Opinion and Editorial

Hope and fears as pandemic raises visions of apocalypse

A Sreenivasa Reddy
Filed on May 5, 2021


The biblical apocalyptic headline has rattled the Indian establishment as it insinuated a complete breakdown and chaos due to mismanagement.

Indian leaders were stung by an Australian newspaper headline so much so they had to shoot off a letter to the editor objecting to the tenor of their language. The word that touched their raw nerve was apocalypse.

The ‘offending’ headline in The Australian — Modi leads India out of lockdown ... into a viral apocalypse — spurred the Indian High Commissioner to issue a detailed rejoinder in which he slammed their story as “baseless, malicious and slanderous”. The envoy accused the editor of publishing the report with “sole objective of undermining the universally acclaimed approach taken by the Indian government to fight the pandemic”. The biblical apocalyptic headline has rattled the Indian establishment as it insinuated a complete breakdown and chaos due to mismanagement.

Apocalypse as an idea has exercised the minds of thinkers, artists and litterateurs since biblical antiquity. The end of the world and the new beginning for good and bad have excited the creative imagination over the centuries.

We read of great dinosaurs being wiped off the earth by a meteorite strike millions of years ago. It took several million more years for life to flourish again. A meteorite strike is the one we know of and read of. But life can vanish in many different ways. The animate creatures, that too intelligent ones, can be destroyed from within by pathogens, microscopic creatures not visible to naked human eye. The coronavirus pandemic that we are experiencing now could be one such moment. The deadly virus has been eating into vitals of the most advanced civilisation yet for more than a year with no end visible in the near future. It could well be one of those elemental forces unleashed by nature to devour us and all other living beings. It may well herald the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of a new epoch on tabula rasa. The cosmic principle — periodic destruction and regeneration — may be at work. However hard we may resist, the inexorable law of nature will assert itself. We may be living one of those apocalyptic moments.

The end of the world can come in different ways. It can come through a steady deterioration of our living ecosystem and weather, the climate change that we have all been talking about and are worried about. The planet may slowly decay and become inhabitable. The sea levels may imperceptibly rise and envelop the earth, leaving us no place to live. The vast oceans themselves may evaporate ending life once for all. The earth may be caught in vast powerful storms with all objects flying into air and revolving around it with such great velocity that life and civilisation may not survive it. The cataclysmic events have been the staple of many narratives both fictional and non-fictional and are said to bring about a fundamental change in the way the nature functions.

Apocalyptic events have been postulated, theorised and talked about since millennia. The present coronavirus moment could be potentially one such event where the deadly pathogen will work to cripple the civilisation so much it may sow seeds of its destruction. It may not be a one-off event and could be a series of outbreaks of varying intensity over hundreds of years which might ultimately denude the earth of life. This end-of-the-world theory might appear as over-pessimistic reading of a situation. But the idea is worth studying as it gives us a better perspective on ephemeral nature of our existence.

The present healthcare crisis that has claimed over three million lives has opened up the possibility another dystopian scenario. Oxygen — the air we live on — is taken for granted and is our birth right by virtue of being born on this earth. That may not be the case anymore if the crisis India is going through is any indication. The virus-hit patients are not getting adequate oxygen from the ambient air. Primers published by newspapers, quoting experts, tell us ambient air consists of 78 per cent nitrogen and 21 per cent oxygen. The patients, who are unable to source life-saving gas from normal air, need special supply of oxygen. Machines and devices exist to harvest oxygen from general air and store it in concentrated form in special cylinders. Some of these devices known as concentrators harvest the gas on the go and keep the patients alive by enabling them to breathe it easy.

Here is yet another of my wild guesses. The 21 per cent oxygen in the air that is sustaining life on the earth may decline over the years making it difficult for humans to breathe. For a while humans will be able to survive by harvesting oxygen from normal air through advanced gadgets. We may have to set up oxygen plants across our homes and offices to make it possible for us to breathe comfortably. We may have piped oxygen along with cooking gas at our homes. But it might get increasingly difficult to mobilise this life-saving gas from air as its proportion in the ambient air declines. That sets the stage for end-of-the world scenario. No evidence yet for this but the latest worldwide crisis should alert us to various apocalyptic scenarios.

One silver lining recently was the ability to manufacture oxygen on an alien planet. Nasa’s Perseverance rover has been able to harvest the life-sustaining gas from the Martian air, thereby raising hopes man can migrate to other planets when the life on this earth is endangered by some cosmic event. So the end of life on this earth may not mean end of history as humans can acquire capabilities to live another planet. This brings me to another concept of end of history proposed by Francis Fukuyama. More on it in another column as it deals with altogether different subject.

I am just playing a devils’s advocate. There is no scientific evidence that any of these scenarios will happen. Apocalypse has been feared and anticipated over millennia. That is why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who sees himself as a permanent leader of a permanent revolution, took offence at this sweeping word.

— sreenivasa@khaleejtimes.com

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