There was a deliberate smashing of pots; people making a clamour. This may be an illustration of a population experiencing traumatic shock. It might have been done in panic but also might have been done to somehow disturb and clear the air,” Hays wrote about a supposed act of an angry God when he described the plague in his book Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impact on Human History. But he could have been writing about us in the present day and our initial attempts to keep away a disease that has yet not been properly understood.
“The mask is a tool to make us weak.” Our attention turned towards the driver as he detailed the complex inter-relationship between carbon dioxide (CO2) and the mask. His logic was, as we exhale CO2, the mask forces us to inhale it back, thereby weakening our body’s immune system. This was a novel conspiracy theory in a world filled with absurd theories about the pandemic.
Over ten months into the outbreak, the inventory of rumours related to the contagion has managed to transcend boundaries. Creative and inane, such stories multiply as the pandemic refuses to release its grip. While in the early days, most conversations veered around the potency of the virus and the multitude of ways to cure oneself of this dreaded pandemic, they now tend to dismiss the disease as “just another flu.” The apparent casualness flies in the face of conventional analysis as awareness about the disease is immense and Indians who lived through the difficult times of the lockdown are cognisant of its life-threatening effects.
However, the current predilection of not wearing masks also comes associated with the sense of fatality and fatigue, having undergone painful job losses and social stigma for the past few months. Varying from, “It is all God’s will” to “Nothing will happen to me” to “We have all caught the disease” to “God cannot kill all the poor” to “If it happens, it happens” to “We don’t have money to buy a mask” and a multitude of other reasons, the almost universal lack of interest in wearing a face cover hides an important detail about our social lives. People have been hit hard by the economic impact of the crisis and most have no other option but to step out. They cannot stay in and worry about wearing a mask or maintaining social distancing. They are more concerned about filling their stomachs and meeting their financial needs.
In many ways, the fear of the pandemic, coupled with the spread of fake news in this era of social media and messaging platforms, have led to revisionist theories that at once declare the impact of the Coronavirus a hoax while also pandering to the fear of its supposed effects.
With millions falling prey, there is an outcry that this generation is paying for its sins. However, William Dunbar said it best when he wrote that, “The fear of death disturbs me” in the Lament for the Makers, suggesting perhaps that the human race has faced such threats throughout history. And those dark moments were unique as humanity did not have an answer then just as it doesn’t have one now. People in those dark days were prone to succumbing to fear as the rise of a disease, cutting through society without any discrimination, results in helplessness among the rich and the poor alike. This causal relationship between disease and sin is seen also in Greek literary texts, such as Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Iliad opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy to punish them for Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis.
Humankind has time and again let this fear turn into panic, overwhelming all traces of rationality. This facilitates easier propagation of fake news in the community. The feedback surrounding the myths and legends over managing Covid also borders on the absurd. Just as the CO2 theory propounded by the driver, more such theories abound in the markets of Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune and Delhi, ranging from guzzling copious amounts of alcohol, to being safe in one’s locality, to stopping the consumption of fruits as they are known to carry the virus. The list is endless, and each country, State, city and locality has added a twist to these stories. The challenge for people working in the frontline is to sift through the rumours and convey basic truths about the pandemic and its causes.
However, as we see more complacency creep in, it would do good to understand the underlying fear and weariness that communities are suffering from. For the moment, they face a gun-shaped thermal scanner, an oximeter and endless surveys that have fatigued them. Then there is the unfortunate spread of stigma of an uncommon but not unmanageable disease and the mishandling of dissemination in this very real public health crisis.
The need of the hour is to aggressively push for an overarching campaign that involves all stakeholders and myriad activities such as posters, stickers, banners, wall paintings, murals, street theatre, songs, tableaus, announcement from religious places, radio campaigns, television ads and as many creative outlets as possible.
As we learn from this crisis, it will bode well to recall that literature has been humanity’s constant companion though long periods of uncertainty. And often, when a pandemic hit humankind, there was not much that could be done then as it is now.
The only effective measure back then was what is known today as social distancing and quarantine of the sick which, according to Procopius, the principal Byzantine historian, was done voluntarily by individuals. In this current age, we can strive to be a step ahead, promote social distancing, wear masks and ensure better hygiene in a manner that was not possible in ancient times.
(Sharma is a faculty at Azim Premji University and Bhaskar is an independent researcher)