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Thursday, May 14, 2020


Meditations on man and microbe
The closing lines of The  Plague by Albert Camus s   the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city,  just about sum up the attitude  of a medicalised society which  treats all of  germs , pathogens , microbe , lonely, lost strands of RNA  are  its sworn  enemies. During the last couple of days, I have come across articles in respectable journals ,  wherein the Covid 19 crisis  is being termed as a man vs microbe thing.  I too did it in  a post in order to spite the scientific hubris of man.

Humans as we are, we cant but think in human ways. The us vs them binary is the commonest way of explaining our predicament, our need for enemy is  explainable in
terms of the essentialist definition of  human - from Aristotle to Aquinas ,  from Hegel to Husserl-  in opposition to the animal, where man is in possession of logos, spirit, subjectivity, etc. while the latter has none.
In his  The New Ecological Order, Luce Ferry(I hasten to add  ‘deep ecology’ is not my cup of tea) mentions a very interesting fact that  pre scientific man was fair to a fault: he  put  even  troublesome beetles and leeches   on trial , and  the rats of Autun were issued summons, as late as in the 16th century.  Francis Bacon’s injunction ‘nature must be hounded into yielding her secrets,’ was duly picked by the new science of Newton and together with  Descartes  “a perfect model of anthropocentrism was  put in place in which all rights went to man and none to nature.”  Man invented an existence for himself, as the jewel of the crown of creation, as the master of all he surveyed.

 But  history  of evolution of life forms suggests otherwise. Microbes  have been here  for as long we have the recorded history of earth while , mammoths and mastodons, the dinosaurs and big reptiles , stellar sea cow and Tasmanian tigers stunning, successes in their own days have come, dominated the scene for  a while , and then  disappeared. But the viruses are sticking it out. Would the viruses, lords and  masters of the earth , for the last  4.5 billion years, be interested in   picking up a fight against a species  that is just a million years old, is  essentially fragile and has been dangerously  lurching form one threat of extinction to another, and sooner or later will  do itself in,  with or without much  outside help ?  Stephen J Gould  says in Time’s Arrow. What could be more comforting, what more convenient for human domination, than the traditional concept of a young earth, ruled by human will within days of its origin. How threatening, by contrast, the notion of an almost incomprehensible immensity, with human habitation restricted to a milli microsecond at the very end!

Man and microbe, no matter how highly men  think of themselves live by the same rules , are governed by the same laws  of natural selection. We are swimming in a sea of bacteria and such other life forms , which constitute a large part of the biomass. But frankly speaking most of these microscopic creatures have no interest in  human beings , they mind their own business, many of them are in fact friendly , the ones which inhabit the root nodules of plants , the others that are  furiously busy in our guts for our benefits.
 Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites  from unicellular  animalculae to 80-foot-long tapeworms take up residence inside animals, but we’re safe from these things. Mostly, these disease-causing agents stick to one host species. Migration from one to another is not an easy business .Many  barriers stand between each of us and that previously unknown infection hosted by an unfamiliar animal. Breaking  down of  the barriers between animals and people,  a zoonosis is a rare occurrence.  Jarred Diamond in his  Guns Germs and Steel  has written an extended history ,  drawing upon a wide variety of geographical , ecological  and historical sources  from ,  of past  11 – 12 thousand years  years when man first domesticated  animals. That  was also the beginning of zoonotic diseases. The human( Chinese ?) taste for  exotic meet of Bat and Pangolins and snakes led  ultimately the corona virus to jump from its original habitat in the bats to man .  So the Covid 19  did not  come with a belligerent intent to wipe out the human race, it was  invited in, so to say. It is  our hedonism that has brought us to such a pass. It is our  essentialist concept ,  our  attitude towards nature in  which we tend to treat nature  as our zoo , vault and park that is at the root  cause of our trouble. We radically need to change our way of thinking  followed by our way of living but  what  we are  furiously seeking   our redemption in a vaccine. Wrong again. We can never match the ingenuity of the shape shifting virus.   SARS1  came in 2004 , it released in an updated cleverer version in 2019 and it will come again , and again , and again. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


A very eminent professor of economics at Cambridge, of Indian origin, with whom I conversed once or twice, Tweeted to an absolute excess on the disproportionate focus on Covid-19, quoting the number of deaths from other causes to make his point. So, I engaged him one day. It was not its capacity to kill, but the anxiety on account of instant contagion, that has brought down this world.
When you are in sound mental health, you are never hounded by the idea that someday you may commit suicide, even though a very high number of people do it every day. If you sit in a car, you never for a moment think that you may die in a crash because the lives of an unconscionably large number of people - much greater than Covid-19 - are lost in accidents. Despite the higher probability of these, you do not plan for these contingencies. But today, when you step out of your house, if you get into the Metro, occupy a seat at the airport, go to the park - you wonder if the virus released by the sneeze or cough of an active or an asymptomatic patient is still suspended in mid-air, or if the doorknob has been infected. Have my hands been properly washed? The anxiety is ubiquitous, the danger all pervasive. People have been driven to commit suicide at the merest apprehension that they may catch the contagion. Of course, the anxiety is unreal, insubstantial and disproportionate to the lethal potential, yet it has shut down the world.
But he would not give up. He said a mosquito bites you and you wonder if you have caught malaria, but here a starlet holds a party and Lucknow is locked down. I was not prepared to give up: Forgive me for being persistent, I said, a mosquito bite may give me malaria but I can’t pass it off to my wife even if I bite her, a Covid-19 infected man can cause havoc in concentric circles of people whom he meets by just being himself. Once you are delivered to an anxiety, you are beyond help.
Admittedly, the Wuhan virus is nothing in terms of lethal potential compared to SARS, in the very recent past. SARS came, occupied a slice of global concern for a while, and caused some loss of lives. So did the Avian Flu and Nipah, and quickly receded into history. In India, it was heard rather like a distant rumour. But the Wuhan virus has shaken the world and India. The devastation that it has caused to each one of us in our personal lives, to us as social creatures and to us as economic beings would be unimaginable - if it were not true. We cannot even begin to estimate the damage.
Paul Tillich, existentialist Christian theologian of culture, makes the distinction between fear and anxiety, in his book “The Courage to Be” as follows:
"Fear has a definite object which can be faced and attacked, endured or conquered, whereas anxiety has no object. Without an object or a tactic to defeat it, anxiety surfaces as the pain of impotence, negation and disempowerment.....He who is in anxiety is, insofar as it is mere anxiety, delivered to it without help.”
This anxiety on account of Covid-19 is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created information (or deliberate disinformation) riding on the Chinese propaganda juggernaut. Once brought into being, it has mutated and multiplied of its own to create anxieties, inadequacies, and paranoia on an apocalyptic scale. The images of people dropping dead in the streets of Wuhan, the stores of thousands of cremations - true, false and apocryphal - helped build up the Wuhan Virus as the Horseman of Apocalypse, and lockdown as the only protection against it. China was economical with the relevant data, and when the invasion of the virus took place, the world locked itself down in response to the propaganda, reminding me of the immunologic response of a Horseshoe crab, a marine animal which lives around coastal areas. In response to invasion by a certain bacterium, the crab deploys a complete array of battle responses - everything that it has at its disposal . The outcome is widespread tissue destruction, as in the generalized Shwartzman reaction, or outright failure of the circulation of blood, as in endotoxin shock. That is what it looks like.
An objective scientific assessment of the lockdown is yet to be made, but not only the Indian economy but the entire system is in state of shock, and we are struggling to get back to our feet. The poor , as always,are the worst victim of bad planning, and the fate of masses of loitering migrant labours will someday, when the great Plague Novel is written about our crisis, occupy the centre stage of the writer's concern.
Meanwhile, now it seems we are resigned to coexist with Covid-19. In some quarters, herd immunity, nature’s way of doing things, is already being talked a bout. We will think about economic growth another day.Survival now occupies the centre stage of our concerns Is that how China wanted to reorder the world nearer to its heart’s desire?