With the number of coronavirus cases crossing 100,000 mark, the official death toll standing at—and forever climbing over—3,652 (live update, worldometers, March 8), and the US flashing 8.3 billion green bucks to shoo away the spread, the outbreak of COVID-19 is no longer a "told-you-not-to-have-that-bat-soup-or-fox-meat" gossip. By now, corona (literally meaning "crown") is far from novel. Its presence is a lived reality. You can wash your hands and anoint them with sanitisers as much as you want, but (like Pontius Pilate who attempted to wash off his symbolic guilt after the killing of Jesus) you can never wave away the fear of being inflicted by this deadly viral flu.
Last month, I was inside a busy lift in Clock Tower in Mecca. There was this Chinese man in his ihram. He sneezed once or twice—and the native Saudis accompanied by their family members and shopping bags started saying La hawla wala Quwwata illa Billah. Even with my little Arabic, I could sense that they were trying to ward off ills and evils. The Chinese man must have felt very small. The ride must have been awkward for the scantily dressed man who tried to cover up his mouth while resisting himself from yet another mortification. Nobody said the customary "bless you" or "Alhamdulillah". This is a different time where we are all shivering in fear behind our masks. In the olden days, it was believed that evil spirits would leave your body with every sneeze; hence the custom of thanking or praising God. During the Plague in the middle ages, Pope Gregory I suggested saying "God Bless You" after sneezing to protect someone from death. But the "la hawla…" struck a different chord in me: we live in a world at a time where there is no sympathy for others; every (wo)man for her-/him-self. At that micro moment, I realised that the Chinese Umrah pilgrim was seen as a potential virus-carrier, and therefore, a threat to local security, comfort and lifestyle. The indefinite ban on Umrah is a manifestation of such fear. Fear is being racialised; fear is being Otherised.
Often, fear is craftily grafted in our cultural imaginary and institutionalised machinery through popular media. Take the case of 2013 apocalyptic action zombie horror film featuring Brad Pitt, World War Z, for instance. The film documents a zombie plague that started as a mild outbreak in China (Ah, surprise! Surprise!), where the dead comes back to life with a ravenous hunger for human flesh. The zombies or the undead spread out into the world through various routes: refugees, black market organs, or human trafficking. Many countries ignore the news; not Israel who starts zombie-proofing their borders. American bureaucracy is the last to respond with huge counter strategy, weaponry, and the eventual creation of vaccine to give mankind a ray of hope. The subliminal message against illegal immigrants is far from subtle. The afflicted immigrants are the walking deads that threaten any territorial order and civility.
After the recent outbreak, social media is rife with many conspiracy theories. An example of a sensational literary coincidence is available in Dean Koontz's 1981 thriller The Eyes of Darkness. The novel recounts a Chinese military lab located in Wuhan (the epicentre of the current epidemic) that creates a virus as part of its biological weapons programme. One passage, which has proved to be unwittingly prophetic, is widely in circulation: "It was around that time that a Chinese scientist named Li Chen moved to the United States while carrying a floppy disk of data from China's most important and dangerous new biological weapon of the past decade. They call it Wuhan-400 because it was developed in their RDNA laboratory just outside the city of Wuhan." Chinese government of course has denied any such possibility; instead it credits Wuhan Institute of Virology, a level four biosafety laboratory, as one of the first institutions to sequence coronavirus.
Films and fiction such as WWZ or The Eyes of Darkness use narrative fear to springboard into an exploration of human nature and organisational bureaucracy. At the same time, it examines, albeit promotes, fear as signs of discrimination such as classism, nationalism, and even genderism. The idea finds footing in a recent statement of author and activist, Arundhati Roy. In an article in Scroll.in, Roy flays the mayhem in India where the Muslims are being labelled as traitors for protesting against Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 as well as the trivialisation of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who are being dubbed as termites. Save some glorious exceptions, there is a growing lynch mob mentality under state patronisation in India that has little tolerance for the Other. The dehumanisation of its own citizens goes against the constitutional democracy that India once cherished. Roy writes, "A democracy that is not governed by a Constitution and one whose institutions have all been hollowed out can only ever become a majoritarian state… This is our version of the coronavirus. We are sick."
One wonders: how can we even talk about films and fiction at a time when we are all sick? Or, returning to my title, loosely borrowed from Garcia Marquez (whose 93rd birthday anniversary was on March 6), how can we love with so much literal and figurative sickness around us? And how will humanity survive without love, the flower of a seedy hope? Unfortunately, the loving embrace of leaders chanting Howdy/Namaste does not comfort us. It does not promise any probing into "internal affairs" involving minority reports.
Theodor Adorno, the eminent exponent of Frankfurt School, famously wrote: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." The false consciousness, the fascist myth that gave rise to the holocaust, for Adorno, creates a trap of total society from which there is no escape. Literature, once credited to mirror society, is now located in a hall of mirrors. The only ideology that persists is that of an authoritarian state which insists on silence. The insularity of such ideology is now metastasised into various shades of digital pixels, sound-bytes, tweets, FB and Instagram posts, talk-show spectacles, shared and targeted news, sponsored ads and so on. Provocative lies are duplicated to pit one group against the other. Such narratives can make a cow inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen; they can allow a group to claim that it is the antiseptic cow-dung and urine, which have kept coronavirus at bay in India; or they can vilify their neighbour by claiming that its economic growth is beefed up by Indian cows!
We all know how the narrative of dehumanising the Rohingyas across the border has cost us. We embraced our neighbours with love at a time when there was a sickly massacre beyond our border. Are we prepared to show more love in the time of the "coronavirus" that Roy talks about?
Shamsad Mortuza is a Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: email@example.com