As the Covid pandemic rages in India, one cannot help but think of how our leaders were gloating over having controlled the pandemic just a few months ago. In many other countries too, populist leaders – especially strongmen – were either in complete denial over the virus and contagion, or else were too absorbed in how they could fashion the pandemic to enhance their own image.
It brings to mind the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and his complete absorption with his reflection. To the extent that it blinded him to everything and everyone else.
Now, when the virus raged through many a land
Gripping everyone it could touch,
Such that few escaped its feverish hand
People were bound to make much.
They appealed to every person they met
Oh, save us please, with whatever
You have and can set
To deliver us from this forever.
The scientists invented miracles in their labs
And had words of advice to proffer
The world waited to receive vaccine jabs
It seemed there simply wasn’t enough on offer.
Meanwhile, hospitals were running out
Of vital, life-giving, oxygen
Prolonging the raging virus bout
Nobody could say for how long, or when.
“All grace of form and colour, lily and rose
Due blended :—and each charm, that ever moved
The love of others, loves. Himself inspires
His passion :—all he praises is his own.
Wooing and wooed, the flame he yearns to raise…
Yet finds, and burns for what he sees, though what
He sees he fails to recognise, nor knows
What error ’tis that cheats and fascinates
The Story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book III, Lines 508-520
We can’t breathe, said Indian patients on life-support
Sending authorities into a tizzy
Please send O2, cried doctors who were holding fort
While chaos turned into a frenzy.
Entire cities were gasping for breath
Medicines and vaccines in short supply
Seemed there was no hope but death
From a virus mutant raging high.
Virus? What virus, tis only a flu
Said some leaders in high places
Second wave? Not in India, cannot be true
We drove it away said some with poker faces.
No oxygen? What about the funds that we
So carefully raised and disbursed?
Of course, we care, can you not see
It’s best you stay calm, lest it get worse.
“The clearing wave that colour mock, nor more
Endured it, but, as waxen torch dissolves
Beneath the flame, or frost of morning hoar
Melts in the breaking sun, so, passion-worn
And with that inward fire consumed, his frame
Wasted and faded into naught – nor charm
Remained of lily and rose, nor strength, nor use
Of limb, nor vestige of that form which moved”
The Story of Narcissus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Lines 584-591
Meanwhile virtual conferences were on in full swing
Meetings of leaders presiding over our fates
Summer, autumn, winter, or spring
Hoarding vaccines well beyond their use by dates.
India, the world’s vaccine supplier
Would now be funded by the Quad
To make vaccines for countries, including the poorer
Wouldn’t that be great, good god.
It’s easy to throw money at the problem
Much harder to share ingredients and know-how
It’s each rich country first,
As we all know by now.
And as the leaders their images burnish,
In love with their accomplishments
Let us not our minds furnish
With undue praise and compliments.
“And now they would have buried him
The pile, the torch, were there – but where’s the corpse?
A flower alone was all they found, whose heart
Blazed golden ‘mid a circlet of white leaves.”
The Story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Lines 610-613
For vain are populist leaders, who feign
Care and devotion for their populace
We know ‘tis only for electoral gain,
And fear of falling from grace.
Who knows what new flower will sprout
From millions of lesser mortals’ funeral pyres
And the tears that fell all about;
Will it be the coronavyres?