Ovid in the Time of Covid: Vulnerability

As the Covid pandemic rages on, albeit at a lower level of transmission, we can never be sure that it will go away. In fact, there seems to be a growing acceptance around the world now that Covid-19 will be in our midst for a long time and we need to be fully vaccinated against it to keep it at bay. Governments are giving up on a zero-Covid strategy as it is being reported in media.

Meanwhile, we also need to be on guard and watch out for new variants. Delta alone has proven to be stubborn beyond anyone’s expectations. The fight against Covid then has become a question of vulnerability. For this month’s edition of Ovid in The Time of Covid, I use the story of Achilles and his fight with Cygnus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to speak of our vulnerabilities against the virus, with Delta becoming our Achilles’ heel.


More than a year has passed

Since the virus first struck

Unsuspecting people everywhere massed

Against an enemy without any luck.

Until science came to the rescue

And helped armour us with vaccines

Giving medicine its full due

Never did the world see such vulnerable beings.

Waves of the pandemic spread from here to there

There was no escape it seemed for mankind

Through travel and contact, the virus trapped us in its lair

What terrible loss of life, millions trapped in such a bind.

Delta proved the most hardened variant

No fight against it was tough as steel

It spread the fastest against the most valiant

Fighting it became our Achilles’ heel.

Sigaeum’s strand was red with gore: — the Son of Neptune,

Cygnus, with a thousand deaths

Had thinned the Grecian host, when through the ranks

Of Hion, from his car with Pelian spear

Wide dealing death, Achilles crashed, and, chief

With Hector or with Cygnus hot to cope,

With Cygnus first encountered, Hector’s fall

To the long war’s last year, the Fates deferred.

–      Achilles and Cygnus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XII, Lines 99-106
Achilles’ mother, Thetis, dipping him in the river Styx, by Peter Paul Rubens ( 1625) at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam; Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like Achilles who couldn’t kill Neptune’s son

The conventional way, we too will have to try

Ways beyond vaccines, even with boosters done

Even though borders are reopening, beckoning us to fly.

Staying masked, distant and at home

As much as our life permits

Is the life we are getting used to

Living like digital nomads or hermits.

Cygnus cried

“Contemptuous, that thy weapon draws no blood?

This helm whose nodding horse-hair fans my brows,

This shield whose bossy burden loads my arm,

Are but mere warrior-trappings, borne for show,

Not need. So Mars for ornament alone

Superfluous harness wears. Strip me of all

This idle casing, and invulnerable “

I front thee still – of no mere Nereid born…”

–      Achilles and Cygnus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XII, Lines 116-124

Never assuming we’re invulnerable

Or invincible in this fight

Defence can sometimes be a form of attack

Avoiding confrontation and the plight.

Reducing the chances of contracting

What can be a lethal virus

Hoping that mitigating its transmitting

Might eventually deliver us.

Other measures require our consideration

Like boosting our immunity levels

Meat consumption too calls for moderation

All ways of keeping away the evils

That we have allowed to ruin our lives

And the planet we depend upon

Time to reexamine our lives

And urgently reduce the harm we pass on.

Fierce from the battered helm the thong he tore,

And tight below his chin, with strangling noose

Compressed, all issue choked of breath and life;

And would have spoiled the course, but lo! a shell

Of empty arms was all his triumph found!

Cygnus had vanished, by his Sea-God Sire

To that white bird transformed that bears his name!

–      Achilles and Cygnus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XII, Lines 191-197

That doesn’t mean vaccines ought to be ignored

Nor should we dismiss the virus as a seasonal flu

On the contrary we need to produce and share much more

A cavalier attitude just won’t do.

If it is long Covid we are destined for, so be it.

Let us at least defend our health

It requires all of us to do our bit,

Fighting the dreaded enemy with stealth.

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