Several friends, patients and others have been asking me to write about Corona. So much has been already written, spoken and debated about it as to fill all the libraries of the world. And yet, people are baffled and in disbelief, ignorant and even arrogant about it. After all, an apocalyptic situation has suddenly engulfed the world as never before in our memory.
The world has been deluged by invisible, ultra-microscopic particles stalking the globe like a phantom, unleashing a lethal armamentarium, killing humans everywhere, respecting no geographical boundaries, no religion or faith, no standing or status, striking the high and low equally, and the young and old; bringing humanity to its knees. It has become a leveller and has caused a pandemic of panic and grief and forced almost all nations to lockdown, to stay indoors, bringing life to a grinding halt everywhere.
It is worse than what befell eons back when Lord Vishnu had to take the Matsya incarnation to salvage mankind from total deluge. Pray, who is going to be the saviour in the present age of Kal Yuga, except the humans themselves! For that we need to create, what I call, a Corona consciousness, an understanding of the genesis, the nature, and the unforeseen consequences of this pandemic that may last several months, even a year or more.
What do we know about Corona? What is COVID-19?
Well, it is a virus of the Coronavirus family that has been around for a long time causing disease in mammals (including humans) and birds. Viruses are notorious in that they change their form and character like a person wearing different disguises. We call it a mutation. The present pandemic is the result of a mutant variety that surfaced in China around November 2019, so the name COVID-19. “Co”-corona, “vi”-virus, “d”-disease and “19” for the year of discovery of this novel variety.
The name ‘corona’ derives from Latin which means a crown or halo-like the solar corona (around the sun). Viewed under the ultra-microscope, the surface of the virus particle is covered with club-shaped spikes giving it the corona shape. These are the spikes with which the virus hooks on to the lining of the respiratory tract of humans including the nose, air passages and lungs, where it multiplies in the cells to wreak havoc.
Imagine the Sudarshan Chakra of Lord Krisna as it moves towards its target. So also does the Coronavirus move from the breath of an infected person and travels in the air onto others. Coughing and sneezing send it to a larger distance at a faster speed than normal speaking or breathing which has a reach of 5-6 feet. That is why the minimum social distancing advised is about two arm’s length. The virus may settle on any surface and remain alive there for a variable period. An unsuspecting person may touch it and carry it on hands, touch his nose, eyes or mouth and get infected. He may go anywhere, touch another person or touch a doorknob or a handle, the button of a lift or any other object. This is important to know about the viral spread from human contact (contagion) which has the potential to carry it wherever the vector (carrier) moves. Thus one infected person may pass on the virus to any number of people directly or indirectly resulting in an exponential community spread.
Despite the rapidly accumulating knowledge we are still trying to understand the traits of the virus, as baffling as understating human character. How long does it survive on different surfaces and clothes, under different temperatures or in the atmosphere is still not fully defined. The general observation that respiratory viruses are active in winter gives us hope that summer, which has already set in, might diminish the intensity and spread of this novel Coronavirus. The different rates of spread in different countries, especially the relative moderation with which it has unfolded in India so far has generated some hope that India will be spared the devastating spell. Only time will tell. The early lockdown enforced in the country has been pivotal in checkmating the spread somewhat. An extension for some more time after the present 3-week curfew, might be in order. No doubt, it has a huge immediate and longterm economic, social and political consequences, but we may have to bite the bullet now rather than face the battery later.
The incubation period, transmission as well as the symptoms of the infection are variable too. It takes up to 2 weeks for the virus after it enters the human body to cause symptoms. Therefore, if someone is suspected to have been exposed to the virus a 2-week quarantine (isolation) is mandatory. Remember, even an asymptomatic person can transmit the disease to others.
Like most respiratory viral diseases such as the common cold and influenza, COVID -19 may not exhibit any symptoms in the victim. Others may have a mild illness — dry cough, fever, body aches — which may recover without any treatment. Such patients should watch their course. If there is any deterioration like worsening cough and breathing difficulty, they must report to the hospital immediately. Keep your family physician posted of the details all along; he might advise a test done. Online consultation is a useful first step. Only just around five to seven per cent may need hospitalisation and most of them recover with resuscitative measures like respiratory assistance or by inserting a tube in the air passages for ventilation and delivery of oxygen. A much smaller percentage go through a rapidly downhill course involving both lungs and death may supervene despite all efforts in these instances.
No drugs are effective as yet except for some anecdotal evidence of a few like anti-malarials and antivirals.
Scientists are seriously engaged in finding drugs to fight the virus, making effective vaccines to prevent healthy people from contracting the infection, and in creating test kits for speedy screening for the virus in patients, contacts, clusters, communities and even whole populations. It is a gargantuan task. Human and financial resources are limited, but there can’t be any compromises when a pestilence threatens the whole mankind.
Extensive human trials are going on. It may take months to find the right answers. There is hope that a vaccine may be ready by the end of the year. But, going by the rate of infection in different countries, the Coronavirus could be lethal to hundreds of thousands of humans by that time despite the untiring efforts of medical professionals engaged in the fierce encounter with the greatest enemy of mankind.
Meanwhile, what about others, the common masses cooped up in their homes?
There may an opportunity waiting for us even in this extreme adversity. Either we meekly succumb or stand up to the challenge. It is time for sagacity, self-discipline and self-inquiry. Time for action, not for depression and despondency. Find ways and means to cope with the privations which are not going to last forever. Stay indoors. Maintain social distance. Avoid social and religious congregations. God wants to be left alone for some time and wants us to seek answers from self.
Patience is the watchword. Stay calm, for panic never helps. It takes reason away, erodes confidence and diminishes immunity. Spend time gainfully by working from home as far as possible (for example, I make myself available to my patients through e-consultation, phone, and WhatsApp). Learn anew the virtue of self-help by doing household chores that were delegated previously to outside helpers. Observe the precautions about hand washing, avoiding contact, using a mask when you have to go out. It is a lot of bother but worth it. If masks are not available, fold a clean cotton hankie several times, wet it slightly and fasten it around your mouth and nose.
Don’t be misled by the unsubstantiated claims about different diets, herbs, condiments, potions, drinks (hot, cold, lukewarm) etc. that circulate in social media. Eat a normal diet; no change from your routine.
Take time off to look at the sky, the beautiful sunrises, sunsets and the star constellations. Enjoy the silence for a while. Listen to spiritual music. Hear the birds sing in joy. Speak with the flowers that bloom brighter, watch the gauzy butterflies. All these natural gifts have suddenly sprung into renewed life, reminding us of the injustice we have heaped upon them.
It is also time to revive family values and bond together, spend precious hours with kids, indulge with parents and elders, revive lost contacts with friends, reach out to the sick and needy. Physical distancing can thus be bridged by emotional proximity.
More importantly, it is time to sit back and introspect about the higher truths, about the meaning of life, about the unseen hand of a higher entity that controls the world. The great scientists that ever lived also believed in philosophical inquiry, the world view, and the unifying theories that govern the cosmos.
It is also time for the world to wake up to the quintessential moral philosophy of the Upanishads, ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam‘ (the whole world is one family). Time to put an end to tinkering with biological agents like viruses, because any attempts at their weaponisation (bio-terrorism) may boomerang, with a serious potential to consume its creators like the fictional Frankenstein monster. This is believed to have happened in Wuhan, the epicentre of the present pandemic.
It is also time for world leaders to unite and put their heads together in the course correction of mankind. Through unregulated development and the exploitation of natural resources along with the rampant use of toxic chemicals and the massing up of effluents, humans have caused untold environmental disasters and created conditions ideal for genetic mutations in cells resulting in the high incidence of cancers and the emergence of new strains of bugs — bacteria, fungi, viruses — new mutants, potent scourges for mankind like the COVID-19.
Finally, let us pay our unbounded gratitude to the doctors and other health professions, the brave warriors who are firefighting at the front lines in the intensive care units of hospitals, against heavy odds and at great personal risk. Many of them have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Let us applaud the services of others who keep the cogs of governance functioning including the procurement of essential supplies, manufacturing life-saving equipment and ensuring uninterrupted power, water, and communication lines so vital in fighting this pandemic.
The world will not be the same after it emerges from this state of dissolution, the pralaya. A lot will depend on whether those, who survive it, will have learnt the right lessons, or will go back to their erring ways. The post-COVID-19 epoch is going to define a new Yuga, a new world order.