Plague has always had a fascination
for those who map the subterranean, the macabre,
black bile overflowing, feverish gaze,
bloated corpses, tumbrels rolling through medieval towns,
death in Venice,
love in the age of cholera.
So it is with the conoravirus,
spreading its bat-like wings across the planet,
transforming species that had become our prey
into avenging angels,
hugging the elderly to their chests,
surfacing where least expected,
turning the global economy topsy-turvy
and the best-laid plans of empire builders
into crumbling sand.
The End of Time
For centuries, apocalyptical and Old Believers prostrated themselves,
lacerating flesh and entrails,
convinced the great upheaval around them
had some higher purpose,
that out of chaos and destruction a New Jerusalem,
for those who had abjured their sins,
would ultimately emerge.
Subsequently, as traditional beliefs were cast aside,
new credos arose with their adherents,
having beheaded kings and overthrown czars,
certain a new age could begin
and humanity shed the vices
that ignorance and accumulated privileges
had instilled and petrified.
Now that such beliefs have also bitten the dust,
and a new globalist disposition come to the fore,
seers amongst us and myriads suddenly living in fear,
sense climate wars, droughts, and unleashed pestilence
foreshadowing the end of time.
We later civilizations – we too know that we are mortal.
— Paul Valéry, 1919
It seemed obvious enough,
for those who had bloodied themselves in the trenches,
seen the swath of carnage
bell-towers and market squares had endured,
millions dying from the accursed flu,
as though a vengeful god
were calling in a sinful continent’s debts.
What about us, globalization’s children,
spared the previous century’s major wars,
wearing our affluence like a fashion statement
from a new-age couturier,
convinced the arrow would always point in one direction, upwards,
and the merry-go-round would never stop
for us lucky ones who’d managed to embark?
On a Passage in Lenin
There are decades when nothing happens,
and there are weeks when decades happen.
True enough where revolutions are concerned,
the French, the Russian for starters.
No less true for financial crises,
1929, 2008, to name two of the biggies.
Plagues too have had their cataclysmic high points,
the Black Death, the Columbian Exchange, the Spanish flu.
Still early days for the coronavirus,
no seers at the city gates or on distant Judaean hilltops
able to foretell
just how or when it will evolve or peak,
or how much of the societal carapace will crumble underneath.
But we sense,
much like animals before a hurricane or tsunami,
that sometime in mid-March
the earth turned on its axis
and that those living through it
will never knowingly efface the moment.
Into the notable city of Florence there came the death-dealing pestilence
which had some years before appeared in parts of the East.
— Boccaccio, The Decameron
“Of what use is the past?” the moderns asked,
secure in the comforts of the present day
and the promise of a future still at hand.
“Of what use the aged,” the millennials chimed in,
“they who have enjoyed the earth’s fruits these many years,
and refuse to clear the way for those now come of age?”
“Of what use the homeless and the poor,” the well-off complained,
“they who spread vermin in their clothes and hair
while we must take shelter behind the ramparts of our homes?”
“Of what use your pristine beaches and winter holidays” the ascetics railed,
“when the pillars of your temples and pleasure palaces
have come crashing down?”
“Of what use your lamentations?” the sybarites replied,
“let us drink and eat and copulate our fill
while we party through the night.”
You see it in their faces,
in the quick manoeuvres to step aside
on sidewalks and on trails,
in the panicked emails,
the endless stories in the papers
or posted on the Web.
Pandora’s box has been pried open,
spectres one had thought wrestled to the ground
by scientific research, biotech,
haunt the deserted boardrooms and chancelleries
from one OECD capital to the next.
Half the planet has gone into hibernation,
even as the other half, the poorer half,
awaits its turn,
hospital wards already overflowing
with the prostrate, the skeletal, the short of breath.
Through the ages fear has worn many masks,
conquering armies, devastating famines,
despots doing in their subjects with a mere flick of the wrist,
but its most primal form as always
remains the fear of death.
There had been intonations of a bubbly stock exchange,
target cities – Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam –
besieged by tourist crowds,
cruise ships too big to dock,
real estate markets too frothy for mere proles.
The game seemed so humongous it would never cease,
the moneyed folks too powerful to fail,
their chains of command spanning continents and seas,
dwarfing nation-states along the way.
True, climate change frayed at the edges,
a host of civil wars raged on,
fraught refugees and asylum seekers
vying for a brief fifteen minutes in the sun.
So when the virus made its first appearance
in the then little-known city of Wuhan,
it seemed a minor nuisance,
a freakish zoonotic passage from bats to humankind.
The rest is history
as the global skein unravelled,
country after country falling prey
to a long forgotten scourge, the plague.
Nemesis, vengeful goddess,
through a tiny agent
was stirring from the depths,
sending the global circus careening to a close.
The Lucky Generation
We called ourselves the lucky generation,
in many ways we were,
spared the wars, the dole,
the diseases, the back-breaking toil,
that has been our predecessors’ lot
and that of the myriads who had come before them.
There was comfort in knowing we could choose
which college to enrol in,
which profession we might enter,
what city or country to put roots down in,
where we might holiday winter or summer
or retire to when our working lives were over.
There were passing clouds in the sky,
Islamic disruptions here and there,
the occasional economic downturn,
hints of glaciers melting or sea levels rising,
but for the large part problems
the millennials and their offspring would have to bear.
And suddenly we learned how quickly the script could be rewritten,
carefully constructed stage sets taken down,
the myths of exponential growth,
globalization as some kind of magic key,
affluence as a guarantee of personal immunity,
reduced to tatters.
The old Greek precept which Solon had first uttered
had stood the test of time:
“Do not count yourself fortunate until your final day.”
Half the planet, including its perennial high-flyers,
courtesy of the spiked intruder,
has discovered the fine points of social distancing,
of living in a closed space, 23/24 on 7,
even as the sun is warming up the earth,
the trees and shrubs are burgeoning,
and normality of a sort
will eventually reemerge from its cocoon.
A mere facsimile
for what the unjustly imprisoned
would have taken to be their lot,
zeks with their infected lungs in the Gulag’s frigid wastes,
les damnés de la terre the Internationale had once extolled.
For a brief moment,
the Gatsby set has met the lower depths.
In the Season of the Plague
In the season of the plague
a global assembly was convened
with eminent philosophers, theologians
and assorted illuminati
to guide humanity out of its downward spiral.
Sitting a row apart from one another,
the first intervenor held up The Qur’an
with cries of Allahu Akbar reverberating through the hall,
the second The New Testament
with echoes of the Matthäus-Passion as a refrain,
next an angry tribune, abjuring hedge funds
and rapacious bankers, waved a copy of Das Kapital,
with a more smartly dressed opponent
preaching the gospel according to Adam Smith,
followed by a poker-faced emissary extolling The Prince
along with choice bits from Kongfuzi’s Analects,
even as a dissident freshly released
trumpeted The Social Contract’s enduring beliefs.
So the debate raged on for days,
semiologists, psychologists joining the fray,
until the assembly by now much depleted,
having reached no agreement, was duly disbanded,
as a lowly cleaner, a Dalit by birth,
disinfecting the cavernous hall and latrines,
scattered herbs from her village and chanted full-throated
mantras to exorcise the abominable plague.
A Litany of Plagues
The Athenian plague 430 BCE. 100,000 dead
that did Pericles in
The Justinian plague 541–2 CE. 25–100 million dead
that helped do the Roman Empire in
The Bubonic plague 1347–51
that did 25–50 million Europeans in
The Cocoliziti plague – perhaps TB – 1545–8
that did 15 million indigenous Mexicans in
The great plague of London. 1665–6. 100,000 dead
The plague of Marseille. 1720–3. 120,000 dead
The Russian plague. 1889–90. 1 million dead
The Spanish flu. 1918–19. 20–50 million dead
The Asian flu. 1956–8. 1–3 million dead
AIDS. since 1981. 32 million dead
SARS, MERS, EBOLA – tiny numbers as their toll
Humanity has had a long-time fling
with lice, rats, marmots, pigs, and bats
and the bugs always win.
(Inspired by an article and chart in Le Point, “Et les puces precipitèrent la chute de l’empire romain,” April 16, 2020)
Checks and Balances
In the ideal republic,
quoth Polybius, Montesquieu or Madison,
power must check power.
The kingly one is too dangerous
to entrust to an unchecked figure
all too quick to trample
over both sacred and profane
with a praetorian guard at his command.
The legislative, with too weak an authority in control,
can quickly overswell its banks
and divvy up within its own encrusted ranks
the spoils of office.
Judges for their part,
given too free a rein,
can use the instruments of self-interested interpretation
to impose rules
where lawmakers never deigned to venture.
A fine doctrine for fair-weather times.
But when the times are rife
with strife, pestilence, and fear,
and citizens too bitter and divided
to recall the underlying need
to show a minimum of regard for one another,
how easy for the demagogue, the providential leader,
to overwhelm the forces of restraint
and impose an iron rule
from which republics cannot easily recover.