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Last night, I got a call from my cousin sister. She is a Nurse in a big hospital in NY. She was calling me after a long time. In fact, I started getting many such phone calls from several other friends and relatives after the current pandemic driven global lockdown. Glad that people are finding more time to interact as relatives, friends and family members.

My cousin Jyoti who called me yesterday, told me that right at the time when she called me, three trucks full of dead bodies are lying outside her hospital. On an average 70 bodies are taken out daily from only her wing of the hospital. For the 10 minutes or so we have spoken, I could hear continuous sirens of ambulances coming into her hospital. She said people above 70 are not given any treatment or ventilators. There is only a 50 – 50 chance for death or life for even those who go into the ventilators. This is NY.

We do not know where we are headed to in India. I sit now in an apartment house in south Delhi which is inside a ‘red’ marked zone. Occasionally I go out for a short and quick visit to the nearby market to buy necessities such as vegetables and milk. I do attend zoom calls from the office and my children attend online classes. As a family, we spend our time cooking, cleaning and also investing some time on our favorite hobbies including music, social media and reading books. We do not know how long this will continue.

I called my servant yesterday. She used to come in the daytime to help us with cooking and cleaning. She sounded very fragile and weak. She wanted to get some money to buy food, but she does not have an account with a money transfer facility. Servants are not allowed to enter our apartment. She somehow managed to send me the account details of her brother through whom I was able to send her some money. But I feel helpless to the plight of hundreds of hungry people out there in the street. How long?

It is clearly an uncertain time. We are going through very difficult, stressful and shocking times. This is unprecedented and a very rare period of human history.

But if we look back into history, we see these kinds of epidemics were kept on happening in human history at periodic intervals.

There was a well-known scientist called Malthus. He said, when the rise in population is greater than that of the food supply, it creates a condition of disequilibrium. As a result, people will not get enough food even for survival. People will die due to a lack of food supply. But nature will have its own mechanisms of checks and balances. People will be subjected to wars, epidemics, famines, starvation, and other natural calamities. These are named as positive checks by Malthus.

There are many criticisms against the Malthusian theory of population checks. But one thing is certain. Whenever men lived against the rules of nature, beyond limits, there were always serious consequences.

Human beings are supposed to live within the sustainable limit that nature suggests. Unfortunately, we see people are exploiting the nature beyond measure. ‘Human need’ is being replaced by ‘human greed’.

Popular author Yuval Noah Harari says, “As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.” As a result, we had several floods, famines, earthquakes, and pandemics.

Humans as a species have survived many disasters and pandemics. In the case of COVID we know that those who have better immunity are escaping from infection. Experts say nutritious food, adequate physical exercise, low-stress levels and enough sleep can boost our immunity.

In this time of confusion, fear and chaos, it is very difficult to maintain a low stress. Many people ask a lot of ‘IF’ questions. If I get the infection, what will happen to me, to my children, to my project and so on. Experts say it is better to stay away from such hypothetical questions and be always positive in our mindset.

My classmate Ajimol Mohan is a Psychologist in Toronto. She shared a method called ‘appreciation’ to reduce our stress levels. Whenever we experience high levels of stress, pick up a piece of paper and note our stress level on a scale of 1-10, say 6. Then we should sit quietly at a comfortable place and think about a pleasant memory or look at some pleasant object. It could be a thing or a person or a painting that is very pleasant and generating some positive vibes. We shouldn’t think about individuals, objects or events which can give us pain or unpleasant thoughts. After some time, we will notice that our stress levels have come down considerably. We may go back to the piece of paper and note down our stress levels which may be lesser than the earlier score. If needed, we can repeat the process.

After the coming of COVID many people started saying that ‘religion is dead’, ‘science win’ etc. All these are meaningless assertions. In fact, science is only one form of religion and all these religions and spirituality will continue to co-exist till human beings exist. I have seen many scientist friends who gained strength through spirituality and faith. Faith, hope, and love are our bridges to the future. Science and spirituality offer tools and fuel to cross the river of human miseries!

COVID like shocks and uncertainties are part of a process of rejuvenating the earth. Such processes happen at the micro-level and macro-level too in individuals, communities, nations and even in planets.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written a beautiful book called ‘Antifragile’. In this book, Taleb says: “Modern society assumes that anything can be ‘fixed,’ but most of the time it is better to leave well alone. Socioeconomic life and the human body can actually be harmed by intervention, leaving the whole more fragile to shocks and uncertainty. Often, the best course of action is to ignore the noise from too much data, and let time take care of the problem.”

It is good and even essential to have such shocks for organizations also. According to Taleb, best systems (whether of organizations or of individuals) are the ones that overcame shocks, volatility and uncertainty! They gain a natural empathy for those who are suffering and the marginalized. We all need to face COVID like shocks. To him, “Suppressing volatility and randomness in our economy, our health, our education, or our political life makes systems more fragile. Without stressors, complex systems become weak and even die”. We can use this time as an opportunity to re-discover life and to live life in its fullness.

Those who are religious may subject themselves to the will of God while having full faith in God’s plans for them. Others may regain their strength through whatever processes which usually offer them peace and tranquillity and hope.

Haruki Murakami discussed a similar scenario to what we live in today in one of his stories. He writes: “Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. All you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

We are in a storm of confusion and chaos. This phase will definitely pass. We will overcome this sooner than later. When we overcome this, let us be resilient, changed and loving individuals and communities. Will we?

(Kandathil Sebastian is a researcher, novelist, and commentator on social issues)



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