broken systems

There are only two places in the world where live smallpox virus is stored today: in Atlanta in the US, and Novosibirsk in Russia. Their release or accidental escape could start an epidemic worse than this one. People of my generation have been vaccinated against smallpox, but our children and grandchildren haven’t, as smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

As with COVID-19, there is no cure for smallpox. Since we have proved incompetent at ascertaining the source of the corona virus and stopping its spread, I wonder about our ability to keep the smallpox virus from escaping and unleashing a worse pandemic than COVID. Scary thought, actually.

There is a UN, there is a WHO, and the world has agreed to store the virus in Russia and the US. Because, at one level, ‘All People’ are part of one ecosystem, and the UN decides where the smallpox virus should be kept. We normally trust that we are safe.

At first glance, the world looks like a well-functioning system. We pride ourselves on the globalization we have achieved. But there are actually thousands of separate subsystems that can unravel, disintegrate or collapse, and jam the system that makes uninterrupted movement of goods, people and ideas across countries possible.

A system cannot sustain itself if it isn’t smooth and dependable right up to the end. Like the absence of last-mile connectivity in the transport system of Bangalore that leaves you stranded when you get off a bus or the Metro. There’s nothing to reach you home safely from any station!

Or, take the IITs. The IITs were established to produce engineers to help India grow. But a large number of IIT graduates emigrate and become assets of those countries. But, for India, it’s a loss. A broken system.

ATM. It was supposed to make drawing money from the bank easy. Now there are people who skim your PIN number and steal your money, derailing the system that was set up for All People to use.

The current India-China border dispute has definitely affected a subsystem of the All People ecosystem of interdependence among countries. For example, our pharmaceutical industry relies on raw materials from China, so our export of pharma products to Europe is hit, affecting patients in Europe. And the unsold stock is probably not of much use right now to China either.

Despite safety mechanisms like ‘talks’ between foreign ministers and army brass, Presidents and Prime Ministers are ultimately human and prone to making costly mistakes. Some of them give themselves absolute power and follow no protocol. They can’t be reined in if they fly into a rage and trigger a war.

As an ordinary Earth citizen I can only spill my anxiety onto this page, and hope a war doesn’t erupt in this system that I have no control over.

Though I’m sure the Air Force knows what it’s doing, rather than celebrate the new Rafale fighter jets, I shudder to think we might need to use them.


The systems that have evolved over the past few decades are not solid. There’s something hollow and self-serving about them, like they are designed to auto-shred like Banksy’s $1.4million painting.

Global village doesn’t mean Homo sapiens is now a close-knit species where members share cuisine, music and weed, and live like one giant hippie colony.

Globalisation is only about trade and commerce, even when it involves immigration and mixing of people from different countries. It’s a convenient word for benefitting from the foreigners one does business with, and pretending the benefit is mutual, thanks to the difference in base and quote currency values. And, of course, for pretending sweatshops don’t exist.

An immigrant is a visitor who requests a change to permanent resident status in your house. You warm to the idea of letting him stay because he has proved useful to you, conveniently ignoring the fact that chain migration will follow!

When mass immigration happens at a national level, governments can’t carve out new countries on the lines of Liberia to banish them to, not any more! I guess they have to wait for the tide of immigrants to mellow into the kind of much-celebrated ‘diversity’ we now have, the khichri made from whatever was tossed into the pot.

Immigrants can’t always go back to where they came from. I’m seventh generation or so in Karnataka and I can’t imagine being told to go back to Goa!


Did we conquer SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, H1N1 flu, dengue and chikungunya over the last two decades? Not really. Most of them went away on their own. And they can come back.

I have lived through days of worry when our daughter had dengue fever three years ago. She needed both of us for support as she couldn’t walk to the car, or into the lab, on her own, it was that debilitating. We would wait anxiously every day for platelet count reports from the lab and feel relieved that it hadn’t fallen further, or had gone up a bit.

Caripill was a fairly new medicine and was considered ‘possibly helpful’ in increasing platelets, no guarantees. There really was no specific treatment, only controlling fever, plenty of fluids and the usual general measures. It was a harrowing time.

How much harder it must be for families of COVID-19 patients. From not finding hospital beds, to being attacked by fearful neighbours, to having loved ones die of COVID, to facing difficulties in giving them decent funerals . . . One more broken system, healthcare. And everything to do with diagnosis and treatment is so very expensive, apart from being totally uncertain . . .

COVID is forcing us to pay attention to the design of this planet. We’ve ignored melting glaciers, rising sea levels, burning forests, plastic pollution and all the other hints we received. Now a tiny virus has sent us scurrying to the safety of our homes, too scared to even come out for foraging, let alone partying! And finding a vaccine is proving hard.

This is what we do know: Rapid urbanisation, destruction of forests and consequent loss of animal habitats that push wild animals closer to human habitations, and crowded animal markets, are the main reasons for transmission of animal viruses from animals to us.

This should be the first point of intervention, not a scramble for a vaccine when a pandemic is underway, though that has its place too, like now.

When I was a medical student corona virus, flavivirus (dengue, zika), paramyxovirus (nipah), filovirus (ebola) made up a laundry list of rare microbes at the end of the chapter on viral diseases. I never saw a single case.

When this is over – someday it will be – we might be wiser. Then again, maybe not, because human brains are adept at suppressing memories of hard times. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is how we seem to have dealt with zoonotic diseases so far. Or, to be optimistic, perhaps there is ongoing research that I don’t know about.

3 thoughts on “broken systems

  1. The earth is for everyone. Human beings have overpowered and stolen, snatched even what was for the other million organisms. We all have to pay the price in some form and varying capacities. Not sure if after all this settling will humans atleast try to be better or go back to their ways


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