The story of the Bombay plague of 1896 is a fascinating one, combining in itself all the horror of an epidemic, personal courage, scientific achievement, resistance to the autocratic measures of a ruling foreign power, nationalism and an assassination. After that terrible outbreak, epidemics, except for the Spanish Flu, became a distant memory in India. As medical science steadily advanced, it mowed down a number of diseases, both big and small, which had troubled the human race. The next great mystery was cancer, which Siddhartha Mukherjee speaks of in his The Emperor of All Maladies as an “epidemiological catastrophe”. Another catastrophe was waiting for us in the 21st century.
News came early this year of a strange illness in China which threatened to be worse than AIDS. AIDS needed some kind of contact. This new disease moved from one human to another without any contact; a cough, a sneeze, even just talking could transmit the virus. In those early days, we saw pictures of ghost cities in China, with empty roads and an eerie silence. We became witnesses to the swiftness of its mad rush round the globe, the ruthlessness which made it inescapable; this was truly a formidable enemy. Yet so strangely does the human mind reject the idea of our own vulnerability, we still hoped the coronavirus, as it had been named, would by some miracle ignore us. It didn’t. The virus and COVID-19 came to India.
It was the lockdown that really brought home the horror of the situation. Suddenly all the things that our lives consisted of were swept away, as if a tidal wave had swallowed them. Isolated in our homes, not seeing a human face for days, struggling with chores — this was a nightmare we had never envisaged. Fear lapped at the edges of our lives. Of the loss of everything we had taken for granted. And worst of all, thoughts of death without any dignity.
When the lockdown was lifted, people crawled out with exhausted bodies and ravaged minds. Even the most sanguine knew that the ordeal was not over, that tragedy was still lurking in our midst. For there were no drugs that could tame the virus. Doctors were reduced to working like the vaids of old, trying anything, everything. The only hope was a vaccine. So many vaccines had been developed through the years, surely scientists, now at the peak of human achievement, would find one?
In its absence, three measures were our only hope: Wear a mask, keep a distance from others, wash your hands. Easy and simple enough it would seem. Nevertheless, post-lockdown, people went about without masks. I wondered: Don’t they care about life, about survival? The Buddha told his disciple Ananda: That which you love the most will be taken away from you. What is it that we love most? Children? Parents? Lovers? Yes, we love them, but above all we love life, we want to survive. Survival is a basic animal instinct. Why, then, do people behave as if it didn’t matter? Going to weddings, to temples, to the beach, attending parties and political rallies — did these matter more than life?
We have learnt a few things from this terrible time. We have learnt how much we can do without, how little we really need. We have learnt the joy of thrift, the beauty of austerity. We have learnt that we need human company, that we need human touch. Watching people frantically trying to get home from wherever they were, we re-learnt the importance of home. We saw for the first time the invisible strata of our cities, when migrant workers made a rush for home, some walking hundreds of miles, some dying before they reached home. We discovered how much the women who helped us at home lightened our tasks, allowed us to do other things.
Above all, we could have, hopefully, learnt the lesson: All things are connected. For the first time, maybe, the whole world has united in suffering, in fear of the virus and grief at the deaths. But the demand for vaccines tells us how little has changed. Rich nations are buying more than they need. Scientists are above pettiness, but politicians are not. The cloak of liberalism and humanism has fallen, there’s only selfishness left.
The virus remains a great leveller; it doesn’t care about race, colour, nation, gender. All humans are fair game. Will we remember these things in the future? Not very likely, because we have been given the gift of amnesia. Burdened as we are with the knowledge of our own mortality, would we have survived if not for forgetfulness?
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 28, 2020, under the title “The last straw”. The writer is a novelist