One of the many incidental fallouts of the all-pervasive, all-consuming Novel Coronavirus, or Covid19 if you are a stickler for the mot juste, is that there is no shortage of free advice from all and sundry on this vexed subject. Given that most of us are claustrophobically house bound, experiencing the true meaning of American television serial expressions like ‘stir crazy,’ our options for diversion and entertainment are largely confined to reading, music, watching telly (no live sport is a crusher) or allowing social media to envelope us into its ample bosom, contradistinctively through our deceptively small mobile phones. What was that the poet Oliver Goldsmith said of the village schoolmaster? ‘And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew / That one small head could carry all he knew.’ The mobile or cell phone, warts and all, is our perennial if wayward schoolmaster, always at our side, and full of information which, for the most part, we do not require. Sadly, unlike the village schoolmaster, our mobile phones cannot admonish us when we start browsing websites that are clearly unsuited to people of any age. And I am not talking about sex or pornography. Sex is passé. When you can learn how to make a lethal bomb in 6 easy steps on the internet, it makes one sit back and pause for deep reflection. Anyhow, as is my wont, I tend to veer off tangentially sometimes as the mood takes me. One thing leads to another and before you know it, I am scurrying back with a half-apologetic ‘Now where was I?’
I’ll tell you where I was. I was talking about the present, dystopian environment that we are living through, where fictional movies like ‘Contagion’ acquire a chilling, retrospective reality. So much so that we are even fearful of watching films of that genre. Take the dreadful Alien franchise from Hollywood for instance. I am not suggesting that horrible, gooey, spidery, leathery things of all shapes and sizes will suddenly start slithering out of our air-conditioning vents and water pipes (I have my hands full coping with lizards), with the sole objective of glutinously wrapping themselves round us in a deathly embrace. That said, neither did we think, not 4 months ago, that the whole world will be reaching near decimation thanks to some virus that masqueraded as the common cold, and was anything but common – confining us all to our homes and hearth. As I was about to explain till I started interrupting myself, the social media and its constant gratuitous advice has not helped matters. Doctors, neo-doctors, alternative medicine peddlers, dietitians, wellness teachers, yoga masters, physio experts, religious swamis, enlightened TV gurus – you name it, they are all at it, and looks like we can’t get enough of them. What can I say? We are all suckers for succour.
At this point I decided it was better if I had a long heart-to-heart natter with a doctor friend of mine on the dreaded subject of Covid19. Someone who knew me and who would not hesitate to blow the lid off the topic, if that was what was required. Confidentiality and the need to preserve and respect his privacy precludes my naming him. For the purposes of this missive, I am just going to call him Dr. No, inspired by Ian Fleming’s notorious James Bond villain. Why Dr. No will become apparent as you go through this interview, conducted on Face Time for reasons that need no elaboration.
SS (that’s me) – ‘Hey Dr. No, long time no see. Very busy time for you, I am sure. Thanks for making the time.’
Dr. No – ‘No sweat. That’s what friends are for. Tell me, what’s bugging you?’
SS – ‘Since you put it like that, nothing is physically bugging me. It’s this Covid19 that the whole world is sweating over and very bugged about. They are calling it a Black Swan event. The crisis teaches us new things. Like Social Distancing.’
Dr. No – ‘No, no. It’s being blown up out of all proportion. Look, I am not saying it’s not serious. It is. It’s just that panic is not the order of the day. I mean, more people in the world die crossing the road than from any virus. So we need to stay indoors, and keep washing our hands till you can actually see your metacarpals and phalanges. Above all, just keep cool. Black Swan? Haven’t a clue what that means.’
SS – ‘Fund managers love that term. It means a very rare event, in fact an event that can never happen is a Black Swan event, because there is no such thing as a black swan. Like hen’s teeth or once in a blue moon, that sort of stuff.’
Dr. No – ‘No, no. I don’t agree. We’ve gone through the Plague, AIDS, SARS. Ebola, Chikungunya, Swine Flu and so much more. Covid19 just feels scarier, that’s all. Black swan, slack swan. All nonsense. All media hyperbole. We just need to keep testing more people. These are testing times.’
SS – ‘I’ll have to look up “hyperbole.” “Testing times”, ha ha. Since we are now on idioms, how about “flattening the curve?” What do you make of that?’
Dr.No – ‘No listen. I am a doctor of medicine, not English. I have heard of “fattening the calf,” but “flattening the curve” is a new one on me. I grant you that if a dyed-in-the-wool Bengali said “flattening the curve,” it will sound a lot like “fattening the calf.” If I didn’t know any better I would have said the expression had something to do with getting your bulging tummy in shape. Anyhow, you are the writer, you tell me.’
SS – ‘Nice touch Doc, that Bengali thing. If you watch any of the English TV news channels they use that expression, “flattening the curve” at least 20 times in each programme. It’s to do with graphs, spikes in the number of infections, deaths, recoveries and the like, if you’re still with me. At the moment the curve on the graph is rising and if we can reduce the rate of infection (not be confused with inflection point), that rising curve will start flattening. Which will be good news.’
Dr. No – ‘Big deal. Why don’t they just say “we would like to reduce the number of infections or fatalities?” What’s all this flattening curve business? Jargon, jargon all the time with these media guys. No, no look here. I have enough problems dealing with cases without having to employ an interpreter to follow what you guys are saying. And to pre-empt you, don’t ask me if India’s hot summer months will kill the virus. It kills thousands of people every year, so who knows?’
SS – ‘What about masks?’
Dr. No – ‘What about them?’
SS – ‘Which part of “What about masks?” did you not follow?’
Dr. No – ‘Stop being a smartass. I have no view on masks. Wear them, take them off, wash them and re-wear them, give them to your kids to use as catapults, whatever. Makes no difference. Everyone is wearing masks with their nostrils fully exposed. So much for protection. Morons. Some television anchors pronounce masks as mosques, adding fuel to the fire.’
SS – ‘Look, I know you’re frazzled, what with the work pressure and everything. Let’s just take it easy for a bit, ok? Now tell me, how well do you think this national lockdown is working?’
Dr. No – ‘Stop telling me to take it easy and cool down and all that. Come and sit in my chair and you’ll know what it’s all about. Take it easy, indeed! This is a hot seat, my friend. Or should I say hotspot? And it’s getting hotter by the hour. My bottom’s on fire. No, no I will not take it easy. Anyhow, what was your question again?’
SS – ‘The lockdown all over India. Do you think it is working? And sorry, I won’t ask you to take it easy again.’
Dr. No – ‘How the heck do I know? About the lockdown, I mean. Why don’t you watch the daily Health Ministry briefing every evening? With scorecards and everything. No, I have no time to assess if the lockdown is going swimmingly well or if people are dropping like flies on an hourly basis. I have to deal with patients trooping in and out 24 x 7. When I get home it’s gone past midnight and I am in no mood to switch on the telly and watch a re-run of Arnab’s fist-flailing, insisting that the Nation Wants to Know. And if I so much as clear my throat, my wife hares off to the guest bedroom, covering her face with the blanket! Hey, I am sorry buddy, but I am on a short fuse here. My wife muttered, half asleep, that the lockdown is going reasonably well. I take her word for it.’
SS – ‘One last question, Doc. How is this Social Distancing thing going for you and your family?’
Dr. No – ‘I am glad you asked me that. I haven’t touched my wife in over a fortnight. People are drawing circles in front of banks and shops, and they generally seem to be going round in circles. Tell you what, though. If we can keep up this Social Distancing lark for long periods of time, our population growth will plummet. And that’s a curve I would dearly like to see flatten. And if you don’t call me for the next few weeks, it will be too soon.’
So ended this eventful Face Time interview. I think my irate and touchy doctor friend makes a good point about the unintended benefits of Social Distancing. If and when Covid19 finally bids a tearful adieu, sneezing and coughing the while, perhaps our indefatigable Prime Minister will once again address the nation and exhort us to practice Social Distancing at least twice a week. Family Planning will have a new arrow in its quiver.