In his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, published in 1985 and set for a probable timeframe of 1870 to 1930, Gabriel Garcia Marquez described in his skilful way a sublime relationship that transcends being labelled as sensual or platonic. As cholera ravages the countryside of their native Venezuela and dead bodies float in the muddy waters around their ship, Florentino Ariza and his now widowed old flame Fermina Daza, both septuagenarians, ply “forever” up and down the River Magdalena.
In our time, too, a great pestilence has descended upon the world.
A miniscule virus, with a diameter of 120 nanometres (or a mere 10,000th of a millimetre) – that is incapable of replicating itself without appropriating the cellular machinery of its unsuspecting host – has overwhelmed the medical facilities of the best equipped countries, shattered the prowess of economic giants, halted air, land and sea operations the world over, forced the closure of the holiest places of all three Abrahamic religions and has made a mockery of the mighty arsenals of the superpowers. This tiny lifeform has propagated all over the word in an astonishingly short interval of time and has sent shivers of fear down the spine of most human beings. It has infected every possible target from royals to politicians, clergy, sportsmen, film actors, military personnel, medics, ordinary folk, prison inmates and toddlers. No one is safe anywhere.
Nothing, it seems, has changed except the speed with which information flows now
Pestilence, much like any other adversity, strongly influences human behaviour. It brings out the best and the worst depending upon whether one is guided by a sense of common destiny or by the fears of the unknown – with far more falling in the latter category. With self-survival at stake, instincts of “survival of the fittest” are unleashed.
Fear tests our souls.
There are some who let go the hand of a loved one to save their own life in fast-flowing river. There are others who jump in the same waters to save a drowning person and end up losing their own life too.
No one should make judgments on these actions borne of instinct. It is not an issue of being right or wrong. These reactions are inborn – honed over the course of a lifetime. However, in the case of loved ones, the instinct should follow the advice of Iqbal,
Achcha hai dil key sath ra’he passban-e-Aqal,
Laikin kabhi kabhi issay tanha bhi choR dey.’
(It is prudent that passions are tempered by wisdom,
But there are times when they should have their way)
The virus as a calamity is testing love on a scale not beheld in our lifetime. Courtesy of social media, videos and images of the pestilence are becoming viral and being brought to the notice of everyone.
There is a young Chinese couple in Wuhan where the wife, a nurse, was infected but failing to find a hospital bed, was forced to isolate herself at home. She is seen crying due to body aches and high fever but is hiding in her quilt and yelling at her partner to leave the room while he tries to be with her in this time of trial. Another video shot in Madrid shows an aged lady on a bench outside a hospital. She has lost her husband to the virus the previous day, whose body lies as yet unburied in that hospital. She herself was tested positive but refused a hospital bed. She was crying hysterically, as much due to the loss of her husband as for her own infection. She has pulled away her mask while her three grown-up and healthy children, without masks or hand-gloves, are putting themselves at risk by trying to comfort her in their arms. The burial of the old man seems a distant thought to the family.
Some of the dead don’t even find decent burials. The Italian wire service ANSA reported on the 11th of March that the army was conveying coffins from hospitals to crematoriums outside the region because the local setups lacked the capacity to handle all the dead. ANSA added, “Coffins had been piling up, unburied, in the northern city’s cemetery.” A crematory facility at Cremona, south of Milan, has the capacity for 12 services per day but was receiving 25 coffins daily. When it broke down on the 23rd of March, it had a backlog of 100 bodies in its “farewell room”.
Having observed heavily-attended black-clad elaborate ceremonies amongst Italian families, it is hard for this author to imagine that bodies are being cremated in isolation in the absence of their children, grandchildren and family in a region that is as cultured as Italy – the home of the Renaissance and the 8th largest economy of the world, with one of the best healthcare systems anywhere. The images coming out of Spain are equally disturbing.
This author is reminded of A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe which is an eyewitness account of the London plague of 1664. Many of the incidents recorded, i.e. food shortages, forced lockdowns, family members dying in throngs, quarantines, evacuations, mass burials, etc. read like the newspaper reports of today. The army trucks collecting bodies in Italy are similar to the “dead carts” mentioned in the book. A similar graphic account of a plague in Athens in 430 BC is recorded by Thucydides in his The Peloponnesian War.
Nothing, it seems, has changed except the speed with which information flows now. It is hoped that some of the extreme incidents catalogued in the book three-and-a-half centuries ago are not repeated now in this modern age.
Muslims need to develop the concept of personal Ijtehad where each believer, instead of looking for a shoulder to unburden their own responsibilities, responds to the logic of their inner calling
However, the statistics make a compelling case for such unfortunate scenes. It is now known that persons over 65 years in age are most vulnerable to this virus and this age-group makes up a high ratio of the population in Western nations. The tiny republic of San Marino, surrounded on all sides by Italy, is reporting 4,450 cases per million persons, which is the highest ratio of infections in the world. France, Germany, Spain, USA and UK are all on the verge of an uncontrolled outbreak of the disease.
There are heart-rending reports from many cities in the US. A Connecticut man who died of the virus was give last rites by his pastor over the phone with his family listening in from their own quarantine. No one attended in person.
Elizabeth Fusco of Freehold, New Jersey, lost her mother, two brothers and a sister to coronavirus within a week while three other relatives are hospitalized in New Jersey and 19 other family members have been tested for the virus and are anxiously awaiting results.
To date, the poorer countries of the world have not yet reached the mass infections stage. As of the 21st of March at midday GMT, worldometer.info reported the number of cases to be 500 in India, 800 in Pakistan, 300 in Egypt and 30 in Bangladesh. African countries too have reported very few cases. It might well be a case of not enough testing and poor reporting but in this age of social media, any large scale breakouts wouldn’t have remained under wraps.
No one can tell what the situation will be in a week’s time when this article goes to print.
This is a good time to show the progressive and humane side of Islam. Distancing during prayers, closure of mosques, halting of the practice of Aitkaf in the coming Ramadan and foregoing of Hajj if so warranted are most pertinent issues for Ijtehad in these trying times.
However, it is the duty of each Muslim not to rely on the pronouncements of orthodox and rigid clergy. Muslims need to develop the concept of personal Ijtehad where each believer, instead of looking for a shoulder to unburden their own responsibilities, responds to the logic of their inner calling.
The fight against the virus is now being called a war. The metaphor is increasingly becoming martial in nature. A former CDC director warned that a long war was ahead. Italy’s Prime Minister called for the EU’s “full firepower” against the Coronavirus. Emergencies, curfews and lockdowns have been ordered. The English language has coined some new linguistic terms such as social distancing and elbowing. The frontline soldiers of this war are medical and laboratory staff, many of who have lost their lives. Research laboratories are operating overtime to find easier testing and cures. Pharmacists are racing against time to develop appropriate medicines.
Ever since the virus broke out, this author has a feeling of being attacked by aliens. We know that there is an unseen deadly enemy out there, ready to latch on to any human being, but we are helpless to do anything to counter it, except social distancing, lockouts and closures. Every person fears the other. The spread of the virus emphasises the need for global cooperation. No nation has been able to isolate itself from its deadly reach. A virus mutation in one location threatens the lives of every other person on the globe. Divided, we shall all succumb to the virus but united we stand a chance to defeat the scourge, and then we can all go back to our mutual rivalries and hatreds.
The virus has taken a heavy toll on all aspects of human life. Economists agree that the world is heading towards a recession. New car sales are projected to fall by a huge 30%. Airlines stand to lose up to $130 billion. Trains, buses and taxis have all made cuts in their services. There is disruption of production. Luis Vuitton and Cricketer Shane Warne have shifted from perfume and gin respectively to producing hand sanitizers. Ferrari is producing hospital ventilators. There will be large scale layoffs and unemployment. Daily-wage earners and the temporarily employed are at risk of poverty and starvation. Educational institutions all over the world have been closed with no signs of reopening anytime soon.
No one knows how long this crisis will last. However, one thing is certain: that it shall pass. All pestilences of the past caused anguish, pain and heartbreak but the resilience of human biology overcame them all. Not too soon, perhaps, but in another year or two, the world will hopefully be back to its normal self.
This melancholy article is my 100th in this publication. I am grateful to the editors of the Friday Times and the readers for their support.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org