Will things ever be the same?

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How does a pandemic affect our social, moral, and psychological health?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And with Covid-19, the times are definitely desperate. 

Globally, when it began in China in 2019, most countries and people were laid back about it, and in a matter of months, we have reached the present scenario, with countries under lockdown and struggling to simply flatten the curve of the escalating numbers of afflicted people.

Social distancing is the buzzword today, with world leaders repeatedly asking people to stay home. What a turn of events. Technology had transformed the world into a global village, with people whizzing from one end of the world to another, and now because of the same technology, the Covid-19 virus has whizzed from Wuhan, China to all parts of the world so easily in a matter of months. After all, the first transmissions were by returning travellers. Community transmission followed, and on March 11, the WHO director-general characterized it as a pandemic, the first pandemic, he said, that was caused by a coronavirus. 

At the time of the WHO declaration, there were only 4,291 deaths. The death toll is currently in the neighbourhood of 180,000.

When one thinks of a pandemic, one immediately thinks of the number of deaths, health care, medical equipment etc, but in doing so, one should not miss out on the more comprehensive picture of the effects of the disease on the social, moral, and psychological health of the societies stricken. In the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, where he gave a grim picture along with the psychological and moral breakdown of a society afflicted by the Black Death, which had killed up to one-third of the population of Italy. 

This deadly disease had entered Europe through flea-infested rats, which had travelled in the holds of ships docking at Sicily. We know that earlier around 541CE during the time of the Emperor Justinian, the plague had come to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and then spread to Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Arabia, leaving countless deaths and terrible misery behind it.

Theatre lovers will recollect that later in the 15th and 16th centuries in England, many theatres including Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre had to close down on account of the plague. Shakespeare lost siblings and fellow actors to the dreaded disease, and his plays had to close on account of the theatres closing down. In fact, one important reason for the first theatres to be built outside the city limits of London was this disease — which kept resurging and taking large numbers of lives every time, and badly affecting trade and commerce. 

People then did not know very much about the causes or treatment of the disease, but they understood that quarantine or social distancing played a crucial role in containing the disease. So they handled social distancing in ways they understood, which may seem harsh today, in 2020. Homes and individuals stricken with plague were marked in different ways, sometimes with a bale of hay strung to a pole outside. 

Sometimes, persons with infected family members had to carry white poles when they went out in public. The Great Plague of 1665 was one of the worst of the outbreaks, killing 100,000 Londoners in just seven months. All public entertainment was banned, and victims were forcibly shut into their homes to prevent the spread of the disease. Red crosses were painted on their doors along with a plea for forgiveness: “Lord have mercy upon us.” The sick were shut up in their homes and the dead were buried in mass graves. 

Disease, literal or metaphorical, is never beautiful, and in the frame narrative of The Decameron, Boccaccio gives a stark picture of the plague, as nightmarish as that we see of the pandemic in the 2011 movie, Contagion. A contagion like Covid-19 has tremendous impact not only on the physical and economic health of a community, but another equally long-lasting one is the impact on the social health and mental wellness of the people, and that is exactly what Boccaccio depicts in The Decameron. 

He shows the 14th century Florentine society in the grips of a paranoia in the face of the deadly plague. So how did the Florentines cope with the situation? Some just fled from the sick, refused to listen to any news related to sickness or death. They lived moderately, entertaining themselves with music and such diversions. 

Others went to the other extreme, enjoying life, moving in and out of taverns and so on. But they, too, avoided the sick. Still others went around carrying sweet smelling fragrances toward off the stench of the disease, making themselves believe it was not there. The first group was in a state of denial, the second in a state of hopelessness, living each day as if it was their last. 

There were others who placed their faith in religion and turned to their saviour to save them; they gathered in churches and recited psalms with utmost faith, hoping they would get saved. Still others fled from Florence to the countryside, hoping thereby to escape from the disease (the hundred tales of The Decameron are in fact the narratives of one such group).

Let us take into account the parallel scenario in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic. Now technology rules over all. There are different sides to it. On the lighter side, worldwide, groups of people have shown a diversity in reacting to this bleak situation. Many people try to keep themselves occupied by posting memes and jokes which frequently display a gallows humor. Some others spend their time studying the Covid-19 through the lens of postcolonialism or postmodernism or Marxism, giving rise to heated discussions on social media. 

Still others rave and rant, now blaming a political leader, now a group of people, now this hospital, then that doctor etc, and all on social media. Others flood the social media with authentic and inauthentic news items until people’s devices get clogged. Some are going into virtual partying, complete with delicious food, party wear, music, but the partygoers are scattered across many countries, in different time zones.  

Some are keeping themselves and others entertained by doing ramp walks in the isolation of their respective homes. Or their pets are doing the ramp walk. In one country, a bunch of people stood on their respective balconies and sang to the delight of their neighbours and then they posted the video of their song session. 

One wonders if these are only strategies to cope with the long hours in isolation, or are they a means to tell oneself that, “Whatever is happening is happening to someone else, it won’t happen to me!” What a delusion! We can see an uncanny resemblance between the Florentines and us, in spite of the gap of centuries between us. They were in something they could not understand, and so could not handle. Can we speak differently for ourselves?

In The Decameron, Boccaccio depicts the pain of deaths with no family or friends to hold one’s hands and the disorientation and chaos that follows the collapse of a health care system. As doctors and nurses got infected with the plague, there were fewer and fewer personnel to care for the sick, and in the 14th century society, we can understand what kind of chaos it gradually led to. 

Now in 2020, reports from the most afflicted cosmopolitan cities say their health care system is being severely stretched, and retired health care professionals are now joining the current frontline workers to care for the sick. The sense of urgency is reaching its peak. However, we are still optimistic that in 2020, we shall be able to prevent the system from deteriorating to the scenario of The Decameron. But soon it might be difficult for us to retain the optimism.

In spite of stringent measures, the positive cases keep rising globally, and most governments are struggling to contain the numbers. So the lockdowns continue, and a sense of uncertainty has begun to grow in the individual. With more and more layoffs due to retrenchment, and self-employed people unable to work, the worry about how to pay the bills next month grows in many families. 

Strong reassurances of relief from heads of governments continue to come, but this does not really decrease the anxiety of the people, for the question remains: How long will this relief continue, and what happens after that? Are things likely to bounce back to what it was yesterday; if not, what then? 

Let us think of our young generation. Educational institutions continue to be closed, and the young generation is left in a limbo. True, in many countries, alternative online arrangements are being made to keep them engaged in their studies, but they want to get back to their institutions and their friends. They are at a stage in their lives when they want to be on the go. They want to be engaged with the world, take up challenges. 

They have dreams, and they have plans to attain those dreams. Now, they are locked up in their houses, in isolation. They are bewildered, for suddenly nothing is going as they have understood it all along. There is no definite answer to their question: “How long?”

 The Olympics have been cancelled, so have many international meets. Athletes have trained and prepared for years, and suddenly the dream event is not happening anymore, at least not soon. Uncertainty can lead to despair and depression. These are just a few examples from the current scenario.

The war is with an invisible enemy, so it is said. If the invisible enemy is not defeated or at least contained significantly, soon, it will get more and more difficult to restore the world we know. Some say, after the pandemic, the world will not be the same. 

It would be naïve to think that we will be where we were before it all started.

Shireen Huq, PhD, is Professor of English at North South University, Dhaka.