MOMENTS of crisis tend to simultaneously bring out the best, the worst, and the most insane and inane aspects of humanity to the fore, and the coronavirus pandemic has been no different.
For one thing, it tells us we are more similar than we are different. In the early days of the pandemic, when the Chinese city of Wuhan was in lockdown, we saw videos that were at the same time eerily apocalyptic and also reassuring, of quarantined residents standing on their balconies and singing songs that echoed through the streets of their ghost town. A lone voice would be augmented by many others as a single stanza was amplified by thousands of human voices: a strident call in the dark, an affirmation of shared hopes and fears.
Today, we see the same in the deserted streets of Italy, where locked-in residents gather on their terraces with musical instruments and song, cheering each other even as they prepare for the worst.
Then there are everyday heroes like Asiyah and her husband Jawad, who run a corner store in the Scottish village of Falkirk. Standing outside a department store, Asiyah noticed an old woman in tears because she was unable to get the supplies she needed as the younger and fitter customers were grabbing all the goods. Not content with simply offering sympathy, Asiyah and Jawad put together Covid-19 ‘kits’, comprising hand sanitisers, wipes, masks and other products and delivered them, free of cost, to elderly residents in their neighbourhood.
In a boiling pot, the scum tends to rise to the top.
Then there are Thasleem and Nadeem, owners of a surgical good store in Kerala who are selling masks at a loss, just so that everyone can get what they need. And while some provide supplies, others fight for the greater good in different ways: given that access to information is key, a group of doctors successfully fought to have over 32,000 research articles on COVID-19 — previously behind paywalls — made free to access.
Then there are the doctors, researchers and medical staff working around the clock, and at great personal risk, to provide care for those stricken with the virus. Unsung heroes and heroines to whom the world owes a debt of thanks.
But there are also those who prey on humanity’s fears, and seek to profit from pain like the self-proclaimed ‘hustlers’, a couple in Vancouver who bought stocks of disinfectant wipes — emptying entire stores — to resell them on Amazon at exorbitant rates, making a profit of over $70,000 in the process. This has led to outlets like Amazon restricting the sale of many products, and eBay has banned such sales entirely. Facebook too has banned ads that guarantee to prevent or cure the virus.
That’s because snake oil salesmen (and women) have taken the opportunity to hawk ‘cures’ for the virus that have no basis in reality. People like TV preacher Jim Bakker, who is selling a ‘silver solution’ that he claims is effective in killing the virus. Same goes for conspiracy theorist and overall nutjob Alex Jones selling his cure-all toothpaste. Both Bakker and Jones have been served legal notices and made to cease and desist from their dangerous, deluded claims.
Add to these examples similar stories from around the globe and we see how, in a boiling pot, the scum tends to rise to the top. Speaking of which, there is the extremist Hindu Mahasabha organisation in India which in its infinite wisdom organised a gaumutra and dung party in which enthusiastic participants downed shots of cow urine to ward off the virus and encouraged people to bathe in cow dung for protection. Well, if nothing else, it will at least help social distancing as very few sane people will want to be around a dude who just bathed in poop.
A particular place of dishonour goes to those reprobates busy creating and spreading fake news in this crisis, whether out of malice or ignorance. We see WhatsApp forwards and social media posts containing outright dangerous information, calling on people to consume kilos of garlic or even drink bleach to ‘cure’ the virus. Particularly insidious is a series of graphics attributed to Unicef that mixes truth with lies. Despite numerous attempts to debunk it by leading media organisations and Unicef itself, this is being actively disseminated by people who really should know better.
The damage caused by such falsehoods can claim lives and livelihoods alike, as in the case of a Chinese woman who was hospitalised after consuming nearly two kilos of garlic, or the Indian poultry farmers who are suffering as a result of fake news alleging that a non-vegetarian diet causes coronavirus and that consuming chicken causes infection. Faced with plummeting demand due to these lies, they are incurring losses running into millions of rupees and have had to cull entire flocks, with one poultry farmer even dumping 6,000 baby chicks in an empty lot and burying them alive.
Truly, these are the times that test our souls, and show what we are made of — for better or, usually, for worse.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2020