THE Greek myths were initially propagated in an oral-poetic tradition, most likely by Minoan and Mycenaean singers, starting in the 18th century BC; eventually, the myths of the heroes of the Trojan War and its aftermath became part of the oral tradition of Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Now comes a pandemic where a non-living entity, a virus, has erupted out of nowhere and annihilated almost four million souls across the globe; living in an era of oral-poetic (sermons and speeches) and social media (viral spread of facts) has proliferated myths that may supersede the absurdity of Greek mythology. A president of the wealthiest nation suggested drinking bleach and putting ultraviolet light into our bodies to kill the virus; some folks claimed there is no pandemic, others that it was an act of government, not God. When asked or required to wear a mask, many refused it as a ‘feminine thing’; others denounced it as a violation of personal liberty. And then came the vaccines against Covid-19, and some said it is forbidden because it contains elements of foetal protein, others that the vaccine would make you infertile. Some went so far as to say that the vaccine will enable the government to trace your whereabouts because it instals an electronic chip in your body.
Videos claiming that a vaccinated site on your arm could illuminate a light bulb were believed by many. Prominent philanthropists were misquoted as opposing the vaccine; a theory that anyone who received the Covid vaccine would die within two years was wrongly attributed to a Nobel laureate. There were gods created to ward off the virus, and one prime minister asked people to bang pots and pans on the streets (perhaps thinking it would scare off the virus). Millions complied. Many who were told not to attend religious gatherings claimed they had divine protection. Some among them died.
A hundred years ago, a similar pandemic was first detected in the US — the Spanish flu; it killed 20 million to 100m people worldwide when the total population was 1.8 billion (one per cent to 5pc of the world population) as compared to about 3.8m deaths in the current pandemic with a population of 7.8bn (less than 0.05pc); we fared so much better this time around. What went right this time? The same social media that spread myths about Covid-19, helped educate people about prevention. There was no vaccine in 1918. Without prevention, we too could have ended up with hundreds of millions of deaths. With all these known facts, why is there so much myth around Covid-19? Is it ignorance, disbelief, or a conspiracy? We cannot stifle the spread of legend, but we can certainly present rational arguments for those who have an open mind still uninfected by the virus.
Coronaviruses are a group of related RNA viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds. Mild illnesses in humans include some cases of the common cold (which is also caused by other viruses, predominantly rhinoviruses), while more lethal varieties can cause SARS, MERS, and Covid-19. In cows and pigs, they cause diarrhoea, while in mice, they cause hepatitis and encephalomyelitis. The Covid-19-causing virus was reportedly transferred from bats to humans. However, the jury is still out. President Biden recently ordered an inquiry to find out whether the virus escaped from the Chinese Wuhan Institute of Virology; or worse, was it a manufactured creation (this will make a good myth). Despite the certification by the FDA, we are not sure of the source of the virus — we may know soon enough but that will be another theory, and in all likelihood, we will never know the answer. It does, however, teach us the possibility of using viruses for biological warfare — a scary scenario that should awaken countries like Pakistan, where such monitoring is not possible.
Viruses are not living entities; these are a chemistry piece that existed long before the earliest sign of life came to earth; we harbour thousands of viruses in our body that are friendly viruses, but the Covid-19 virus is not. It cannot survive outside a living body and goes into our body cells and teaches them to reproduce it; the body cells follow the instructions until they get filled up with the virus and burst open, causing the virus to spread to other cells. It affects the lungs as most coronaviruses do and brings death by suffocation. Like any other virus, it can be inactivated (not killed because it is not alive) by just washing hands or wiping surfaces. A virus cannot fly in the air (it has no wings), so the only way it can enter your body is through fine droplets transmitted through an infected person who sneezes or simply exhales. Now we come to the mask; while it is not perfect protection, you can significantly reduce the risk of both contracting and transmitting the infection. But wearing a mask is a change in lifestyle that is not comfortable or acceptable to many. Social distancing, a new cliché designed in this pandemic, helps but is not as good as a mask.
There are no medicines that can help you once you are infected; only your body immunity can handle this menace. Boosting immunity through vaccination is the only viable option. Just because a vaccine was developed quickly does not make it less safe. The fast testing of efficacy came because of the rapid spread of Covid-19. Any side effects eg blood clots are common to many treatments, including the use of birth control pills; we never follow these as we did in vaccines for emergency use. All vaccines are safe.
So, pay no attention to the myths surrounding you; we have come a long way from the era of Greek gods.
The writer is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2021