A few years ago, my mother had a severe case of shingles, a disease that causes the patient’s nerve endings to become sore from a pathogen that is moderately contagious. Its source is the vestigial presence of the varicella-zoster virus lying dormant in the subject’s body, invariably from a childhood case of chickenpox. I had, of course, researched the illness before I visited my mother, but no sooner had I entered the gated community of apartments where my parents lived then, than I was informed of my mother’s diagnosis. “Mata ka prakop,” the neighbors called it, shaking their heads disapprovingly, from side to side. My mother had invited the wrath of the Goddess.
Every culture has gone through the many stages of making meaning of dreaded diseases. Often the deities devise ways of conveying their displeasure to the people inflicted with an inexplicable phenomenon. This is true not just of “primitive” societies, but of scientifically “advanced” cultures as well. Remember the argument of the 1980s and 90s about AIDS in America, and how it was God’s way of punishing homosexual men for their ungodly ways. It seems every new disease has a karmic connection!
So when we conjecture about how some people may have gotten infected with the Corona virus thus: “kyapata, unke karma honge,” (“who knows, this might be a result of their karma) I am reminded of the “wrath of the Goddess,” meted out to my mother.
My problem with using myths to give meaning, stems from the fact thatevenlong after we have found a vaccine and a cure, the mythicdimensions of the pathogen will remain lodged in our collective unconscious. And when in the future stray instances of the illness flare up, whenwe, as a society, are under stress, vested interests will be able to generate panic and fear among the people by just tapping into our unconscious. Religiosity is a crude instrument of ideology.
In 1978 Susan Sontag, an important cultural critic gave a talk, “Illness as Metaphor,” in which she contrasted tuberculosis and cancer by citing countless examples of the representation of these illnesses in literary, operatic, theatrical, and poetic texts. Tuberculosis, Sontag argued, was the disease of the 19th century, of poverty, poor labour conditions, or a life wasted in leisure or unrealized genius. Cancer by contrast, was the disease of the 20th century, a moral contagion, a hostile takeover bid, that required a militaristic response. Extending this analogy, I want to argue that the Corona virus is shaping up to be the disease of this present century, already saturated with metaphors of geo-politics on the world stage. Here in India, it is a campaign to corralan out of control, leaking, irrepressible pollutant, that must be plugged.
President Donald Trump’s effort at branding the pathogen as the Wuhan or the Chinese virus is being played out as a protracted chess gamebetween two superpowers, with the WHO cast as the adversarial Queen by both sides.
In India, the Corona virus pandemic is being “treated” (no pun intended) as a more virulent and mutated strain of both tuberculosis and cancer. It is an insidious, surreptitious malware that is being countered with predictable software patches deployed in emergencies, but with no long-term strategy for the containment, management, or prospective cure for the patient. People suspected of carrying the virus, are being exiled rather than given refuge in a sanatorium. Economically vulnerable migrant workers are being treated as though they were children playing truant or escaped convicts. Police forces in virtually all the states where these workers are travelling have used tactics of mob control more than the benevolent practices of relief agencies.
I cannot help but wonder if this is not a perverse response to the political agitations that were gaining strength earlier this year. The virus has become a metaphor for out of control people: citizens determined to define citizenship in progressive rather than punitive determinants; and workers of the informal sector responding to a sputtering economy. When markets cannot regulate the demand/supply and price of onions, even the person on the street knows how to read the signs. As in other authoritarian regimes, the lockdown appears designed to function more as a gag order than a prophylactic measure against a pandemic.
When the metaphor of karma is used loosely to explain the apparently random patterns in which the disease is spreading, in a society where cleanliness and uncleanliness are indelible markers of caste, we run the risk of creating a new caste of Corona untouchables. Already the (conspiracy) theory that the virus came to India through the Tablighi Jamaat convention attendees in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, has tinged the virus with a communal hue.
Let us return to the origins to the Corona virus’s journey from bats to humans. How can a virus found in bats find its way into the human eco-system? It is because habitat and biodiversity loss have diminished the spatial distance between humans and wildlife. The Coronus virus is conjectured to have come from people eating “bush meat”. What is bush meat and why do people eat it? It is the meat of small, semi-wild animals that live in the shadows of the urban sprawl and are relatively easy to catch. This meat is less expensive than farm raised poultry and meat. It is also not regulated for hygiene, freshness, and disease. I would never know what the Civet Cat on my plate, ate, where it lived, or how it died. Actually, we don’t even know whether it is cat!
The extraction of natural resources through mining the earth and logging the forests, without any thought to replenishing them, has left vast stretches of the earth barren. The planting of monocultural crops has caused an imbalance in the natural eco-systems that kept a natural balance between harmless and beneficial viruses and other microorganisms. Further, the unchecked growth of urban sprawl and the attendant pollution has compromised the repair work that trees were meant to do.
Is it any wonder that the rage of Mother Earth has been unleashed upon us? “Mata ka prakop,” is punishment for our collective karma.
By: Poonam Arora
Ph.D., has until recently been a professor in the Humanities, focusing on the liberal arts. She is now a Delhi based writer. She can be reached at [email protected] (The views expressed are personal of the author, who retains the copyright)