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‘The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus’ review: Making sense of the present

Humans are sense-making beings. To be so is to want to make sense of what is happening around oneself. And we make sense by making comparisons. It is only when we’re able to relate something to something else that we say we ‘understand’. But what if the phenomenon we are trying to understand is without precedent?

Indeed, the adjective ‘unprecedented’ has been widely applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. But was it, really? If global reach and mortality are metrics of comparison, then the Spanish influenza of 1918-21, which caused 50-100 million deaths worldwide, is a horrifying precedent. The 1.6 million lives claimed by the coronavirus so far seem unexceptional in comparison.

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Huge disruption

Yet we all know in our bones that what we’ve lived through is unprecedented. The sweeping lockdowns and the scale of economic disruption are certainly without precedent. Nonetheless, it is to history we must turn to make sense of the present, avers Vinay Lal, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The discourse on COVID-19 has been dominated by numbers, epidemiological and economic. Lal goes beyond the “empire of facts” to ask social, cultural, and philosophical questions: what does ‘social distancing’ mean in a caste society? Will the coronavirus alter the architecture of the mall? Can we say “we are all in this together” when it’s clear the pandemic has affected different sections differently? In any country one cares to look, ethnic minorities (Blacks in the U.S. and U.K, immigrants in Sweden) have been worse affected, and while the urban poor suffered, billionaires multiplied their wealth. So, how do we make common cause in the name of a ‘shared humanity’ when even death, ‘the great leveller’, seems to discriminate?

Lal’s historical sweep and penchant for drawing unlikely parallels, if you don’t mind a prose style partial to subordinate clauses, have a certain professorial charm that can put you in a sweet reverie about plague, famine, and death. You learn that the first ever quarantine law was passed in Dubrovnik on July 27, 1377 during the Black Plague. You wonder if the Indian public’s disregard of their Prime Minister’s ‘CORONA means Koi Road Par Na Nikle’ diktat — and the disastrous consequences that followed — has a mythological precedent in Sita’s failure to comply with the Laxman Rekha.

A warning?

And you ponder the probability that the coronavirus is actually a manifestation of Mother Nature’s tough love for humanity — she may have despatched the corona regiment of her microbe army to warn humans that if they don’t mend their rapacious ways, they’ve had it. The zoonotic origins of the coronavirus do suggest that human encroachments into pristine jungle habitats could be generating a blowback whereby pathogens, faced with the extinction of their animal hosts, are evolving to survive on humans.

Such intriguing ideas and parallels are legion in this book. But on the whole, it’s an underwhelming read, as they are not developed or integrated into a larger argument about the COVID-19 phenomenon. This is a loose collection of essays themed around the virus rather than a unitary work of non-fiction. Lal puts you in the frame of mind for a sumptuous repast, but as you eagerly await the main course, serves you one appetizer after another.

The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus; Vinay Lal, Pan Macmillan, ₹599.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 1:55:55 AM |

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