A terrible specter is haunting the world and it goes by the name H5N1, more commonly called the avian flu virus which cases influenza in birds. This avian flu high pathogenic virus mainly kills birds but has also killed a few dozen people since 2003. That is not the bad news. The bad news is that this virus could mutate after crossing with human flu strains and become highly contagious. If that happens—and some scientists believe that it is an almost certainty—then anywhere between 50 million to half a billion people would die from the pandemic.
Flu pandemics kill periodically. Spanish flu in the 1918-19 killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, for instance. (For a very readable account of flu pandemics, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site.)
I have been worrying about the impact of the coming pandemic for a while. The poorer and developing economies of the world will suffer more than the rich economies, of course. The rich countries are not only less densely populated but they also have more resources to limit the damage by using anti-viral drugs and also by being able to implement public health measures more effectively.
India is both poor and densely populated. It is not unimaginable that India could see its population decimated (that is, reduce by a tenth, or kill one out of ten) by this pandemic. Of course one cannot really imagine 100 million dying in India. But it is possible. What would be the impact on the economy?
How will the course of India’s development be affected? I am reminded of a quote of Michael Bishop (which I had used before here):
The disruption wrought by microbes have repeatedly changed the course of human history. It was probably pestilence as much as any other single factor that accounted for the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere in the sixteenth century…
On the other hand, the Black Death may have fueled the burst of human creativity known as the Renaissance. At the time plague struck, medieval society had fallen into economic stasis, caused in large part by the “Malthusian deadlock” of dense population. The plague broke that deadlock by decimating the population, liberating land for diverse uses, creating the need for laborsaving devices, and unleashing the ingenuity of Renaissance society. The catastrophe of pestilence “gave to Europeans the chance to rebuild their society along much different lines … It assured that the Middle Ages would be the middle, not the final, phase in Western development. …
India will be changed. How I cannot guess. But it could be possible that the shock to the system may jolt it out of the rut it appears to have got stuck into for the last 60 odd years.