In the first semester of my literature course, a professor asked us to prepare a group presentation on one of the background topics of our main subject. Suddenly thrust into the vast world of literature, I tried to choose a different topic to sail through my first presentation at university.
Out of numerous topics at hand, I chose the Black Death. For me, it appeared to be the perfect choice as our main readings included Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and other works of Elizabethan literature.
A two-week long elementary internet research yielded a worthwhile five-minute power point slideshow that a senior teacher particularly liked. After the presentation, the only thing that stuck with me was an ego boost – since my work stood out amongst other students. The Black Death, on the other hand, became just another folder in my computer archive, lying unnoticed and unopened for years along with other presentations and research papers.
What was the Black Death to me? A plague? A mass number of deaths? Or perhaps something that only happened in ages gone by and past?
I thought that the modern world, increasingly advanced and progressive, was too ‘developed’ for such an outbreak to strike again. The Spanish flu, an influenza that killed nearly 50 million people, was a thing of the last century too – a thing of the past, I thought.
Hence, the Black Death was just ancient history.
My only encounter with anything like a pandemic was the outbreak of H1N1 flu world over, at a time when I was in high school in India. Unsurprisingly, my ignorant self remembers straying away from non-vegetarian food for a month or so, complaining all the while of how I missed eating it, starkly unaware of the magnitude of the illness that was taking lives world over – and unprepared for what was to come about a decade later.
When the first case of coronavirus emerged, I carried on, busy exploring my new life in London, discussing the ‘disease’ over breakfast, or over a phone call, while sitting in a new neighbourhood cafe; comparing my cup of coffee to the one I had the day before.
But it grew on.
The virus spread like wildfire. Silent wildfire. A fire that entered our lives stealthily yet hastily, with us unaware, sitting with our glasses of wines while the grass beneath us burned and the world struggled to breathe.
On February 28, I carried on with my pre-planned trip to Paris with my husband, ignoring completely the heedless warnings from families and friends. We laughed while travelling in the fully occupied train, walked through the busiest of markets, waited to be seated in cafes on our cafe hopping day and ignored every single warning that was sent out with urgency from every corner of the world.
On the day of our return to London, when the man at the reception of our hotel asked me about the scare of the virus back home, I nodded and agreed that the virus was “in fact, a scary thing”. I relayed the conversation to my husband, emphasising on the fear that I saw and read on the man’s face when he spoke about the virus.
On the train ride back, I read the news. There had been a spurt of cases around the world. Every country was reporting new cases everyday. It sounded big and scary. It was almost as if I could now feel the heat of the wildfire that was trudging closer and closer home. The first thing I did on returning was rush to the nearest supermarket and gather stocks; this was when toilet rolls still existed on the now empty shelves.
Within ten days, I saw the world turn upside down. Almost every country declared a complete lockdown, something unheard of in the past. I self isolated with my husband, who was immediately asked to work from home.
The thought that anything remotely like a plague or pandemic could even touch us that I had harboured over my life was shattered and discarded as I realised that we were actually living through something that had hitherto been only a part of history or ‘background’ texts, or for me had just been a topic to discuss over meals at fancy restaurants. The idea that the ‘modern’ world could never let something like this to emerge, let alone grow in to such proportions was dismantled in one big blow.
Six months ago, if someone would have even suggested shutting down the world economically, culturally and demographically; we would have laughed at the incredulous idea. But now, I know and I realise that as I write this down, sitting in my cozy robe with a good cup of coffee, there are millions who are putting their lives at risk to help all of us get through this as easily as possible and a million others who are staring at a bleak future. There are also many who are living through the pain of losing their loved ones to this pandemic.
The number of people dying and suffering today is not just a figure for me, (and I say this knowing that I had not had the closest brush with this illness myself, yet). Every number, every rise sends a shiver down my spine. Every morning when I read about some meaningless political debate over the pandemic, I am forced to think if the world will ever really come about.
I wonder if I will ever be a part of this number sooner or later, to be reduced to a mere figure, while another student, years down the line, will make a presentation about the pandemic that struck the entire world, a pandemic that reverberated through even the most untouched corners of Earth.
If not for anything else, the experience of living through this pandemic has taught me, along with so many others I hope, to be thankful. For everything. And everyone. For our fellow humans. For humanity.
As the frustration of missing my birthday party fades, I stand thankful to be alive and safe. To be able to realise that it doesn’t take much to be reduced to a number in a history text book.
Mahima Kaur is a literature major, an assistant professor, and a freelance writer who is as stumped by the current circumstances as anyone else.
Featured image credit: Alexander Sinn/Unsplash