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May 29, 2020

A tale of two Covids

Islamabad

May 29, 2020

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

It will be remembered as the year the invisible world ravaged the visible world and the microscopic humbled the mighty. It will be remembered as the year when Man’s house of cards was blown away in a single gust of contagion – held down like Gulliver by the chains of a Lilliputian virus.

No event in recent history from 9/11 to the death of Princess Diana has captured the imagination and impacted the lives of so many, so quickly, so decisively. Despite the fact that Covid-19 will not even make it to the annals of the top 10 pandemics of all time in terms of human death; even compared to its closest temporal cousin, the flu pandemic of 1968 which killed a million people, it is just a baby. But the speed and the way, it has unraveled, shredded and torn through the very fabric of our society, makes it the unholy mother of pandemics.

Personal health, once a private matter, has been thrust into the public domain like no other time in recollection: stories of survivors and victims, videos of patients and their caregivers, their names and faces on every paper, every screen, families contacted and traced, in some places sufferers have been shunned, marked, called out, in other places celebrated, applauded, remembered. The pandemic has given birth to a new lexicon: the R number, immunity passports, antibody testing, PPE, reaching the peak, flattening the curve and turned us into experts and epidemiologists.

The underlying message is clear, screamed from every media rooftop: there is a killer amongst us – and no one is safe. Or perhaps we are the killers. In either case, the only way to safety is to hide, shelter, mask-up, hunker down, away from families, grandparents, friends, colleagues, classmates – the world. We have been cut loose from the umbilical cord of normality and along with people, the past itself is a ‘socially distant’ memory.

Man the hunter-gatherer, the migrant, the mover, the explorer has been told to ‘shelter in place’ and stay put. And so these monumental, unprecedented, historic lockdowns have created a life of their own. On the one hand, public good has superseded personal gain; the need for protection has trumped the quest for profits; less has finally become more, and humanity overrides hubris. In one lockdown reality, abound the discovered or renewed joys of baking and cooking; home crafts and yoga; family board games and movie nights. It is a chance to unwind, to bond, to learn a new language, try a new recipe and extol the virtues and simple pleasures of unfettered, unhurried time. It has been called the great cleanse, the great realization, nature’s reset button, the awakening.

But on the other hand, along with planes, freedoms have been grounded; homes have become prisons sanitized of family and friends; panic has quashed progress and fear has paralysed the future. There is an alternate darker reality, one where the impact goes well beyond the pathogen’s path. In this world, affording the next meal not dreaming the next recipe becomes the dilemma; lost jobs and bankrupt businesses become the ‘new normal’; the powder keg of domestic violence and depression threatens to blow up already vulnerable families; and the embers of uncertainty, and broken dreams glow ever more fiercely.

It is a tale of two Covids indeed. And taking inspiration from Dickens, as we look back at this time, we might be able to say: it was the age of courage; it was the age of despair; it was the epoch of science; it was the epoch of ignorance; it was a season of laughter, it was a season of loneliness; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.