A Covid-19 death: When it strikes closer home

A Covid-19 death: When it strikes closer home

"Wife died today." The terse message was from my close cousin. After struggling with ventilator support for nearly a month in a Bengaluru hospital, the coronavirus got the better of her. It was devastating news. 

New Coronavirus. First, it was a mysterious disease. In distant lands. Eerie feelings of unease crept in, reminding one of SARS and H1N1, the earlier viruses which came out of the blue, with visitations of death. Deaths were first reported in China from the new virus, and then Italy and Spain where it raged suddenly like forest fires. And like forest fires, it leapt over distances -- only this time across vast spaces and oceans -- and started devouring America. And now, it has engulfed and is ravaging India. Like a ghost, it stalks. It is nowhere but everywhere. 

The daily infections and hospital admissions transcribed these macabre illnesses and deaths onto ticker tapes on television and converted them into mere numbers and figures. Then statisticians morphed them into graphs for analysts. It was all dry and bald statistics -- of deaths of nameless, faceless thousands. And stories in papers and media and occasional anecdotes of people from our country who may have got infected with this illness or stranded on foreign shores were carried and conveyed to us on our social media groups. Then you saw here and there, around the world, news of celebrities whom you had heard of getting infected and succumbing to the virus.

For us, they were all TV deaths. Even when the nation hunkered down in a forced lockdown and millions of migrants were on an exodus, dying of hunger, suffering from thirst and exhaustion on their long march and many mowed down by trucks and trains as they trudged home with their belongings and infants in their arms, the virus was still a faraway thing -- an imagined disease. It was wished away by gloating, complacent politicians, sadhus and saints and charlatans with chants and gongs, and quacks and godmen dispensed native voodoo medicines made of bones and antlers, of dung and cow urine, and pranic healing through Yoga as a cure all.

In a curious twist, when the godmen, the politician or a celebrity coughed and went breathless and their body temperatures soared, they rushed to modern hospitals in search of the best available allopathic care. And some did not make it. All these stories were still something you watched on raucous television shows, anchored by gladiators on steroids. You would watch it as you would a Bollywood masala movie. 

But when news hits you, yes when it shatters you like a stone flung on your living room glass window, that one of your close friends, a relative or an office colleague has been rushed to a hospital and put on ventilator, and when you learn that his grief stricken family can't visit him/her in the hospital and you can't even go and offer sympathies because the virus is hovering about -- it is invisible but menacing, like the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth, haunting men who have a foreboding that this is retribution for all the sins and crimes committed by man not only against his fellow beings but against the planet -- then a strange fear grips you. You feel impotent against the microcosm. And when news arrives that the patient, whom you knew so well, whom you had met only recently, passed away and that the doctors, overwhelmed by the mysterious disease, couldn't save your dear ones, then the reality hits you like a grenade exploding next to you.  

It is not a statistic anymore. It's not a conspiracy of Left politicians out to destabilise the government. It's not an American right-wing delusion of a Chinese virus that escaped or was released wilfully from a Chinese lab. It's not a virus weaponised by Muslims to kill Hindus by infiltrating Hindu society as the ‘IT cell’ of some political party would want us to believe. It is, as all the reputed doctors and epidemiologists have said, a virus that is most virulent and lethal. It is a bizarre deviant new virus about which little is known, and which is taking scientists by surprise with its inscrutable behaviour, wreaking havoc, impacting the lives and livelihoods of every living being. Chest-beating and bravado, instead of respect for science, is the courage of ignorance that can be fatal to king and commoner. 

The death of a close relative, a friend or a colleague by this virus is no longer mere data but is now very personal and touching. It is a double tragedy with Coronavirus -- most Covid-19 patients not only suffer, but they suffer and die alone. And it's unbearably tragic because the loved ones can't be near them when they take their last breath. They can't even see the body or cremate it with time-honoured rituals. What terrible loneliness for the dying! What horrors for those who wait helplessly with unspeakable anxiety!  

Yet, despite such overwhelming odds stacked against us, pessimism, a dispirited outlook of futility, cannot be a choice. It's slow suicide. Science, and scientific temperament which is true to its core principles of tireless and honest pursuit of knowledge without cant, has solved and will continue to solve the problems of the human race if humans stop seeing themselves as a race superior, distinct and apart from Nature and the Universe. And to even think that one religion, one ethnic race or caste is superior to others is grossly vile and profane. It can only lead to disintegration. This harks back to the core of Indian philosophy -- tat tvam asi (thou art that). All life, all matter, all beings are One. This must unite us to fight the virus.

Such an outlook of solidarity will awaken infinite hope. But that optimism has to be grounded in faith in science, and not jingoism. Nor is such optimism an option. As Karl Popper said, “Optimism is a duty today.” 

(The writer is a soldier, farmer and entrepreneur)

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