Familiarizing ourselves with the unfamiliar
A novel virus, borne along in a protective shield of fatty cells, royal by name and imperially cavalier in its capacity for devastation, has shaken the experience of civilization to its foundations.
Leaving no aspect of the human imagination untouched, it hovers menacingly, swooping at will on a species trembling in frightened anticipation and caught in the agony of the known unknown.
Known only to the limited extent of having witnessed the invisible havoc wrought thus far, but vastly unknown as to the furthest limits of its destructive powers.
The surface of the world is frozen in a state of paralyzed animation as never before, and the routine of the robot, that which had passed off till just yesterday as daily life, has ceased to exist.
The sensible half of mankind is willy-nilly coming to terms with the extended house arrest imposed in varying degrees of intensity by the state and the need for reorienting ourselves to face the challenges of the new future.
But, it begs to be asked, where will we be post-Covid-19? Is there a post-Covid-19? Or, worst case, shall we as a species be driven down to the lowest common denominator of the individual, accustomed to being permanently cocooned away from the rest of humanity?
Can we imagine life going back to the “normal” of four months ago, beehive chaos of activity underpinned by the ever-jostling crowds of the republic? Will the four corners of our home come to permanently define us as the individuals of the new physical and cultural moonscape?
Will the once-routine life permanently metamorphose into the “New Normal,” an expression that has insinuated itself into the vocabulary of the present along with those other ubiquitous expressions, “lockdown” and “social distancing?”
“Keep your distance. Six feet please” -- appears to be the universal refrain. “Do not contaminate me by your touch.” And therein lies the rub.
The sense of touch, the most intimate of physiologies, has always propelled human civilization, as it does significant areas of the animal and plant kingdom. Will we be resigned to foregoing the most fundamental indicator of life in ways that we took for granted as a byproduct of evolution?
Are we required to synthesize a world culture underpinned by the long-distance smile and the ever-ready bottle of sanitizer? Will the respectful two-handed greeting and farewell of India become the new normal, replacing the more direct and universally-propagated handclasp?
But homo sapiens are a highly adaptable species, especially when challenged by adversity. Thus, while the confinement of the past weeks has brought in its wake the inevitable roster of casualties of boredom, exhaustion, depression, and sometimes even death, families are discovering each other anew, or often even for the first time, as activity, routine and interests are developed and evolved to make optimum use of the new-found hours at hand.
We have the unprecedented benefit, nay gift, of being presented with a new life. And with it a brand new opportunity. But more about that in a bit.
What is the origin of this new Armageddon?
Covid-19 is the stuff of scientific fact and cutting-edge biotechnology. The chilling foretelling of its descent on humanity is just a chapter of the racy thriller that the world is being treated to, page after frightening page.
It’s as simple to speculate that the virus was synthesized in the Orwellian laboratories of the Wuhan Institute of Virology as it is convenient to demonize the Chinese nation for the scourge.
But we live in an age where each permutation and combination of science and nature is systematically identified and plugged through a simulation engineered by hyper-science. So, therefore, what are the odds that this deadly demon could have just materialized out of thin air?
Randomness and natural selection, to my mind, are things of the past which do not find a place in a world which, to all ends and purposes, is biologically stable. The truth is definitely out there, but the reality is that the world watches helplessly, ignorant of either the provenance or the remedy.
The medical protocol is at best a mesh of trial and error, and the most optimistic reports estimate the development of a vaccine fit for human consumption at the end of 2021. Governments and institutions, meanwhile, race to find a cure and go to market.
Diseases of epidemic proportions are not unfamiliar to the human experience, as evidenced by the international experiences of the Bubonic Plague, Spanish Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, and Ebola.
But where the earlier viruses would immediately incapacitate the person afflicted, and therefore facilitate identification and cure of the patient, this cheeky fellow settles itself unobtrusively in the facial area, gradually works its way down to the throat area, and eventually lays waste to the immune system -- and all this while the hapless victim conducts a normal life, blissfully unaware of the ongoing devastation.
And while King Corona incubates, the unsuspecting victim leads the normal life of a fortnight before the symptoms explode. The algorithm would have it that one person on average can infect as many as 814 people, the apparently minimum potential harm wrought before the infector is confirmed positive and temporarily removed for treatment from civil society.
How does the destructive perfection of King Covid manifest itself? When the infected person dies, the infection dies with him. Diabolical. Efficient. The perfect murder! And then there was none! How can it not be a biological weapon of mass murder?
Apparently, the Covid virus was discovered by a scientist in Spain several decades ago. Perhaps it’s a miracle of good fortune, one of those fortunate historical accidents of non-action, that the virus did not get cultured, bottled, and shipped off to the highest bidder.
Imagine the options available to the erstwhile dictator of Iraq had his scientists acquired the compound. If Saddam Hussain’s track record of experiments on efficient mass murder is anything to go by, the hapless Kurdish nation might possibly have ceased to exist.
Because of the exponential advances made in medical technology, and despite the bumbling efforts of the comity of nations to act in a concerted manner to battle the virulent marauder, the number of fatalities has been staggeringly low.
The desperate US is floundering with an administration that refuses to get its head out of the sand, waging an unseemly war against the various components of the federal structure and exercising daily-evolving doublespeak with a press united in their distaste for the commander-in-chief.
The most powerful nation on earth has simply lost the plot, relinquishing its earned right to lead the global initiative to more agile and nimble democracies who have learned quickly from the mistakes of others and cobbled together and launched a program, any program, of meaningful engagement with their citizens. The juggernaut of the Republic of India, led by a dynamic Prime Minister’s Office, has been at the vanguard of the efforts and the ensuing international felicitation.
Fast forward to the present, and the headlines of the past few days indicate countries in a determined array against a hapless World Health Organization. Desperation breeds conspiracy and fuels the enduring search for a scapegoat.
Fear and paranoia aside, there is room for optimism
On the level of the daily routine, an entire body of laughter has sprung up on social media around King Covid. The humour is as multifarious as it is imaginative.
Frames of cinema blockbusters with Covid-related captions and subtitles and dialogue; hilarious videos of defaulters and curfew breakers being walloped by the men in khaki brandishing the universal lathi.
An avalanche of TikTok theatre and home videos of families recording their way of coping, or failure to cope, with the crisis; cartoon strips of famous characters with virus-appropriate dialogue; Twitter messages mocking the inane and asinine utterings of the rich and powerful; not to forget the prime protagonist around whom the majority of the new humour revolves and without whom the wags would be bereft -- President Donald Trump.
What the legal fraternity had done for the original humor of the internet, the head honcho sitting grumpily in the White House has singlehandedly accomplished for Covid-19.
Covid-19 may have ripped our semblance of normalcy to shreds, but it has certainly shone the torch on the quality of life that we can enjoy. We have learned to live relatively frugally; we have almost no need for petrol; the entertainment bill flat-lines at zero, and we are none the worse for it; the medical bill is substantially reduced, and we are still none the worse for it; life is peaceful.
The surface of the earth has learned to breathe again, the tendrils of a green nature are reclaiming spaces long lost to two-legged depredation, vistas of long-forgotten mountain ranges are etched in their icy majesty along the infinite expanse of a deep blue sky, and birdsong erupts in every window.
The only element of menace is apparently lent by the People’s Liberation Army steaming out of native waters to the far corners of the globe in search of the permanently elusive advantage of the forward position in anticipation of the next round of international brinkmanship.
This passive-aggressive doctrine thankfully lacks the teeth it would otherwise have possessed in the pre-Covid-19 world. Do remember, we live in those wonderful times where conventional warfare has been suspended in the face of the greater perceived danger of one’s soldiers being struck down by incurable bronchitis in their thousands. Times are indeed wonderful.
And to add to the chaos of speculation, the soothsayers have predicted that the origin of Covid-19 shall never be explained. Southasia is home to the largest collection of astrologers and experts in the world of the future.
Out of the welter of forecasters and prognosticators, where was that single soul willing to go out on a limb to report the dark clouds of pandemic massing on the horizon? Are we to believe that not even one among the ten thousand could sense the impending disaster? Or is the virus so insidious that it could escape detection of all powers till it was simply too late? If the response to the last is in the affirmative, then biology is indeed immune to the control by humankind.
A medium has foretold that the virus would appear in 2019, would disappear just as inexplicably, and then revisit the human race 10 years later before it finally vanished forever. We have something to look forward to in 2030.
Till then, we have nothing better to do than to build immunity, eat and sleep well, have the proverbial apple a day, learn to lead happier and tension-free lives, and, most of all, learn to live the fuller lives that we have been wired to live with less of the accoutrements of existence presumed indispensable.
Keep humankind out of the reckoning should be the motto of the post-virus religion.
We are, after all, our own worst enemy.
Sumit Basu is a freelance contributor.