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What literature can teach us about the coronavirus

Even as the practical response to the coronavirus outbreak has been to seal ourselves off, the virus seems to be testing how well we can collaborate across borders as we try to shut it down

The virus is actually testing how well we can collaborate across borders.
The virus is actually testing how well we can collaborate across borders. (Getty Images)

My friend Milena had just landed in Kolkata from Dubai. She had braced herself for a nightmare on arrival. The health ministry had just mandated that all international passengers go through a temperature scan and health screening. But the bigger nightmare lay outside the airport.

Her Uber driver asked her where she was flying in from. When he heard it was Dubai, he said he could not turn on the air-conditioning. If she had flown in from Mumbai or Delhi, it would be no problem, he told her. “But Dubai is outside of India and there is infection there," he told her knowledgeably.

Welcome to life in the time of corona.

The virus has revealed a great civilizational gap. The West prepares for it like an approaching hurricane—they hoard toilet paper. India has no need for toilet paper. So it hoards hand sanitizers and masks. And misinformation. A local radio station actually had a jingle telling people it was fine to eat chicken. And a walking tour in Kolkata that gives people a taste of the city’s old Chinatown has been working hard to tell its nervous clientele that it’s perfectly safe to have fried rice and chilli chicken. Chinese restaurants, most of which have been here for generations, with no real contact with China, have been facing a big slump in business, though I have not heard of local Italian restaurants facing the same.

But it all goes to show the panic that an unseen enemy can induce in us. This is an emergency from which we cannot mark ourselves “safe" on Facebook. When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola and bird flu were spreading, we still did not live in such a WhatsApped-Facebooked world. While the real virus spreads through airlines and cruise ships, fake news goes viral through social media networks. “The truth is," writes Eliot A Cohen in The Atlantic, “we live in the midst of multiple plagues—after all it is considered a good thing when your tweet ‘goes viral’". Now the virus is having the last laugh.

Even as scientists scramble to prepare a vaccine, WhatsApp university has offered me its corona protection tips—avoid ice cream, take Unani herbs and homeopathic medicines, colloidal silver, lots of garlic and chillies. A doctor friend sardonically quipped that perhaps there was something to be said for garlic and chilli though. Too much of garlic breath means people will give you a wide berth while too much chilli can keep you isolated from the world in the bathroom. “Either way, no infection," he deadpanned.

Fake news in the face of a pandemic, against an invisible enemy that stalks the air we breathe, is not a 21st century phenomenon. The very word influenza is proof of that. At a time when we did not know about viruses, we blamed this mysterious disease that felled thousands on the influence of misaligned stars. In 1839, English poet Robert Southey wrote in a letter, “I have had a pretty fair share of the Flue." The French called it grippe, a word that meant seizures. For a while that too was part of the English language. Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle in 1906, “There came pneumonia and grippe, stalking among them, seeking for weakened constitutions; there was the annual harvest of those whom tuberculosis had been dragging down." But grippe has fallen out of fashion. Influenza has survived because perhaps we like to delude ourselves that the fault lies indeed in our stars, not in ourselves, that we are underlings who do not like to wash their hands.

While scientists work on vaccines and cures, the rest of us have to imagine something we cannot see and therefore find hard to fathom. The first time I saw plague visualized on screen was in Cecil B. DeMille’s gloriously over-the-top Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. DeMille showed only four plagues, not 10, because he was afraid he would not be able to show a plague of frogs or lice without it becoming too gross or hilarious. Instead the river runs red with blood and a wispy wraith of a plague creeps in behind closed doors to kill the first-born. Ridley Scott’s Exodus did show the plague of frogs which used CGI, 400 real frogs and six frog handlers.

But corona does not give us the solidity of frogs and locusts. Even if it might have come from bats, it is not spread by swarms of bats. We are just left with confounding information about mortality rates and virus strains and mutations. The more rational our scientists sound, the more nervous we get about the faceless enemy that strikes like a bolt from the blue.

Today we re-read Albert Camus’ The Plague not just as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France but as a story that is literally about the plague. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) describes a world ravaged by plague. In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque Of Red Death, a mysterious figure in a bloodied robe crashes a party in a walled abbey where Prince Prospero hopes he can protect himself and his guests from the Red Death. Stephen King’s The Stand had a US military bio-weapon escaping and wreaking havoc, leaving under 1% of the world’s population alive. And Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, written in 1912, imagines a ravaged America of 2073, 60 years after a Red Death nearly destroyed the world in 2013. It is a time when medicine and science has progressed by leaps and bounds, but by the time a serum is developed, it is too late to stop the march of the epidemic. “Civilization was crumbling and it was each for himself," wrote London. And in the panic, as people poured out of cities, they did not realize they carried the germs with them. “Even the airships of the rich, fleeing for mountain and desert fastnesses, carried the germs."

A coronavirus may not come to that. Most people will not even show symptoms. Scientists believe eight out of 10 will recover on their own. There are already vaccine candidates on offer.

But just the knowledge that nothing, not autocratic societies, wealth, privilege, the best scientific laboratories can protect us fully is terrifying. This is not about how many more people die of tuberculosis every year or even from the more common garden variety flu. Those still feel somewhat controllable. This is about a feeling of a loss of control. All we know to do is quarantine ourselves, sometimes an entire city, but it’s a leaky quarantine. The hand-washing feels sometimes like collective hand-wringing instead.

But at a time when corona panic can bring out the worst of our racist stereotypes and xenophobia, the abiding message from the literary depictions of plagues and pandemics is that the only solution is not every man for himself but a collective response of universal brotherhood. The irony is that even as the practical response is to close borders and seal ourselves off, the long-term solution comes from people banding together, fighting the virus across borders with Chinese doctors and Israeli labs and American scientists and Australian production techniques. The virus is actually testing how well we can collaborate across borders even as we try to shut it down. And the virus, if nothing else, reminds us that another way is possible—teleconferencing and Skyping and livestreaming instead of criss-crossing the globe flying to meetings. That might not be a bad thing for our beleaguered planet.

As for my friend flying in from Dubai to Kolkata and her sceptical Uber driver, even he had a compromise to offer. For an extra 30, he was willing to turn on the air conditioning.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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