Categories
Musings

Notes from Myanmar: Humans versus Viruses

A reflection on Covid-19 virus outbreak by San Lin Tun

Deserted roads in Yangon

Birds are at ease, showing no worries, looking down at the helter-skelter of humans, struggling and striving to survive under this ruthless virus’ attack. Before that, birds caused flu and migratory birds could not be seen easily. That time, people hated birds; they stopped bird watching for the fear posed by the threat of bird flu. Birds migrated from one end of the world to another, crossing boundaries, as was their natural tendency. Now, the Covid-19 virus is traveling almost throughout the world.

We normally tend to look for experts to resolve emergencies or crisis. Why are the experts silent while human’s freedom has been attacked by the pandemic outbreak? Have humans transgressed the territories of the virus or their liberty? Or is it retaliation for human follies? People think that their lives are cosy and fine within the contexts of capitalism and democracy. They have, however, in their complacent existence, forgotten to think of emergencies like pandemics, the outbreak of anti-heroes and antithesis to blissful living.

Governments only set regulations to restrict human traffic and impose lockdowns on cities, poured funds to regain faltering economies after earlier crises. Now, people are at a loss and they do not know to whom they should turn to. They are realising they have to rely on themselves. They might wonder where their heroes are. They feel repentant for having done nothing, only things to destroy or to jeopardize world harmony, pouring budgets to manufacture hazardous equipment.

The outbreak of virus has restricted all-inclusive human activities, moving freely within the compass of the world and even posing a threat to human rights. We have been attacked by unknown and unseen enemies which are too small to see but powerful enough to cause a havoc in the whole human population. Scientists are now racing to search for the vaccines to combat its outbreak. What about other professions and creative industry? They should also join in fighting against this virus outbreak. Food, clothes and shelter are the three necessary things for humans daily needs. Maybe they can think of ways to provide these.

Professionals worldwide should form a think tank to come up with good and genuine ideas to combat this existing threat. There might be some ways to curb or contain the spread.

People-to-people contact carries virus which transmit person to person. In sci-fi movies or novels, we will find these alternatives and the creative minds will think up the following:

  1. Why not design virus repellent/protective outfits to wear when you go out?
  2. Why not create self- air purifying masks?
  3. Why not invent virus scanning goggles?
  4. Why not produce virus detecting devices?
  5. Why not manufacturing super-booster pills?
  6. Why not . . .?
  7. Why not . . .?
  8. . . .?

All these gadgets are only available in Sci-fi movies or fiction.  If we have those in real world, our lives would not have been disrupted to this level. All solutions tend to prevent virus containment in food, clothes and shelter. The blue planet belongs to the human race. Viruses have only one purpose that is to destroy. They cannot travel, only humans carry them.

Humans do not know the number of them. But they know they are lethal. So, people fear. Fear deters human intelligence to think or create properly, causing panic in people’s minds. Then, it will be hard to be in touch with witticisms under these trying circumstances where so many are petrified by the fear and horror of it.

They know that their liberty is disturbed, and they lose their freedom. Then, they are looking for the stable system to cope with their crises. They know that the only way to end this crisis is to get vaccines.

As for a miracle, men like to look for philosopher stones or magic wands to alter the circumstances and create a virus free world. You can say fantasies can ring a note of hope that will lighten anxious minds and bring a sense of cheer to the depressed. As we ponder realistically or miraculously, we will definitely find a solution to wage the counter-attack on viruses. And, the virus crisis will end.

San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short stories and novels from Myanmar and English. Sometimes, he draws cartoons for fun. His writings has appeared in Asia Literary Review, Kitaab, Mad in Asia Pacific, Mekong Review, NAW, PIX, Ponder Savant, South East of Now, Strukturriss and several others. He has authored ten books including ‘‘An English Writer’’. He lives in Yangon, Myanmar.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Musings

Not our crowning glory

By Farouk Gulsara

Is it funny that every time Man thinks that he has it all figured out, Nature (or fate if you like to call it) just jolts him back to reality? Like Will E Coyote and his spanking new latest invention from ACME Corporation, it just falls flat and blows right on his face again and again, and Roadrunner always goes scot-free, scooting off yet again, screeching “beep..beeep!”

The latest viral scare of COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) just opens up our vulnerability. All the so-called foolproof systems that we had installed are just scribblings on the sand – they cannot withstand the test of time. And they are so porous. We thought we had all the arsenal that could not only not annihilate our enemies but ourselves in the process too. All these are useless in combating our electron-microscopic size enemy. We are literally crippled by an unseen offending foe. All the King’s horses and the King’s men cannot put our peace of mind together at least for now. 

In the 1990s, our leaders were hellbent on embracing globalisation. They argued that we were heading to a borderless world where physical borders were an illusion. Commerce transcended boundaries, and we should welcome it with open arms. No one could live in isolation. Now, see what is happening. Countries are scurrying to close the borders as not only diseases spread like wildfire, refugees who bungled up their own nation are clawing through the immigration gates displaying their victim card. Many have opted for self-isolation to keep their people safe.

Over-dependence on particular countries for supplies and over-concentration of the supply chain from a specific region has not a smart move after all. It looks like when China sneezes, the whole world may get pneumonia.

The democratisation of flying made travelling no more an activity of the bourgeois. Now, everyone could fly. With it came secondary industries and opening of new regions and tourists attractions. Unfortunately, the concept of open skies also opened the Pandora box of international subversive activities and seamless flow of problems. At the time of writing the tagline of one of the most popular low-cost airlines have changed from ‘Everyone can Fly’ to ‘No one wants to Fly’ or ‘Nowhere to Fly’.

We thought the world wide web of interconnectivity was going to transform the world into a utopia of a knowledge-based society,  well-informed consumers and broad-thinking creative communities. How naive we were. What we have are fake news of questionable authenticity and a band of fist thumping keyboard warriors who type away their hate speeches under the cloak of anonymity without a thought of the effects of their actions. 

Generations before us grew up without any exchange of physical touch or public display of affection. In some societies, physical touch between unmarriageable kins was frowned upon. With open-mindedness, bodily contacts by handshakes, hugging and pecking became the norm. Come SARS, MERS-CoV and now COVID-19, and we are back to our traditional ways of salutations – bowing and placing of own palms together; fear of transmission of pathogens.

Just a thought…

The mighty Chinese armada used to travel to the four corners of the globe. They are said to have ‘discovered’ the Americas even before Columbus’ alternate route to India. But then everything stopped. The Ming Dynasty decided to opt for a closed-door policy of the world. Even the Japanese kingdoms underwent a similar transformation. Was the spread of disease the reason for this move?

(Nerd Alert: Corona is Latin for Crown. Corona also refers to the gaseous accumulation around the Sun (which looks like a crown enveloping the Sun), mainly around its equator. Did you know that there is a field of study dedicated to studying the Sun called Solar Science (Helioseismology)? The suffix ‘seismology’ is used here because Solar Scientists principally study it via the oscillations of sound waves (?Om –  etc.) that are continuously driven and damped by convection near the Sun’s surface. One of the puzzling thing about the Sun is that the Corona is hotter than the Sun surface by a factor of 150 to 400. The Corona can reach temperatures of 1 to 3 million Kelvin.)

Farouk Gulsara is a daytime healer and a writer by night. After developing his left side of his brain almost half his lifetime, this johnny-come-lately decides to stimulate his non-dominant part on his remaining half. An author of two non-fiction books, ‘Inside the twisted mind of Rifle Range Boy’ and ‘Real Lessons from Reel Life’, he writes regularly in his blog ‘Rifle Range Boy’.

Categories
Musings

A Planet of Missing Beauties – In Memoriam

By Tom Engelhardt

The other morning, walking at the edge of a local park, I caught sight of a beautiful red cardinal, the first bird I ever saw some 63 years ago.

Actually, to make that sentence accurate, I should probably have put either “first” or “ever saw” in quotation marks. After all, I was already 12 years old and, even as a city boy, I had seen plenty of birds. If nothing else, New York, where I grew up, is a city of pigeons (birds which, by the way, know nothing about “social distancing”).

Nonetheless, in a different sense, at age 12 I saw (was struck by, stunned by, awed by) that bright red bird. I was visiting a friend in Connecticut and, miraculously enough, though it was 1956, his parents had a bird identification book of some kind in their house. When I leafed through it, I came across the very bird I had seen, read about it, and on going home wrote a tiny essay about the experience for my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Casey (one of those inspirational figures you never forget, just as I’ll never forget that bird). I still have what I wrote stuffed away amid ancient papers somewhere in the top of my bedroom closet.

Six decades later, in this grim coronavirus March of 2020, with my city essentially in lockdown and myself in something like self-isolation, I have to admit that I feel a little embarrassed writing about that bird. In fact, I feel as if I should apologize for doing so. After all, who can doubt that we’re now in a Covid-19 world from hell, in a country being run (into the ground) by the president from hell, on the planet that he and his cronies are remarkably intent on burning to hell.

It was no mistake, for instance, that, when Donald Trump finally turned his mind to the coming pandemic (rather than denying it) as the economy he had been bragging about for the previous three years began to crash, one of the first groups he genuinely worried about didn’t include you or me or even his base. It was America’s fossil-fuel industry. As global transportation ground down amid coronavirus panic and a wild oil price war between the Saudis and the Russians, those companies were being clobbered.  And so he quickly reached out to them with both empathy and money — promising to buy tons of extra crude oil for the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve (“We’re going to fill it right to the top”) — unavailable to so many other endangered Americans.  At that moment he made it perfectly clear that, in an unfolding crisis of the first order, all of us remain in a world run by arsonists led by the president of the United States.

So, a cardinal? Really? That’s what I want to focus on in a world which, as it grows hotter by the year, will only be ever more susceptible to pandemics, not to speak of staggering firesfloodingextreme storms, and god knows what else. Honestly, given a country of closed schools, self-isolating adults, and the sick and the dying, ona planet that seems to be cracking open, in a country which, until recently, couldn’t test as many people for Covid-19 in a couple of months as South Korea could in — yes, this is not a misprint — a day, where’s my sense of proportion?

A Secret Life

Still, if you can, bear with me for a moment, I think there’s a connection, even if anything but obvious, between our troubled world and that flaming bird I first saw so long ago. Let me start this way: believe it or not, birds were undoubtedly the greatest secret of my teenage years.

On spring weekends, my best friend and I would regularly head for Central Park, that magnificent patch of green at the center of Manhattan Island. That was the moment when the spectacular annual bird migration would be at its height and the park one of the few obvious places in a vast urban landscape for birds to alight. Sharing his uncle’s clunky old binoculars, my friend and I would wander alone there (having told no one, including our families, what we were doing).

We were on the lookout for exotic birds of every sort on their journeys north. Of course, for us then they were almost all exotic. There were brilliant scarlet tanagers with glossy black wings, chestnut-and-black orchard orioles (birds I wouldn’t see again for decades), as well as the more common, even more vivid Baltimore orioles.  And of course there were all the warblers, those tiny, flitting, singing creatures of just about every color and design: American redstarts, blackburnians, black-and-whites, black-throated blues, blue-wingeds, chestnut-sideds, common yellowthroats, magnolias, prairies, palms, yellows.

And here was the secret key to our secret pastime: the old birders. Mind you, when I say “old,” I mean perhaps my age now or even significantly younger. They would, for instance, be sitting on benches by Belvedere Castle overlooking Belvedere Lake (in reality, a pond), watching those very birds. They were remarkably patient, not to say amused (or perhaps amazed) by the two teenaged boys so eager to watch with them and learn from them. They were generous with their binoculars, quick to identify birds we otherwise would never have known or perhaps even noticed, and happy to offer lessons from their bird books (and their own years of experience).

And, for me at least, those birds were indeed a wonder. They were genuine beauties of this planet and in some odd way my friend and I grasped that deeply. In fact, ever since we’ve grown up — though this year may prove to be the self-isolating exception — we’ve always tried to meet again in that park as May began for one more look at, one more moment immersed in, the deep and moving winged beauty of this planet of ours.

Of course, in the 1950s, all of this was our deepest secret for the most obvious of reasons (at least then). If you were a boy and admitted that you actually wanted to look at birds — I’m not sure the phrase “bird watch” was even in use at the time — god knows what your peers would have said about you. They would — we had no doubt of this — have simply drummed us out of the corps of boys. (That any of them might then have had their own set of secret fascinations would never, of course, have crossed our minds.) All you have to do to conjure up the mood of that moment is to imagine our president back then and the kind of mockery to which he would certainly have subjected boys who looked at birds!

Now, so many decades later, in another America in which the coronavirus has already reached pandemic proportions (potentially threatening staggering losses, especially among old folks like me), in which the stock market is already tanking, in which a great recession-cum-depression could be on the horizon, and our future FDR — that is, the president who helped us out of the last Great Depression in the 1930s — could an over-the-hill 77-year-old former vice president, it seems odd indeed to write about beautiful birds from another earthly moment. But maybe that’s the point.

Fini?

Think about it this way: as last year ended, Science magazine reported that, in North America, there were three billion fewer birds than in 1970; in other words, almost one out of every three birds on this continent is now gone. As Carl Zimmer of the New York Times put it, “The skies are emptying out.” Among them, warblers have taken one of the heaviest hits — there are an estimated 617 million fewer of them — as well as birds more generally that migrate up the East Coast (and so have a shot at landing in Central Park). Many are the causes, including habitat loss, pesticides, and even feral cats, but climate change is undoubtedly a factor as well. The authors of the Audubon Society’s most recent national report, for instance, suggest that, “if Earth continues to warm according to current trends — rising 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 — more than two-thirds of North America’s bird species will be vulnerable to extinction due to range loss.”

Extinction. Take that word in. They’ll be gone. No more. Fini.

That, by the way, is a global, not just a North American, reality, and such apocalyptic possibilities are hardly restricted to birds. Insects, for instance, are experiencing their own Armageddon and while — monarch butterflies (down 90% in the U.S. in the last 20 years) aside — we humans don’t tend to think of them as beauties, they are, among other things, key pollinators and crucial to food chains everywhere.

Or think about it this way: on Monday, March 8th, in my hometown, New York City, it was 68 degrees and that was nothing. After all, on February 19th, in Central Park, the temperature had hit a record-breaking 78 degrees in the heart of winter, not just the highest for that day on record but for the month of February, historically speaking.  At the time, we were passing through a “winter” in which essentially no snow had fallen. And that should have surprised no one. After all, January had started the year with a bang globally as the hottest January on record, which again should have surprised no one, since the last five years have been the warmest ever recorded on this planet (ditto the last 10 years and 19 of the last 20 years). Oh, and 2020 already has a 50% chance of being the warmest year yet.

And by the way, soon after that 68-degree day, in our parks I began to notice the first crocuses and daffodils pushing through the soil and blooming. It was little short of remarkable and, in truth, would all have been beautiful, not to say glorious — the weather, the flowers, the sense of ease and comfort, the springiness of everything — if you didn’t know just what such “beauty” actually meant on a planet potentially heating to pandemic proportions.

How sad when even what’s still truly beautiful on this globe of ours increasingly tells a story that couldn’t be grimmer. So, think of this as my in-memoriam essay about the planet I thought I grew up on and the birds I thought I knew. Consider it a kind of epitaph-in-advance for a world that, if the rest of us can’t get ourselves together, if we can’t rid ourselves of arsonists like Donald Trump and his crew or those fossil-fueled CEOs that he loves so much, may all-too-soon seem unrecognizable.

In the meantime, consider me — semi-locked in my apartment — to be, in my own fashion, in mourning. Not for myself, mind you, though I’m almost 76 and my years on this planet are bound to be limited, but for those I’ll be leaving behind, my children and grandchildren in particular. This just wasn’t the world I ever wanted them to inherit.

In truth, in this coronaviral moment of ours, our world is being transformed before our eyes into one of missing beauties. Given my teenage years, I want to leave my grandchildren the pleasure of entering Central Park in some distant May, long after I’m gone, and still seeing the brilliant colors of a scarlet tanager. That’s my hope, despite everything.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

First Published in Countercurrents.org

Categories
Musings

The Dawning of a New Era

By Mitali Chakravarty

More than a century ago Tagore wrote a song:

Kothao amar hariye java nei mana, mone, mone

Translated it stands, I can get lost anywhere within the infinite of my mind (imagination).

Time has come that we put his suggestion to test.

Though we are all torn by the isolation that battling COVID-19 demands, we still have a huge thing which we did not in the past, a thing that helps us all connect — the internet. While the educated stay connected, using social media and email, there will be many under isolation who will not have the skill sets to reach out, either due to lack of internet or due to the inability to write. There are countries like Singapore, where this is not an issue — but there is still a large population out there who cannot connect, who will be told by their community leaders that they need to remain isolated. Will that be a possibility? What about the homeless? What about those who do not have a clean potable water supply? What happens to them?

One thing that the tiny virus, which we cannot see with our naked eyes, has taught us is that mankind in its suffering cannot be bordered by economic, religious, cultural or political boundaries. As we all stand, in isolation, willing or unwilling to take up cudgels against a virus that has forced us to disturb, break and destroy the tenor of our lives, perhaps the time has come to assess our blessings.

Today, the fact that you are reading this means you are connecting with the internet and can read. You are connecting with my ideas, with my thoughts. We belong to the privileged few who can soar with internet and our imaginations. We have a home and hearth. We are educated and have enough to eat. We can afford to be kind and merciful to others.

The factory smoke has largely got silenced — even if temporarily. That means the air is getting cleaner. I can see more birds fly in the sky, bluer skies and hear bird calls. Perhaps, the Earth will stretch out in languor and awake from COVID19, a healthier and greener planet.

As I see the visa exempt, borderless virus roam the world, I am reminded of  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Poison Belt (1913), where the whole of mankind loses a day as our planet passes through Ether, and then wakes up as the Earth emerges out of the sleep inducing belt of the ‘poisonous’ gas. Will such a thing happen? Will we wake up and see the corona disappear one day?

Probably not, given that we have already diagnosed the virus. But, when you think of it, mankind has been through so many pandemics and has continued to thrive.

Perhaps, the tiny virus has taken on more than it can digest. Each time, mankind emerged a winner, they had a better life. After the Great Plague that wracked Europe from 1348-1350, came a jubilant Renaissance with Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Christopher Columbus and Galileo Galilei celebrating the wealth of human development.

Then there was small pox, which was introduced among Native Indians and Mexicans in the fifteenth century by Conquistadors, and was completely eradicated after two centuries; cholera, which continues to assail some countries and many more such diseases. Mankind battled these and emerged victor into a better equipped world.  

This time, the pandemic is more widespread because we are living in a more connected planet. Is that such a bad thing? We do not really want to live like the hermaphrodite humans in Isaac Asimov’s Solaria, where mankind is served by robots alone on a solitary planet and they never meet other humans. But a temporary and intelligent isolation can teach the little virus that for all its virulence, it cannot destroy mankind. This is just a temporary measure, a temporary gesture to help mankind move into a better world. We will have to reorganise our way of life, our tenor of existence. Given the climate, economic and political issues our planet faces, this may not be such a bad thing!

After all, twentieth century guru, Yuval Noah Harari in his recent article in Financial Times, concludes: “Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”

And I would like to agree with Harari as he says with conviction: “Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.”

Let us look forward to the dawning of that new world.

Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and the founding editor of borderlessjournal.com.

Categories
Musings

Hope in Troubling Times

By Nishi Pulugurtha

My college is closed, classes are off and examinations have been deferred. We need to go in only if and when there is a need. It is not a holiday as I keep telling all my students, it is a shutdown, done for the sake of social distancing and isolation.  It is difficult convincing all about the seriousness of it all, how important it is to take precautions. There are many who dismiss it as media hype, as unnecessary, as India is safe, etc. Convincing does not seem to work, nor does rationale, some just refuse to see logic and reason.  No, I am not in a state of panic, just being careful. Trying to do my bit. As I began writing this. news came in of the first case in Kolkata.

As I was reading news about COVID_19 a few days ago it seems like some dystopia, a sci-fi movie or novel, only this time it is not fiction. It is for real and the earlier we realize it and take all necessary measures the better. Life for the daily wage earner could be even more difficult. The driver who came in yesterday morning told me that since many like me who will not be needing their services for sometime, his income is going to fall sharply. What happens to people like us, he said. I did not have an answer.

The shutdown gives most of us time to slow down, to work at other things that we can. I recorded my first lecture last night, a brief one, a test one. I shared it with my fourth semester students in a group that we created, our virtual classroom for the time being. I need to make sure that they are connected to their books and studies. Some of them did watch my video and even asked pertinent questions. I am sure many more will do it too, will take it seriously. Yes, we are angry and disturbed that so many of our plans, our schedules, our trips, our holidays, our getogethers, our parties, our functions, our movie dates, our programmes, so much of our lives that we looked forward to are all cancelled. We need to make the best of a bad situation. We are all in it together and maybe that is what will help us tide over it all.

Yesterday I noticed a post by a young dentist interning right now, miles away from home, she spoke about restraint, about taking precautions, about being careful. That post gave me hope, that in spite of the many who are throwing precautions to the wind and taking things very casually, there are sane voices. I know things sound depressing, who wants to be stuck at home. Even though I have prepared a long list of things I plan to do during this shutdown, I am not sure how much I will actually get down to doing.

It is going to be difficult for the elderly and for those with other health issues and ailments. My mother is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s Disease and is immobile now. I have been writing about our journey with the disease for some time now so as to create an awareness, just to talk about it, to give voice to those who are no longer able to speak for themselves as the tangled nerves in their brains prevent them from doing so. I need to be extra cautious as a result. She needs constant supervision, her hands need to be washed as she very often puts her fingers into her mouth, just like a baby. The caregivers at home have been instructed to take precautions.

A group of friends came up with a brilliant idea to reach out to those who need help. The Facebook post which I then shared spoke of reaching out to parents of friends, colleagues and acquaintances living alone in Kolkata as their children are abroad or in other parts of the country and are unable to come back now. It spoke of reaching out to them, checking on them to find out if they are alright, if they need anything, of making arrangements so that they have basic supplies, medicines they need. Work on it has already begun, people on both sides have begun to reach out, help is reaching homes. A friend is worried about her father undergoing dialysis at a city hospital and the worry is absolutely justified. The most I can do is to reach out to her. A word of help, of consolation, I believe work.  That friend, too, is part of this group reaching out to the elderly. There surely is much hope and compassion in times such as these. Let us look out for them, reach out, just be there.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film and has presented papers at national and international conferences in India and abroad and published in refereed international and national journals. She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.

Categories
Musings

In time of a growing pandemic: Some thoughts

By Zeenat Khan

On Sunday morning, I hardly noticed that the Japanese Magnolia outside my study room window is in full bloom as it is mid-March. Every year, in late winter, some of the area trees do flower before leaves start to come. That is the first sign to remind us that spring is upon us. There is an undeniably joyous feeling to it and most of us get busy in planning flurries of activities after a long winter. But on Friday afternoon, at 3 PM President Trump declaring National Emergency had everyone put in a panic mode. He had to do it because of the growing spread of the corona virus across states as it is affecting 49 states now. After that, there was no time to enjoy or contemplate about the advancing season.In time of crisis it is hard to put feelings into words. The anxiety that is gripping the world is very challenging. To say people are feeling “scared” is an understatement to describe the kind of fear the people around the world seem to be feeling. The signs are everywhere you go in big and small way, it is written on the faces of people.

Instead of going to the nursery to choose spring flowering plants, people were frantically going to supermarkets to load up on supplies this weekend. The erratic fear is that the supply chain will be seriously disrupted in case of a serious pandemic. There will be no one to drive the interstate supply trucks if thousands of people fall sick to the virus. This year that feeling of urgency to make a to-do list has been seriously diminished by the corona virus epidemic. Now the priority for most people is to plan for the very uncertain next few months. The virus is acting as a metaphor the populist leaders such as Trump fear and detest about the outside world. It is clear that the world leaders are not working together in an effective and coordinated way to contain the spread of the virus and that is really scary. During the day, there are so many new updates on the virus and its spread that it is hard to keep track. Within 24 hours things can take a dramatic turn, as a lot can happen in that time. Trump so far has pledged 50 billion to fight this.

No matter what you do or how many precautions you take, the virus news is on your mind constantly. For the last few days, I have been feeling slightly depressed seeing many conflicting news and what it means globally as we are one big society. Last night, just before going to bed, it was disheartening to read in al.monitor.com that the spread of corona virus in Iran has shown no sign of slowing down. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has made a public plea for sanctions to be eased and medical supplies. He also wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General sating US sanctions “obstacles to the sale of medicine, medical supplies and humanitarian goods.”

It really hit hard that from March 13; Broadways theaters in New York City have gone dark and will remain so for a month at least. Broadway is the symbol of resilience and life in New York. Last time it had closed for 48 hours after 9/11. The premise that the show must go on has been defeated as it is no match against the threat of COVID-19. When I was emailing my daughter Friday evening,I called the virus an “invisible enemy” as that is what came to mind spontaneously. I keep on sending her news updates knowing full well that she is on top of things. The mother in me feels protective of her even though she is a grown up and has been a faculty member in one of the prestigious colleges in New England for the last 2 years. In response, she sends me the forward of the email from the college President that went to all the faculty members saying when the last in person class is going to be. He reassures that his institution is still safe from the virus as no one was tested for the virus. So he presumes everyone is safe and to wait another week and be done with the classes before spring break. After that the remainder of the semester will be online. She informed me that it’s a lot of pressure there to convert everything to online learning as the graduate classes she teaches are not meant to be online. But most of the faculty members feel the college should have closed the in person classes and should have done what other institutions in that state and all the adjoining states did. They all cancelled classes and sent everyone home after one student tested positive in another college very close by. As I was writing this piece I got information from my daughter where she said, “Yes, everything has closed as of last night.”

There are so many expert opinions that people are not sure which way to go as they themselves are not sure. Some argue that society cannot be shut down completely. But that is exactly what is happening. Italy is under total lock down. Spain is following Italy in terms of isolating towns and cities to reduce the spread of the virus. Each government is doing what they see is the right thing to do to save a large numbers of people escape this dreadful virus. Last night I heard on the radio that France is closing all restaurants among other things to limit the spread of the virus.

As I am editing this article on a Sunday afternoon, I can see the park across from my dining room window. Usually, on a warm day like today, the park is filled with children playing. There has been total silence there this weekend. Only I see a person walking around the park to get his daily exercise. According to WHO reports children are not at great risk for corona virus. But the parents are not taking any chances. The stillness in the neighbourhood is very eerie. Sometimes in late summer, it feels similar, as most families are on vacation before school starts in late August. This is an extraordinary time that calls for drastic measures to be taken. All Maryland schools shut down a week ago to avoid person to person contact. Many working parents were forced to find childcare for them. All the schools had sent letters home to parents asking the students not to return to school after spring break. Meanwhile, massive cleaning operations are underway in all the schools and colleges. Maryland’s corona virus cases continue to rise and as of this writing governor Larry Hogan’s office has confirmed 31 cases including five new cases overnight. He has declared state of emergency two weeks ago to get federal aid package that will facilitate to treat the disease faster.

The biggest dilemma for most families is how much food to store anticipating the worst. There are a couple of You Tubers that I follow from time to time. One of them is a lady in London. Yesterday, she posted a video as to how she is preparing for the coming weeks and months. For a family of five, among dry and frozen foods,she had dragged a sixty-pound Basmati rice bag to her third floor flat when the elevator was not working. The dry food items consisted of every kind of lentils and other nonperishable canned food that will last for months. Another vlogger had shown her followers how she is disinfecting her apartment with homemade solutions in Toronto. She was not that lucky to load up on supplies as the supermarket shelves are getting empty very fast and the lines are very long. And yes, the toilet paper panic is going in full force there as well like in Australia and America. The internet is floating with corny Toilet Paper jokes.

In my local supermarket, the cleaning and paper towel isles were totally empty when we went last Thursday night. The store was super crowded and many families came with children. Each member grabbed a shopping cart and was piling up every imaginable kind of food as if they will be facing a famine. We might, but we just don’t know. One couple was arguing over which super-size peanut butter to get. I looked at my cart with a week’s worth of supplies failing to make a decision as to how much food can I load for two people expecting the nastiest pandemic. Later on,I get a text from my daughter urging me not to go the supermarket and instead to have it delivered. I told her I don’t know while bagging my order if anyone will sneeze on my food and whether I will accept the bags thinking it is all safe. In time of crisis we can all descend into full scale paranoia. However,I console myself that perhaps in worst case scenario, the National Guard will feed people in the community if we all run out on supplies. But nonetheless, most of Saturday we were busy buying weeks’ worth of supplies from three different stores like others.

In the midst of all the uncertainties, people are naturally panicking and acting like we are facing a war, in this instance with the ‘invisible virus.’ The news media is relentless in politicizing every issue particularly emphasizing the good prime minister of Canada vs bad president of US as the punchline after Justin’s wife Sophie Trudeau tested positive for the corona virus. Justin Trudeau is self-isolating him and working from home. Donald Trump was in close contact with some of the Brazilian delegates and one of them has confirmed that he has become infected with corona virus. Trump was standing right next to that person in his Florida Golf Club estate and there are pictures to prove it. Yet the White House at first denied the president having any contact with that person. Later Trump downplayed it saying that he is “not concerned.” No one can make sense of why he would say something like this after emphasizing the importance of social isolation and self-quarantine. Why Trump shouldn’t be concerned nor get tested boggled everyone’s mind. In this instance Trudeau looks to be the sensible person and as usual Trump is ignorant and obstinate. Later, on Friday he said would “likely” receive a coronavirus test “fairly soon” even as he minimized the prospects of having contracted the virus from a Brazilian press aide. The early reports were wrong and the Brazilian leader later announced he tested negative. But the episode “underscored the tenuous position Trump now finds himself: exposed to at least one person who has tested positive, in regular contact with others who have self-quarantined and under pressure to test himself.” After that he said on Friday afternoon that “most likely” he will get tested. Then he went ahead and had him tested on Friday night awaiting results.

It is unfathomable how Trump threw a lavish party with foreign dignitaries in these uncertain times by exposing himself to people who were later tested positive for the virus. Many of his family members were also at the party dancing away.

Amid darkness there is still hope and we need to take one day at a time and brace ourselves for a positive outcome. Until then, there is no choice but to follow the guidelines and try our best to keep us healthy. Amid the corona virus updates there are still other news stories that give me hope. Three Turkish men were sentenced last week to 125 years in prison for their part in Aylan Kurdi, 2-year-old Syrian boy’s drowning. We will never forget Aylan face down on a Turkish beach in 2015. Aylan died with his 5-year-old brother and their mother, only the father survived.When you read about the fate of Aryan’s killers, you think there is still justice in the world.

Humor is something that also keeps us from over worrying and going over the edge. Pete Buttigieg served an example as to how to keep humour alive when he was filling in for Jimmy Kimmel on Thursday night’s talk show on ABC. He was trying to make television audiences laugh who only consisted of the producers and crew members sitting at six feet apart. There are no live audiences now. As Pete finds himself unemployed after he dropped out of the presidential race, and no longer the mayor of South Bend, he went looking for a supposed job (any job) in Los Angeles. This was a prop for the show as it is often done as a segment. With his Harvard and Oxford degrees, Pete Buttigieg lands a job giving out free samples of pretzels to passersby. Wearing an apron with the store logo he stands in front of the store holding a tray. When he gave one person a second helping, the burly African American woman manager fires him on his first day. Moments like this makes you laugh really hard and for a few minutes and you forget how the nation is gripped in erratic fear.

Also, as you read the comic strip prepared by DrRavindra Khaiwal&Dr Suman Mor published in the Counter Currents, you learn how Superhero Vaayu comes to the rescue to explain to the kids in simple terms what corona virus is as they are in panic. Vaayu at the end asks the children to “follow the simple steps and break the chain of infection.” You as well think that we will beat this provided we follow all the basic hygiene and guidelines to contain the virus. Such expressions in a comic strip certainly gives you hope and you believe it with an almost childlike innocence.

I am an optimist by nature – there are solutions to each problem, even the deadly corona virus. As we go through these tough times, thinking of spring, a new start, can be immensely helpful. We cannot give into fear, doom and gloom, and we need to keep our spirits up. I hope, spring will symbolise new life and we will be absorbed in nature’s essence. In about a month, hopefully, I will be looking at the happy bluebird in my backyard, the robins and sparrows hopping and jumping in the new grass, and hear the sound of children playing outside. I believe we can defeat the “invisible enemy” and one day COVID-19 will just be a distant memory. May the force be with us.

Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA

This was originally published in Countercurrents.org

Categories
Musings

Corona in a teacup!

By Nidhi Mishra

As I write this, I am sitting at my workstation at home, a cup of hot green tea in hand, like any other day. But that is where ‘like any other day’ ends.

My husband is working from home, no longer out on his weekly tour. The kids are no longer at school. We are watchful of every sneeze, alarmed at every cough. At least, three sanitisers would greet you on the way from my apartment, down the elevator to the ground floor reception. An email from Google is asking me if my business is affected because of corona virus; forwards from well meaning (and often ill-informed) relatives detailing baffling ‘facts’, even the magical cure of ginger garlic. WhatsApp groups are full of passionate debates about the ‘right’ degree of panic this should evoke. I myself am struggling to find the ‘cool’ response to this crisis, while chiding a friend in Philippines for not panicking and taking the next flight home, even though it will mean fourteen days of quarantine for her. Tom Hanks contracted the virus. The Canadian Prime Minister’s wife also did.

I am terribly hooked to Stephen Colbert’s daily monologue at the Late Show. It works like a wonder to cheer me up on my worst days. Today, as I turned to my daily dose, it took me steeply downhill as the host put up the gloomiest narrative, struggling to do a live show where a live audience is no longer allowed.  This was it for me! I do not know if the virus has physiologically affected one or not, it certainly has in every other way — professional, parental, societal. It seems to be everywhere.

Some of my friends love to read and exchange pieces of thoughtful good writing. A few days back, we discussed one such piece and immediately agreed how cosmologists have the most beautiful commentary on life, as they can distance themselves from the myopic view of daily human life and zoom out into the universe. It must be easier to lose that momentary angst when you realise what a minuscule spec you are on a little dot.

I often say I am not as good at writing as I am at reading. So here is a bit by physicist Brian Green that I particularly loved. “Most of us deal quietly with the need to lift ourselves beyond the everyday. Most of us allow civilisation to shield us from the realisation that we are part of a world that, when we’re gone, will hum along, barely missing a beat. We focus our energy on what we can control. We build community. We participate. We care. We laugh. We cherish. We comfort. We grieve. We love. We celebrate. We consecrate. We regret. We thrill to achievement, sometimes our own, sometimes of those we respect or idolise. Through it all, we grow accustomed to looking out to the world to find something to excite or soothe, to hold our attention or whisk us to someplace new. Yet the scientific journey we’ve taken suggests strongly that the universe does not exist to provide an arena for life and mind to flourish. Life and mind are simply a couple of things that happen to happen. Until they don’t.” That last line in there is the only truth, the only take away, the only lesson. It is the same for all of us. Whether you are in Italy or India or Iran.

Corona virus has taken our nationalities, religion, colour, all away from us. It has levelled us all as equals, trying to make sense of a common enemy. We are now the same. Of course how we deal with it may differ, but only in degree. We are the same parents who worry for their kids, the same tourists who feel unwelcome, the same travellers who long to make it home, the same businesses that suffer, the same patients who are isolated, the same clueless heads trying to figure this out.

Corona virus has rendered us all the same — the human species – what we were when our kind started inhabiting the Earth.

Almost every industry in the world has been impacted — from sports to the financial markets. But through it all, we still turn to our phones to see that message of concern from friends, that well meaning (maybe ill-informed) forward from relatives, that email from an employer on how to keep yourself safe, that beautiful write up from a psychologist, that Google alert on the latest celebrity to contract the virus.

The talking. The reading. The communicating.  

Never has it seemed more important than today, to keep that conversation going, to make that long due call, to show that concern, to fuss over that loved one, to accept that helplessness, to find that common ground in not knowing.

Nidhi Mishra is an ex-banker who pivoted from a 10 year banking career to her passion for reading and luring others to read through her startup Bookosmia (smell of books). Bookosmia, a children’s content company has grown at a furious rate in the last two years, building an enviable bank of 270+ Intellectual Property, focused on bringing. She went to Lady Shri Ram College , Delhi University to pick up an Honours in Mathematics and a feminist flair on the side. An MBA from IIM Lucknow took her to a decade long career in the financial sector, finally quitting as VP, HSBC as she suffers from a (misplaced) sense of satisfaction and a drive to do something meaningful with her time. You can write to her at nidhi@bookosmia.com. Nidhi’s first children’s book “I Wish I Were” is retelling of an old Indian folklore in partnership with Parvati Pillai, ex-design Head of Chumbak received much global acclaim and is available on Kindle. 

Categories
Essay Musings Slices from Life

Stray Musings – ‘Love at the time of corona’, as it were!

By Debraj Mookerjee

Those familiar with the cult author Ayn Rand (she of The Fountainhead fame) will possibly remember her somewhat sobering thoughts on love: “After a point, YOUR LOVE for a person becomes more important than the object of love” (Capitalisation mine). What is love, or the easier poser: What do we make of the idea of love? That love is a compelling emotion, which is perfectly democratic and non-discriminating in affecting the bright and the otherwise, the poor and the rich, the old and the young and so on is an incontrovertible fact. Its universality does, ipso facto, predicate on some common streak that runs through humanity. Is it the innate desire, an almost mammalian need, to copulate and propagate that stirs us into “loving” another, as a prelude as it were to pairing, and therefore mating and procreating and so on? Or is it some deep insecurity within, of a feeling of incompleteness till we have loved or are loved? Or is it just a reflection of the great human propensity to possess; more precisely to call things our own, to be comfortable only when what we desire, that is what we consider of worth, is ours for keeps, like the valuables we stash in our bank lockers?

To begin with, we ought to take a look at the popular rhetoric encountered in our representational sphere of reference to understand how love, though imagined as something special, is as much a commodity as anything else. Why do we say, for example, things like “he (or she) belongs to me”, “I wish to belong to her”, “I could not belong to anyone”, “I want her bad”, “Gosh, I can’t live if I can’t have her”, and so on and so forth? If love were so noble, or even selfless as it is often made out to be, why should it make us want to own the object of love unless it be to serve as a perpetual reminder of the great feeling of love that we have experienced for that object? It is as though our love would crumble to dust should the one we love not be ours forever. And we thought love was an abstract idea!

So let’s test the proposition with a hypothetical (though perfectly credible) situation. You say you love somebody. Now that somebody loves you well, after a manner, you know; loves you but is not in love with you, whatever. Here the balance is delicate. You can’t stop loving that person because you know her (or his) love could grow with time. Unless you keep professing your love, how can you fuel whatever spark she (or he) has for you, right?

Over a period in time, she may not progress beyond her incipient leanings. At some critical juncture, you have to take the decision on whether to let go of your love for her (or him) or push just that little bit more. What is this game, ask yourself? If this is love, fine, so it is, but let’s not pretend and suggest it is some elevated concept that can only be experienced at a heightened level of consciousness. The processes that it goes through is no different from the ones you adopt before deciding to buy a pair of pyjamas – is it good, is it worth the price, how much can I beat the price down to, and of course, how long will it last?

Love therefore, is not an abstract idea. QED. It is an idea though because we don’t know what it is. Probably it is nothing really, at least nothing tangible. But that does not make it abstract. The only way to know it is to register all the things we build around it and what we do with it. It is somewhat like the honour pupils earn in a boy’s school for pissing highest against a wall. The honour means little. It does not guarantee against urinary problems in later life, no does it confirm sexual prowess, but the effort to earn that honour is tangible.

To return to Ayn Rand, and the big question: Is most of what has to do with love merely a role? An assertion of what we can or must or should do to express our love. And what do you think would remain imprinted on the mind – our efforts or the object of love? Come on be honest; of course, we’d value our love more than the loved one.

But all these theories pertain to love that has to do with the desire to own. Love that does not demand, love that is not fixated on one person, love that is not possessive or centred on one’s singular desires comprise another kettle of fish. This is the sort of love that you can shower on so many people at the same time. Where you remain a free agent, and so does the person you love. And each of these loves can have sanctity. Because there is no sense of possession tied to such love it seldom unwinds, unlike the other type that tends to come apart when the tangible grounds for its existence seem to come unstuck.

The Czechoslovak writer Milan Kundera once spoke of two types of love – lyrical and epical – with reference to men. In the former, you see all women in one woman, and in the latter, you see one woman in all women. One liked the concept when one was young (that’s why the quote is remembered). Not anymore. Real love is ‘topical’ love, as it were, where you see all women (or men really) in every woman (or man). Anyway, the more you love, the more love there is that goes around. Philosophically, that sounds better than ‘winning’ somebody in love, as though the person were some prize catch!

And no, this piece has nothing to do with the virus. Of course, it’s possible that thoughts of mortality urge the mind to come clean on vexed conundrums, none more twisted than the subject of love. It circles the context of the writer’s consciousness because everybody is thinking corona, but it does not (in his opinion) contaminate his thoughts. Except to the extent that he could not help adding it to the title, unapologetically, and admittedly gratuitously!

Debraj Mookerjee has taught in Ramjas College at the University of Delhi for close to three decades, with specialised interests in Literary Theory, cultural studies, and popular fiction, especially SF. He is also a columnist, writing on culture politics and society, apart from food history. Mookerjee likes to travel and curate life and its myriad complexities. He is deeply interested in  exploring alternative pedagogies, because he feels higher education should unleash academic creativity and not constrain scholarship through enforced regimentation.