After washing my hands for the eleventh time today, I am still not completely sure whether I touched something contaminated—the metal tap, the metal doorknob, the metal part of my pen. I am obsessed with anything with metal that could host the deadly virus for up to two to three days. It could be a futile exercise, I know. Every object I touch, metal or not, every part of me, could be an unsuspecting host, a blind abettor to an unintentional death… my own, or a loved one's, or someone else's loved one's.
So far, all I know is that the best way to protect myself, those I care about, and those who live with me in this planet is through complete isolation. Unfortunately, complete isolation is just not possible at this point. Being in a newspaper, I fall under the "essential services" list, which requires us to keep the show going. We are trying out ways to minimise office attendance or hours, we practice social distancing in the cafeteria—one person per table only—we wash, sanitise and wash again. But the uneasiness doesn't wash off because the predator is a sly, invisible killer that has left the entire world shaking in fear and reeling from its long-drawn-out aftershocks. It has already taken well over 21,000 lives and counting.
As I indulge in my morbid ruminations and fight back tears thinking of those little, mundane moments that I took for granted but are now the most precious, with family, friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances, I am forced to snap out of it by the realities around me. While I wallow in self-pity, for thousands of my fellow human beings here and everywhere, self-isolation is not an option, and if imposed, it will mean starvation for the whole family. While I despair that the shops have run out of hand sanitiser and Dettol, many of my compatriots have not had running water for days. Talk to them about washing hands with soap for 20 seconds!
I think of those people and wonder, if I in my privileged bubble am feeling so helpless, what are they feeling? Do they even stand a chance at fighting off this insidious assassin?
Going by the trends of infection and deaths in First World countries, it feels there is a deathly calm here before a merciless storm is about to unfold. I pray I am wrong. My head is overdosed with information—from all the videos, news, views and comments that everyone is sharing on various social media platforms. The phone and internet have literally become the primary connections to other human beings. The irony of it kills me: we are being deprived of the very thing we crave the most: human touch. A video of an official in a foreign country warns of the dangers of a child hugging a grandparent—it could be sure death for the latter if the grandchild is carrying the virus that has chosen to target the elderly with inordinate ferocity (though anyone, regardless of age, can be taken if they have pre-existing conditions). What could be crueller? But this cruelty of separation, this ruthlessness is the only way we can keep people—at least many of them—alive. Isolation, loneliness, distancing from all those you love are the only options left.
Some say it is nature's revenge on us for our relentless onslaught on the planet. Only a few days ago, I read about 16,000 acres of forest in Mymensingh in danger of being cleared because of a "mistake" by the land ministry. Yes, we are as callous as that. Is it revenge or the only way for the planet to heal itself? While the humans are being forced to get into cages (as someone aptly put it) or doomed to die on hospital beds or without any medical attention whatsoever, there are signs of the Earth trying to breathe again. The air is cleaner without the fumes of vehicles, with no dust from the endless, mindless construction. The skies are bluer with far less of our carbon footprints from frenetic air travel. Dolphins are coming back to their habitat while wondrous wild birds are returning to their favourite spots. I imagine the joy of all creatures in the Sundarbans and other forests of the world, in the rivers, lakes and oceans at reclaiming what is rightfully their own—their home—from the human encroachers, who have only taken and taken, with nothing to give back except destruction.
Meanwhile, for us humans, the world has come to a standstill. It is as the latest Economist's cover has aptly represented through a globe with the ominous sign: CLOSED. The wheels of unprecedented economic growth, waves of development, billions of dollars of trading— all have come to a halt. All that greed that has led to such decimation of the Earth, all that hunger for power at the cost of grotesque inequality among us, and vulgar consumption of natural resources, have come to naught. We never listened to the scientists who gave us the bare facts: that the world is getting hotter and more vulnerable day by day. We still didn't listen when a child named Greta crossed the Atlantic to chastise us and warn us of the dangerous predicament we have put the world in and that we must stop everything and try to save our planet. We went on blindly cutting down trees, filling up the rivers and choking the ocean with our plastics, playing havoc with ecosystems and killing our non-human cohabitants in the process.
And while we were consumed with our consumerism and unbridled appetite for more of this and more of that, always more, never enough, while we played that futile game of thrones, the superbugs and superviruses evolved and mutated and waited for their prey.
Never has the world—the world of humans—been left so shattered and defenceless as now. As scientists work round the clock to know this latest and deadliest enemy better, as health workers risk their lives, many with inadequate protection, to save others, and a few good people do their bit to help, what lessons can we draw from this global catastrophe?
Will we give up our selfishness and come together as a community of humans, of nations, and acknowledge our need to share and give and accept each other? Or are we, with greater zeal, going to go back to the path of insularity and othering, of being pirates in the guise of saviours and demigods in the shrouds of leaders? Will we ever be able to hold hands again without fear, or are we doomed to retreat into our lonely cages?
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.