein subject to the vaccine by a small sequence coming from another virus.

“There's a will to suppress the works on the subject. We are not the first. A group of renowned Indian researchers have published the same thing. But they forced them to retract it. It has been cancelled. If you check their published work you find a cancellation band. We see more and more works that suggest the same thing. I’m a Nobel laureate so I can work freely; no pressure can be exerted on me.”

Professor Montagnier’s findings have been disputed by other scientists; the French government has distanced itself from them. However, the Australian government has sought an independent investigation -- which would exclude the World Health Organisation (WHO) -- into the circumstances of the spread of the coronavirus from its Wuhan epicentre.

The real source of COVID-19 may remain unclear until China opens Wuhan to international medical experts. What is clear though is that life after the pandemic will change forever. The changes will be particularly felt in three specific areas: economy, work and geopolitics.

A global recession is imminent. European economies are estimated to shrink between 5 and 13 per cent in 2020-21. The United States economy has already lost 22 million jobs due to the lockdown. China’s GDP shrank 6.8 per cent in January-March 2020, its first contraction in 50 years.

India’s economy is estimated to grow at between 0 per cent and 1.9 per cent in 2020-21. If the lockdown in crucial commercial hubs like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai doesn’t end soon, exports will suffer a calamitous fall. 

Despite tipping the world into recession, the real long-term impact of COVID-19 will be on how we work. Corporate meetings will increasingly be replaced by video-conferencing. Work-from-home, a niche trend, will go mainstream.

However, once a vaccine for COVID-19 is found, many sectors that are in disarray today – aviation, hospitality, entertainment, sports and tourism – will return to good health. Already the most severely affected countries in Europe are beginning to ease their lockdowns. Germany, which has the lowest fatalities of any major Western economy, is likely to recover fastest. 

The most far-reaching and possibly permanent impact of the pandemic will, however, be on the geopolitical balance of power between the world’s two largest economies – America and China.

The death toll in the US accounts for a quarter of all global fatalities due to the coronavirus. While the US struggles to get its economy back on track, China is on its way to rapid recovery. The contest between Washington and Beijing has taken on a new edge. With the bruising US-China trade war on pause, the CIA’s investigation into the source of the coronavirus – wet animal market in Wuhan or one of the city’s bio labs – could rupture the relationship.

America will place greater restrictions on Chinese companies like Huawei and ByteDance, owner of TikTok. The US government believes both firms could be Trojan Horses for spyware.

India’s attempt to block Chinese companies from investing in Indian firms without first obtaining government clearance has upset Beijing. India, of course, mustn’t blink. In the evolving geopolitical contest, India could play the third angle in an emerging triangle of power.

Europe, America and much of East Asia do not trust China. Foreign companies operating in China are looking for a supplementary cog in the global supply chain to reduce their dependence on China.

India must, as the lockdown is gradually lifted, quickly establish export-oriented manufacturing capabilities. A once-in-a-century pandemic can create a rare opportunity. It is India’s to seize.

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