PANDEMICS test not only the immunity and mental strength of human beings, but also their power of imagination. Conspiracy theories and prophecies spread just as fast as pandemics and work in multiple ways, from heightening the fear of death to inspiring spiritual healing of human souls.
The quality of imagination or dreaming, however, depends on the self-belief of individuals and the consciousness of societies. Several videos and messages full of prophecies of pirs and clerics are circulating on social media in which they prescribe a wide range of protective measures against Covid-19. In one such video, a person recommends the soup of the inner layers of a pigeon’s stomach for those infected, while in another eating the dust in a shrine is prescribed.
But there is a difference between the motivations of the superstitious and the faithful even though their actions may be interpreted as similar by many. Some leading religious scholars are recommending offering prayers to seek divine help against the pandemic. Indeed, religion plays an important role in the lives of people in our country who use it to extract spiritual support to overcome fears. Some other religious scholars are advising people to take proper precautionary measures while also praying to God, which strengthens their faith and develops spiritual immunity. However, there are others who see such pandemics as divine punishment to curse others (they also believe that they have divine protection against all epidemics). There are dozens of videos making the rounds on social media cursing ‘infidels’, including China and the West, and advising the ‘faithful’ to not adopt any precautions as advised by experts. Interestingly, a former chief minister of Sindh also appeared in a video cursing China and the West.
Social scientists have recorded evidence that natural disasters develop empathy among humans. But pandemics affect the normal bonds of human affection and social distancing becomes a virtue. Pandemics force people to make difficult decisions to save themselves and others, but a sense of shame or guilt grows as the human consciousness tries to address the situation in multiple ways. Religion addresses one aspect of this situation and inspires people to develop a different approach to interaction and affection.
Dozens of conspiracy theories keep surfacing about the virus.
The stories coming from Wuhan — the Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak originated but now has successfully been overcome — reveal how the citizens responded to the fear of pandemics. Their collective response greatly contributed towards defending themselves and each other against the deadly virus. The stories and videos of the victims and those quarantined circulating on social media were more about hope where people’s minds appeared set on thinking about life and future. A few websites dealing with psychology and spirituality are collecting such stories. A woman from Wuhan has shared the story of her 50-day-long quarantine on a website in which she explains how her family experienced new dimensions of life, empathy, compassion for neighbours, environment and animals.
However, individuals have varying tendencies of superstitious beliefs and sentiments that also nurture conspiracy theories. Every day, dozens of conspiracy theories surface about the virus. Keeping aside President Donald Trump’s insistence on labelling the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and Chinese suspicions that it was US soldiers who brought the virus into Wuhan, many conspiracy theories also hint at the involvement of aliens who wanted to create rifts among humans and destroy the Earth. Scientists of course insist that diseases have no agency and bacteria and viruses spread blindly. The Telegraph recently quoted a published study explaining that the coronavirus has evolved naturally and is not a laboratory construct.
But how many believe in scientific theories, especially in such critical times when minds are disturbed and need healing, is anyone’s guess. Many are also referring to some fictional works as proof of a well-designed and structural plot behind the pandemic. A novel The Eyes of Darkness by an American author Dean Koontz is very popular among such believers, who claims he had predicted the outbreak of coronavirus in 1981 with his reference to a killer virus called Wuhan-400. The wilderness of our imagination may provide some relief to us but sometimes it also diverts our attention from reality.
A similar situation has forced a famous screen writer and novelist Lawrence Wright to come up with a disclaimer before the publication of his new novel The End of October, saying it is a work of fiction. The novel, which has been constructed around a pandemic, may have quite a few similarities with the current global epidemic.
His article reminds me of a Facebook post mentioning a short story by one of the greatest fiction writers of the subcontinent, Rajinder Singh Bedi. The story is about a doctor and a sanitary worker. The doctor treats those quarantined and describes how the fear of quarantine was killing just as many as the disease itself. The sanitary worker named Bhago collects dead bodies and lines the streets with chalk to curb the spread of infection. He ends up saving one patient — who falls unconscious out of fear and is considered dead in the pile of bodies being burnt. Though Bhago badly burns his own arm in trying to save the man, the patient still dies a painful death. A few days later, Bhago’s own wife also dies of the plague because the doctor refuses to treat her in time. The story depicts the inner struggle of both characters. The doctor serves half-heartedly and is fearful of catching the plague. But Bhago, despite his wife’s death, is completely devoted to his work. When the pandemic ends, the municipality and citizens reward the doctor for his service. When he reaches home, he meets Bhago who has come to congratulate him. The doctor feels deep shame at his earlier behaviour. The pandemic is indeed a test of the self and our collective character.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2020