Ovid in the Time of Covid: Self-absorption

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.

Narcissus by Caravaggio (1594-96)

“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

His eyes.”

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?

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