As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world and millions continue to die, its effects on different sections of society are widely different. And even as vaccines roll out, access to them and the speed of vaccination programmes too vary widely across the world.
Meanwhile, the economic impacts of the pandemic are making their presence felt as well, with soaring stock-markets – thanks to all the liquidity pumped in by central banks and governments – making the rich even wealthier and the poor losing their livelihoods.
In this edition of Ovid in the Time of Covid, I wish to refer to the story of Icarus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which he is warned not to fly too high, even if there appears to be no such cautionary tale for the world’s plutocrats.
‘Tis been over a year now that
The Covid-19 virus has ravaged the world
Laying everyone low and flat
In its path, through which it whirled
Entire cities were forced into lockdown
Not once, not twice, but time and again
The poor were forced out of job and town
While the rich it seems had plenty to gain.
Like Daedalus, many said they would fight
To be free and roam wherever they pleased
In the markets the rich found their flight
And they wove their dreams of golden fleece
Poor ordinary folk, cramped into the city’s
Nooks, crannies and crevices, teeming
Consoled themselves with ditties
That others thought was day-dreaming.
Daedalus, at exile chafing now
Too long, and yearning for his native shores,
The Sea in Crete held prisoner. “Land and wave”
He cried, ” deny me way! But Heaven above
Lies open! Heaven shall bear me home! All else
May Minos bar—he cannot bar the air!”
The story of Icarus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book VIII, Lines 209-214
The rich worked from home, or wherever they wished
They lived their lives on the internet.
The poor, whether they farmed or they fished
Or worked in factories, you could always bet
Had no choice but to get to work
To earn their livelihoods
If they were lucky to keep their work
And look after their broods.
And that is not all that they suffered
For their employers were forced to down shutters
If not because of a lockdown, one heard
Then because there were no customers.
Many were at the mercy of bosses
And their plans of staying open
Who, considering they were looking at losses,
Were probably wondering when.
So spake he, and to arts unheard-of yet,
Passing the force of Nature, bent his thought;
And wings he framed, from short to longer quill
With gradual slope expanding, – as the Swan
Fits to his rustic pipe the unequal reeds, —
With thread the longer binding and with wax
The shorter, to such arch, as curves the wings
Of very birds, inclined.
The story of Icarus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VIII, Lines 215-222
The wealthy and privileged stayed home
Cocooned in their nests, freshly feathered
With the spoils of the stock-market boom
Wondering when more would come their way, not whether.
They made plans for their next generation scions
And future growth trajectories
Not realizing that consumer demand of days halcyon
Came from people working in their factories.
Meanwhile, scientists dazzled the world
With their brilliance, and delighted over the world’s first Covid vaccines,
But over the next few weeks, what unfurled
Told of pharma companies’ and rich countries’ greed.
Oh, we can’t possibly make many more
At the rate that we first projected
And we can’t send any to other shores
Until our own are fully protected.
Then he taught the boy
Their use: and “Midway keep thy course,” he said
“My Icarus, I warn thee! or, too low,
The damps will clog thy pinions, or, too high,
The heat relax them. Midway hold thy flight,
Not dare too near to soar where Helice
Shines dangerous, or Bootes, or the sword
That decks Orion’s glittering belt. By mine
Thy course direct!”
The story of Icarus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VIII, Lines 230-238
Many poor countries haven’t received their vaccines
While rich ones are flying full-steam ahead
To protect their elderly and frail by all means
Poor, coloured people, probably not yet.
India has billions at home to inoculate
And vaccines for the world galore
The world’s richest country is in such a state
Stars and stripes, they don’t mean much anymore.
The featured image at the start of this post is of the painting, The Flight of Icarus, by Jacob Peter Gowy (1635-37) from Wikimedia Commons