COVID-19 has taught us that despite all cultural, ideological, racial, and religious differences, we have the same biological vulnerabilities. We are one species after all.
The invasion of a microbe is not new to our species. Signs of smallpox have been found in Egyptian mummies, including Ramses V, who died in 1157 B.C. But what makes things different this time around is the Internet. In a world that is so well connected by the flow of thoughts and information, it is easy to see that we are actually in this together and that COVID-19 is no less than an alien trying to invade the planet. So shouldn’t this pandemic bring us closer and blur the lines that separate us?
I thought it would. But I soon realised that my expectations were rooted in naive fantasy. In India, communal tensions started rearing it’s ugly head again with people blaming one section of the society for the increase in the number of cases. Conspiracy theories popped up about how a certain set of people are intentionally spreading the virus to cripple the nation. The very platforms that I believed would lead to humanity coming together, seem to fuel the divide.
But before you lose your faith in humanity, let me tell you that this seems to be one of the ‘features’ of a pandemic. It causes divisions; even your neighbour who you’d turn to for help on a normal day could be a source of the infection. So it is obvious that people would blame ‘outsiders’. And there are multiple instances in history where people have done so. During the Black Death in 1349, the local authorities of Strasbourg assumed that Jews had poisoned the wells and were responsible for the outbreak. The Jews of Strasbourg were offered a choice – convert or die. While half of them opted to convert, the ones who didn’t were rounded up and burned alive on February 14, 1349. In response to this, Pope Clement VI issued a statement pointing out that Jews were dying too, and that it doesn’t make sense for them to poison themselves. Despite the Papal bull, Jewish communities in Frankfurt, Mainz, and Cologne were wiped out.
The fear of contagion can also lead to people thinking of authorities enforcing the quarantine as agents of oppression; like the attack on healthcare workers and police officers that have been reported on social media. There are examples of this in history too. In 1831, when Russia was struck by the cholera pandemic for the second time, there were rumours that doctors were intentionally killing off the sick. A riot broke out in St. Petersburg and doctors were targetted. The same thing happened in Liverpool the following year.
A pandemic is like a war. The invader causes chaos and confusion that leads to the ‘fog of war’. But with the insight, logic, and technology that we have at our disposal, we can combat this fog.
How do you do that? For starters, do not forward any news before you verify it. Even trusted sources can be wrong – I learnt this the hard way when I forwarded an Insta post from an International news agency claiming Kim Jong-un was brain dead. “Trust but verify” is the norm.
Second, believe in Hanlon’s razor – “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. No one really wants to spread a virus, at least there is no real evidence proving that to be the case. So let’s not rush to pass judgement. The real enemy is the virus, and we have to stand by each other and ensure that we do not cause any intentional harm (venturing out of your house for non-essential reasons count). Let’s wait for this to pass and then investigate. Right now, the best thing to do seems to be to practise social isolation. Stay home, stay safe, and try not to forward fake news.
Just by doing this, we’ll come out a stronger species than we were going into this crisis.