Fugitive Spirits by Subhadra Jayaraman

Fugitives are not always human beings escaping the law, fleeing punishment, or avoiding capture. Ideas, thoughts, and perceptions can be fugitive too. Intuitively, that is the basis of the phrases “It escapes me…” or “It evades me…” Some perceptions are just not capable of capture and closure by the limits of the human mind. They are forever escaping us, tricking us, and hiding away from us. “I don’t understand…” is a phrase every living individual would have (and should have) used in their lifetime. And one of them comes to mind as I write during the time of the worst crisis my generation has seen – the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Response to this virus, comprehension of its pathology, and reactions to its transmission seem to be some of the fugitive spirits that have eluded virologists and sailors alike.

The confusion that this pandemic has created worldwide is not limited to health. It has spread its noxious tendrils as far as politics, finance, travel, and trade. It is like a blot of ink spreading through the fibers of paper staining everything in its path. The difference being that this virus is capable of flying in airplanes, sailing in sips, and riding in subway trains, tainting millions. Healthcare giants and governing bodies that had previously taken great pride in eradicating the likes of polio and smallpox are shuddering in the wake of this novel virus. They entertained fugitive ideas that existing therapies for malaria would help, they reveled in fugitive theories that letting people get infected will eventually solve this problem, and they propagated fugitive notions that this virus was unleashed by humankind to attack humankind. These hypotheses proved to be what they always were – fugitive. Fleeting. Short-lived. Momentary.

Five months into this disastrous situation, and we are still unable to grasp in entirety the cause, effect, and implications. There have been reports of people dying of pneumonia, then of blood clots, and then of immune overdrive. There were medications prescribed for all of these conditions to battle the effects of the infection. In some cases, they all failed miserably, and in some cases, they helped a little. Do we battle the virus or its consequences? Do we treat the symptoms or the outcomes? Do we wear masks and gloves or is that false hope? Do we run to get tested at the first fever or are we using up the test meant for someone with a worse infection? Do we order food from local restaurants to keep them in business or do we stop all forms of online ordering? Do we try hard to make use of the quarantine time to develop more hobbies or is this not the time for those trivial endeavors? Do we believe the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune? Do we look at CDC stats or the Johns Hopkins one?

Why in the name of everything that is holy are we reacting like this is the first ever microbial crisis humankind has ever faced? What evades us, escapes us, and seems to be beyond our grasps – or in other words, the one that is the fugitive here – is simply our learning from history. We have, I am sorry to say, learnt nothing. The needless panic buying, the confounded protests on streets, the appalling Twitter outbursts, the absurd speeches by world leaders, the horrifying reactions of the public to quarantine orders, is all because we have blissfully and most dangerously ignored history. While this virus is new to humans, in that we have never been exposed to it before, the responses to it shouldn’t be new.

In the history of medicine, starting all the way from the times of the Egyptian physician Imhotep and the ancient Indian Sushruta, we have always heard of the arrival of a new microbe, the paranoid melee around it, the advent of a treatment method, and the following subsidence. The Incas and Aztecs were killed by a handful of guns and a truckload of European germs. Then there was the Black Plague, the Spanish Flu, HIV, SARS, MeRS – you know all that. Why then are our responses to COVID-19 so Neanderthal? Why do we derail with the smallest additional information? Why does the very common knowledge that treatments are person- and condition-specific alarm us today? When scientists all around the globe are spending time and efforts in modeling the spread, the transmission, and the mortality rates in comparison with past pandemics, why can’t we model our responses based on the past too? Why do we not understand that diseases are very personal? People with cancer die of a common cold, people with common cold die of a seizure, and people with a broken ankle die of a staph infection. Why then, are such cases of exception in COVID-19 treated collectively as a disastrous imperception of the disease rather than as a natural course of any existing illness?

As healthcare and technology develop, this new age of people (a.k.a., us) have detached all their problems and surrendered to these developments in the absolutely ridiculous, blatantly false, and remarkably stupid notion that they will now be methodically solved. This has resulted in people arrogantly demanding drug companies to come up with pills sooner, doctors to treat faster, and politicians to stabilize their finances quicker. The same people forgo their responsibilities in this game of life and death and demand a Noah or a Vishnu to come save them as they helplessly flounder. People flout the laws with impunity, take pleasure in doing the verboten, and haughtily look on as they expect redemption and reward for it.

If there was a greater God, or if we in fact are in a vast alien simulation, the creator will now be looking down at us with a disgruntled feeling of ennui as we collectively fail this experiment even after enduring it and being acclimated to it numerous times before. This creator will staple the COVID-19 manuscript up and call it “Fugitive Spirits” in honor of the basic common sense that eludes the human collective as we try to battle a virus.

One comment

  1. Wonderful write-up. There is no human collective. To see humanity as ‘one’ i guess misses the whole point.
    We are as diverse as we can be. The fact that all of us are bipeds doesn’t make us one. We are as many as there are humans in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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