The pandemic dividend: The other two viruses we don’t think about

The Digital Alarmist
Last Updated 15 April 2021, 06:47 IST

While the entire world has been focused on the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, two other much older viruses have been lurking in the shadows for quite some time. Since these two viruses are non-biological in nature, they are vaccine-proof. One of them is marketplace-based, the other, mind-based. While the origin of the coronavirus may or may not be traced back to Wuhan in China, the two older viruses originated in the US. Silicon Valley has had a huge role to play in propagating and prolonging these two viruses.

The three seemingly disparate viruses are actually linked in major ways when viewed from the twin perspectives of cultural anthropology and economics.

The marketplace-based virus has to do with ‘conspicuous consumption’, a term coined by American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Conspicuous consumption is a catch-all phrase that best describes the practice of acquiring goods of quality and quantity far in excess of one’s needs – an acquisition process facilitated these days by e-commerce giants such as Amazon. While conspicuous consumption is typically associated with affluent countries in the West, it is catching on fast in India, much to the delight of delusional politicians and IT companies. I find this quite curious since India does not meet the definition of an affluent society, viz., a production-oriented society where the basic needs – food, clothing, and shelter - of its citizenry have been met.

The mind-based virus is centred on ‘meme’, a term coined by Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist and author of the 1976 best seller, The Selfish Gene. Memes are units of information that propagate in the meme-pool (akin to the gene pool) by leaping from brain to brain. Memetics is the study of information and culture based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution. Despite being dismissed as a pseudo-science by academicians, memetics does explain quite well the prevalence of all kinds of disinformation on the internet pertaining to the coronavirus and potential cures including vaccines. The frequent pronouncements of Donald Trump in this regard come to mind. Memes, be they visual, auditory or text-based, replicate through imitation – a monkey-see, monkey-do approach to life that does not involve any thinking, much less any understanding of the real damage that can be done to society. The philosophy underlying the three wise monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil -- has largely been lost.

Note that the mind-based virus is closely linked to the conspicuous consumption virus. For example, a huge number of products (home, office, news, etc.) have been successfully promoted on the Web through memes created by ‘influencers’, be they individuals or companies. The veracity of these memes has rarely been challenged.

Over the last 10 months, there has been an enormous increase in online shopping, principally through Amazon, owing to people being confined to their living quarters because of the coronavirus. During this period, the net worth of Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has increased by $24 billion to $138 billion. The enormity or obscenity of these two figures takes on a whole new meaning when viewed in terms of the GDP rankings of the 195 countries and territories that make up the world. Bezos’ net worth is greater than the GDP of any of the bottom 135 countries while his profits during the pandemic are greater than the GDP of any of the bottom 60 countries.

To add insult to injury, both Amazon and Bezos will see their fortunes increase even more in the years to come, thanks to coronavirus vaccines about to enter the world market. Amazon recently announced it was getting into the drug delivery business and has gone on a hiring spree to recruit delivery workers in the US, India and elsewhere. Given its global reach, Amazon is better positioned than any other organisation, public or private, to ensure Covid-19 vaccines are delivered to various countries in preferential order. For a price, of course.

Apple became the first trillion-dollar company two years ago. Jeff Bezos is on his way to becoming the first trillionaire, I think.

Will Amazon’s delivery workers see a similar increase in their fortunes? Given that they are non-unionised contract employees with no guarantee of continuous employment or health insurance or retirement benefits, I doubt it.

The three pandemics have catastrophically widened the inequality divide worldwide. Solutions, anyone?

(Published 26 December 2020, 19:26 IST)

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