Ovid in the Time of Covid: The Healing Touch

Just when we thought that vaccines had the Covid-19 pandemic under control, at least in western countries, the Delta variant threatens to derail whatever progress was made. In India too, as well as in South-East Asia, the pandemic continues to rage, with not much improvement in daily new cases.

At a time like this, we ought to thank the medical and scientific community as well as the pharmaceutical companies for accelerating the pace of clinical trials and the development of new vaccines. It is another matter that some of them have made record profits during the pandemic and have ensured a pipeline of new drugs (and more profits), thanks to the new mRNA technology.

Meanwhile, stock markets too continue to soar across the world, including in India, because of all the liquidity pumped in by central banks, leading to the wealthy becoming wealthier. This, when millions still continue to be unemployed and consumer demand is weakening after the initial spurt in pent-up demand.

I thought I’d use the Story of Midas from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who wished to be granted the golden touch, so that everything he touched would turn into gold. Realising his foolishness, he later asks for the wish to be retracted. In my piece, however, I contrast the healing touch with the wealth touch, since I believe the world needs more of the former right now.

The healing touch

The lands in the West looked forward

To the vaccines that would deliver

Relief from the virus, and toward

Days more normal, as ever.

The doctors and nurses too endeavoured

To help patients recover

Day and night, they persevered

In selfless pursuit forever.

Glad for the Sire restored, the grateful God

For guerdon bade the Phrygian name and have

What wish he would, nor knew how thoughtless greed

Could mar and useless make so fair a boon.

Grant,” quoth the eager King, ” whate’er I touch

May turn to gold! And that pernicious gift

So pledged the Godhead granted, sad at heart

To find the fool lack wit for wiser choice.

The story of Midas in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI, Lines 127-134

In the East, though, something worse was brewing

A variant of Covid called Delta

Which, in no time, was spreading

As quickly as a wild fire.

It spread the pandemic in a new wave

Taking it to many shores

The vaccines for now would keep us safe

Who knew how many waves more.

Meanwhile, economies reopened for business

And people returned to work

Central banks kept pumping in money

And that did wonders for stocks.

The wealthy indeed got wealthier

While the poor struggled to get by

Entire industries had been torn asunder

Joblessness still unusually high.

Rich beyond hope and wretched past despair

Loathing the wealth he cannot choose but coin,

Cursing the boon that but an hour ago

He prayed for, stood the wretch, his hungry maw

Unfed, his fevered gullet parched with thirst,

Starving, with torment not unmerited

The story of Midas, Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XI, Lines 165-170

The jobs making advances

Were those nobody wanted

With Delta still avoidable

Why would anyone take chances.

Some hailed the return

Of labour’s bargaining power

But with technology on quick-burn

No telling who would have the shining hour.

Poorer countries fared no better

Few had access to enough vaccines

As rich countries talk of a booster

The poor haven’t had the first jab in.

Which raises an ethical question

For governments and pharma companies

In the West, since they form the bastion

Of controlling the supply of vaccines.

The kindly Godhead heard the fault confessed,

Nor loth to cancel what but for the faith

Of promise pledged he ne’er had ratified,

Revoked the boon, and set the suppliant free.

Yet this, he said, “ere of this golden-taint

Self-sought thou purge thee thoroughly, must thou do:

Seek out the stream that flows by Sardis’ walls;

And, facing still its downward course, ascend

The steepy hills that bank it, till thou reach

Its source, and where the fount flows freest plunge

Thy head, and cleanse thy body and thy guilt! “

The story of Midas, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI, Lines 176-186

If the rich believe they come first

They are sadly mistaken

For the wealth bubble can burst

Not so the power of healing.

The virus is global and that’s a fact

None is safe until all are protected

Makes sense to donate through Covax

And progress together, unimpeded.

The featured image at the start of this post is of The Judgement of Midas by Andrea Schiavone (1548-50), of the time when Midas had retired to the pastoral idyll of the Pans and judged a music contest between Apollo and Pan.

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