The Interpretation of Malady

Last week, I was at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport. While in transit, it felt like I was in one of those Hollywood films on a dystopian future, or one of those films on outbreaks.

Everyone was wearing masks and looking at each other suspiciously. The air was thick with fear and uncertainty and this made me conscious of what I was inhaling: of every foreign particle going inside me through my nostrils.

It was one of those situations when you become exceedingly conscious of what is inside and what is outside. The orifices, the gateways, in your body come under tightened inspection and anything foreign and strange is kept at bay.

In this context, it is hardly odd that people are binge watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) and revisiting this decade-old movie which was once overlooked. The film, starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, is now trending on various OTT platforms.

COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic and more or less, all countries across the world are either trying or preparing to negotiate with this imperceptible and intelligent enemy. The latter, especially in the manner it is spreading, has proved out be a classic 21st century telltale disease of a post-globalised world.

Like our individual bodily orifices, countries have tightened traffic and the flow of what is coming inside and what is going outside. Like white N95 masks, the borders have been sealed and ‘contact zones’ like international airports are under surveillance. Like detention camps for infiltrators, the suspicious/infected bodies are being located and concomitantly quarantined.

Everyone in the world is, individually and/or collectively, on high alert.

Also read: Coronavirus: Want to Know Why Social Distancing Matters? Check These Creative Visuals

In my book Illness as Method (2019), I have quite explicitly dealt with the individual experiences of being ill. But this is something very different. What we are witnessing with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is the collective experience: of fear, anxiety and suffering.

Human civilisation has encountered many epidemics and pandemics in the past – like the Plague of Justinian (541-542), the Black Death (1346-1353), the 1918 influenza (colloquially known as the Spanish flu), the more recent outbreak of Ebola virus disease, and many others.

But the pandemic caused by COVID-19 virus is the first of its kind. It is, perhaps, the world’s first cosmopolitan disease. And we are yet to see how it unfurls further in the future.

But there is something about a pandemic which also tells us, that irrespective of the race, caste, gender, politics, religion and region, we are all connected and we are all same (and not identical); that things taking shape in one corner of the world can create havoc in another; that we are all part of this living and breathing planet called Earth.

It, at the end of the day, reduces us to our ‘naked’ biological existence. A pandemic is, in a way, a great homogeniser amidst our existing differences. A pandemic is, in a way, a great learning lesson for all of us.

Jayjit Sarkar teaches in the Department of English, Rajganj University, West Bengal.

Featured imaged credit: visuals/Unsplash