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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Immunity certificates, the concept of ‘speciasation’ and the future of work

Our financial future depends on the decisions we take today for our health as well

Species split or “speciasation" sounds like something out of a Nityanand video where the self-styled new-age guru assures a gathering of adoring followers that they were all a higher species than the rest of the homo sapiens. In a very different context, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his best-selling book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, that unthinking globalization could result in the divergence of humankind into different biological castes . Economic inequality has always existed, but biotechnology could engineer bodies and brains for better physical and cognitive abilities. Of course, these will be expensive, causing humankind to split into biological castes. “The two processes together—bioengineering coupled with the rise of AI—may result in the separation of humankind into a small class of superhumans, and a massive underclass of ‘useless’ people." You can read the augment here: bit.ly/34xurEC

I remember reading this book a few years ago and shaking my head on this chapter—it seems right out of a dystopian future movie script. But fast forward to today and suddenly, overnight, the world has to begin making choices that seemed impossible two months ago. According to several newspaper reports, this New York Times story in particular, the US is toying with the idea of using an anti-body test—a blood test to show if the person has antibodies against covid-19—to determine who goes back to work and school. This thought is not restricted to the US. The UK is thinking about “immunity certificates" to get people back to work faster. Italy is also considering a a “covid pass" for the uninfected.

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If we take a step back from the current chaos, it does seem as if the world is being presented with choices it would much rather not make, but ones that will have far-reaching consequences on where we go in the future. Before the virus began affecting the young, there was debate on building “herd immunity" by allowing the virus to run its course unchecked, with the old and the diseased more vulnerable, went the argument, the work force will be soon fit for work. The virus also made healthcare professionals in Italy take decisions that were unimaginable morally just two months before—turn off the ventilator for those over a certain age to make them available for those who are younger. Some older people stepped forward and made this choice themselves .

The pandemic and the questions it throws up make this a good time to think through the choices we make and prepare the rules of the game for the next few 100 years. The post second world war rules of the game are frayed and well past their use-by date. How should we think through this question? Take the utilitarian route—the greatest good for the greatest number—and our decisions will be based on the percentage of the population that is old or young. Take the libertarian view—unfettered markets in the name of human freedom—and we will have to decide on the economic value of each life, putting the young and those with the antibodies higher than those older and not immune. Take the basic human rights road and value each life equally? What about the need to redefine affirmative action to include the non-immune parts of the population or those with lower immunity? The direction we take will probably determine whether we move closer to Harari’s dystopian biological caste world.

We need to judge India’s decision for a hard lockdown instead of keeping the country open for business in the context of these questions. Given that our healthcare system has been in a shambles for decades and cannot treat the projected 500 million people infected if the country did not social distance, or that the cost of the “herd immunity" route will be millions dead, and that the lockdown has given both the state and central governments the elbow room to put basic infrastructure in place and to try and flatten the curve, it does look as if India’s decision has embedded in it the desire to protect every life—immune or not. It is a moral choice both central and state governments have made.

At a national level, the next choice will be who goes to work, study and travel. Will women, with a lower incidence and possibly a higher immunity, be allowed to work first? Will mass testing decide the ability to work? Our answers to these questions will determine the road we will take collectively. These scenarios will have a direct bearing on our employability and ability to earn money. Our financial future then depends on the decisions we take today for our health. If there ever was a time to get fit and not put work over health, it is now. Remember this time as we go back to work later this year and think of the choices ahead for governments as future events place us in even stranger places. The moral rules for the future will probably be laid out as we respond to this pandemic—individually and collectively.

Monika Halan is consulting editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation

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