Notes from a pandemic: On the shared experience of COVID-19, and the significance of mundane little pleasures

For the first time in our lifetimes, we have a single reference point that our entire planet’s human inhabitants can relate to

Samrat July 22, 2020 13:06:08 IST
Notes from a pandemic: On the shared experience of COVID-19, and the significance of mundane little pleasures

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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Good news has been scant in 2020. There is some now. Monday brought the first clear rays of hope since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than six months ago. Clinical trials on 1,077 people of a vaccine under development at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom have shown promising results. Scientists still don’t know if it will protect people against COVID-19 . Larger trials involving more people are planned in the United States, UK, South Africa and Brazil. The Serum Institute of India, the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world by number of doses produced and sold globally, also plans to start human trials of the vaccine here next month, and to manufacture a billion doses in partnership with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford university over the next year.

There are 22 other COVID-19 vaccines around the world undergoing clinical trials. At least one of those, developed by Chinese firm Sinovac, is also in advanced stages of clinical testing after showing promising results. The Sinovac vaccine is entering large-scale human testing in Brazil and Bangladesh. Several other vaccines are in the race, including one jointly developed by German firm BioNTech and US pharma giant Pfizer. There is hope that at least one of them, if not more, will prove efficacious in combating COVID-19 . Finally, after months of gloom and doom, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The light is still some distance away, though.

It will probably take months yet before the trials end, and manufacturing begins. Which countries, and which people in those countries, will get the first doses? The world population is estimated at over 7.8 billion, and growing. A majority is not likely to get vaccinated for years for purely economic and logistical reasons. Is it going to be affordable for everyone? Nor do we know how long the protection imparted by the vaccine is going to last. Flu vaccines have to be taken annually, because the protection doesn’t last, and new strains of the virus emerge year after year. The COVID-19 virus is also an RNA virus, like the flu virus, and is also mutating, albeit slower. Will the COVID-19 vaccine be a one-shot for life affair, or will it require repeated shots?

It’ll probably be a few months before there are clear answers to all these questions. What we do know for now is that a vaccine is definitely coming, and a semblance of normality can be expected after a sizable number of people are vaccinated. We can then get back to doing the ordinary little things that have become risky or impossible now – things like getting a haircut, or having a cup of coffee at a cafe, or food and drinks with friends at a restaurant or bar. Travel, which was both exciting and normal, will hopefully rebound, and we can get back to going someplace that is not the grocery store or pharmacy. I was never a regular at either the gym or swimming pool, but I must say I have been missing those too. A bit of splashing around in a pool would be lovely.

The idea of a good life, a life well lived, was always one that included mundane little pleasures. The pandemic has clarified, through enforced absence, the value of several of those little joys.

Those of us fortunate enough to have them in our lives had perhaps begun to take them for granted. We did not realise how lucky we were. Those little joys were not only privileges of class. They were also the privileges of living in a period of relative peace and rapid economic growth.

The generation of people who came of age in the decade of 1910-20, rich and poor alike, saw World War I and the crumbling of empires. Those who lived through the 1940s saw World War II and the birth of new countries. In the case of India, people in the decade of the 1940s in Bengal experienced war, a severe famine, and Partition. People born after 1971 in India, barring places like Kashmir, had been fortunate. They did not live through any tumult approaching that scale.

Our luck ran out with this pandemic.

The country is expected to see GDP contraction in the present financial year. Crores of jobs across formal and informal sectors have been lost. There have been layoffs and pay cuts all around. A lot of people have died. The disease is still very much around, and growing exponentially after topping a million cases in India. Staying alive and safe until the vaccine becomes available is still a challenge – one that is shared by people everywhere. The situation, as a popular T-shirt slogan in Cambodia says, is “same-same but different” in plenty of other countries.

When this time is over, it will remain a shared experience and memory for all who lived through it, around the world. For the first time in our lifetimes, we have a single reference point that our entire planet’s human inhabitants can relate to. We have seen something that started in a place called Wuhan in China spread around the world. We will hopefully see the vaccines, from Oxford, China, America or elsewhere, come to a pharmacy near us.

The rise of multiple populist nationalisms, for all their flag-waving, can no longer hide the lived reality of billions of connected lives. The coronavirus pandemic has shown to people around the world that we are all ‘same-same but different’.

— Photo via WikimediaCommons

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