Health is wealth. The old adage is being proved anew at the cost of untold lives as the world confronts the horror not of a nuclear holocaust but of an invisible, insidious, deadly virus spread by a seemingly innocuous cough or a sneeze as well as the revolting snot from a runny nose. Can a cough or a sneeze kill? Yes, welcome to the world turned upside down by Covid-19, a hitherto unknown coronavirus wreaking havoc on Earth.
In typical undercover style, it sneaked up on an unsuspecting world exactly when, only the Chinese know – and they are not telling. Official publications from the World Health Organisation (WHO) date its onset to December 2019; unofficially, it has been reported to have begun in the city of Wuhan, China, in November 2019. What is incontrovertible, irrefutable, is that nearly 1.3 million people have been affected so far and almost 70,000 died in what the WHO has finally acknowledged is a pandemic — a global outbreak.
Could it have been averted? Beijing has been accused of not sharing data on the dreaded new disease. But many countries have also been delinquent in downplaying it initially as an epidemic in China unlikely to cross borders and plague them as well. As late as February 28, US President Donald Trump told his supporters at a rally: ―Now, the Democrats are politicising the coronavirus… this is their new hoax. The WHO declared a pandemic only on March 11 after more than 118,000 people had been affected in 114 countries and more than 4,200 had lost their lives.
With leaders caught sleeping at the wheel, steering countries into calamity, it’s no wonder nations have been caught unprepared for the disaster staring upon us all. Countries are fighting against countries for supplies of ventilators, respirators, face masks and other personal protective equipment. Germany and Canada have protested against America hijacking supplies of face masks from China. Doctors in Western countries lamenting the shortage of ventilators have warned they might have to choose whom to save and whom to let die.
Jesus said: ―And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.‖ (Matthew, 19:24, King James Bible). How will the doctors decide who should proceed to the Pearly Gates and who should remain on Earth if they play God?
Doctors are the heroes of the hour, fighting to save lives, or are they? They cannot accomplish the mission single-handed, without the able support of nurses, paramedics, technicians and other health workers. If the war on the coronavirus were a movie, the spotlight would be on not just the doctors but the entire ensemble cast, showing all the health workers in a heroic light.
In India, we are seeing our leaders rising to the challenge. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as ever the man of action, acted swiftly with the boldness of a general launching a lightning strike, orchestrating a sweeping, nationwide, three-week lockdown with less than four hours’ notice on March 24. The entire economy ground to a virtual standstill. Jobless and hungry, hordes of migrant labourers, living hand to mouth, were forced to walk back to their villages.
Moved by the suffering of the people, the Prime Minister said in his weekly radio address to the nation, ―I understand your troubles but there was no other way to wage war against coronavirus… It is a battle of life and death and we have to win it,‖ reported the BBC. Bold, decisive, concerned for the people, Prime Minister Modi is an Indian to the core, steeped in Indian mythology, rituals and symbolism. Those influences were at work when he asked the people to go without electricity for nine minutes on Sunday, April 5, to challenge ―the darkness of Covid-19‖ by lighting lamps and candles. Millions responded. What could be more Indian than that? Lighting lamps to dispel darkness, as at ―sandhy aarati or evening worship.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been even more hands-on, leading by example, lending a hand in sweeping and cleaning, drawing markers where people should stand in a queue to maintain a safe distance, exhorting everyone to stay safe and healthy and do their bit in this coronavirus crisis. Tireless, indefatigable, an artist, a writer, music-loving Mamata Banerjee has shown how much she cares for the people by doing everything she possibly can to raise funds and safeguard the people by taking precautions and raising public awareness against the invisible, insidious coronavirus.
Impetuous, charismatic, nurturing big dreams for her beloved Bengal, Didi has always worn her heart on her sleeve. But how many knew just how thoughtful and kind our policemen could be? We are used to seeing them maintain law and order. Now, lo and behold, we have policemen (and women) singing on the streets, entertaining people, urging them to wash their hands, keep a safe distance, stay safe and healthy. We all knew of good cops, of course, police officers who helped us get a taxi, cross a street, who gave us street directions, stopped altercations and maintained the peace. But these little acts of kindness and good policing often went unreported. Now it seems Bollywood was right, after all, in casting Amitabh Bachchan and every other hero as a police officer. The police are the avenging angels of society.
The pandemic is really a crucible testing us, revealing our strengths and weaknesses and may lead to something new — new ways of thinking and living. For the present, it has been an eye-opener. Mamata Banerjee’s decision to let sweet shops remain open from noon to 4 pm reveals her empathy — for Bengalis and small business. Bengalis have this proverbial sweet tooth. A craving which could be satisfied with a sweet delight in this bitter season when we are forced to stay at home, house-bound, under lockdown because of this nuisance of a pestilence called Covid-19. The decision provides succour to the sweet shops and the dairy business, which provides milk for the sweets, Didi helping them through these tough times.
We have been lucky the virus has not been so virulent in India as elsewhere. Citing Union Health Ministry sources, the Deccan Herald reported on April 6 there had been more than 4,300 coronavirus cases in India, including 134 deaths, with West Bengal recording 80 cases and seven deaths. However unfortunate, the figures pale beside the hundreds dying every day in America, Spain and Italy. It is shocking that America, which landed the first men on the moon, detonated the first atomic bomb and created the internet, is helpless against a virus.
Why has a nation which developed stealth fighters and silicon chips not developed a vaccine yet to fight the virus? Hubris? It seems scientists never thought that a virus originating in animals, bats probably, would one day cross into humans. As Hamlet says: ―There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
A vaccine will no doubt be found to fight the virus, for, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. A pandemic such as this can be both destructive — and creative. By forcing people to stay at home, it will encourage introspection, reflection and creation, as plagues have in the past. Consider Shakespeare, for example. The Guardian newspaper notes that ―a meme has been going around claiming that Shakespeare made use of being quarantined during the plague (in 1606) to write King Lear. The Bard supposedly took advantage of the (playhouse) Globe’s lengthy closure to get on top of his writing in-tray – coming up with Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra to boot.‖ The website Mental Floss recalls that in 1665, when classes in Cambridge University were cancelled during the bubonic plague, Isaac Newton retreated to his family estate, where he spent his time ―writing the papers that would become early calculus and developing his theories on optics.
The pandemic is already causing changes. Education has left bricks-and-mortar classrooms and gone online, as at our Adamas University. Goodbye, classroom lectures, hello, webinars! Instead of meeting face to face, we will have to be content with audio-visual encounters on Zoom, Skype and other digital platforms. Eventually, that may become the new normal.
Economists are already looking into the future, talking of a recession, predicting winners and losers, divining a disruption in supply chains, prophesying China may no longer be the workshop of the world, that some manufacturing may be diverted to India and other countries.
Some are also forecasting globalisation as we know it may wane with countries raising more protectionist barriers. All I know is, the only constant is change. As Jaques says in Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It:
―All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances…
But the impermanence of life is all the more reason to live it fully, as best we can. From Shakespeare’s contemporaries like Edmund Spenser to their immediate successors like Robert Herrick, a common animating impulse among poets was ―Carpe diem, Latin for ―Seize the day. The poet Andrew Marvell expressed it best in his poem, To His Coy Mistress: ―Thus, though we cannot make our sun Stand still, yet we will make him run. Marvell’s argument that our inability to make time stand still should not prevent us from enjoying it remains relevant today. Let not the shadow of the corona virus deter us from living life to the fullest. The pandemic will run its course, but we who survive will appreciate life all the more, having seen its fragility.
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