Ovid in The Time of Covid: Heroism

During the past couple of years that the pandemic has raged around the world, we have seen how some have risen to fight the virus with all that they had at their disposal, while others cowered and dithered over what to do next.

It was imperative that the world tackled the pandemic head-on and yet, there were the heroic and brave scientists and health workers who made immense sacrifices and then, there were political leaders who used the pandemic to either spread fear, or to tighten their grip on the population.

In this edition of Ovid in the Time of Covid, I use the story of the Trojan war and of Ajax in particular, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ajax, who tried to save Achilles, and fought Hector and others with his bravery and might, seeks recognition of his efforts, against Ulysses, the leader who sought exile.


As the Covid-19 pandemic waxed and waned

Through the many months, as though they were seasons

There were indeed some who deigned

To fight it with the forces of reason

Others too content to spread fear

Denied it was ever a problem

When it got out of control, dear,

They pretended it was indeed, solemn.

He cried “Before your ships ye judge this cause,

And, with those ships in sight, Ulysses dares

To stand my Rival! Where was he, when fierce

With torch and brand raged Hector on the shore

‘Twas I who saved them—I who drove him back!”

The speech of Ajax from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XIII, Lines 6-11

What the rest of the people were

To make of the confusion that reigned

Was enough to spread more fear

Than was necessary to contain

A virus so virulent and lethal

It struck entire populations hard

Both physical and psychological

No effort could be spared, from the start.

The brave ones were at work

Quietly in their lab coats and protective gear

They were not willing to shirk

Efforts that could save lives each year.

Every day, week and month chimed

As if on a clock

It was a race against time

The one thing that wasn’t in stock.

“Let him tell his, whereof, I doubt, the most

Can vouch no witness save himself and Night.

‘Tis no mean stake we play for—true: —but this,

My rival, cheapens it! whate’er its worth

Poor toast it is to me to bear away

A prize that such as he may hope to win: —

And for Ulysses more than praise enough “

That, beaten as he was, the world shall say

He coped with Ajax! — For myself, if deeds

Were lacked or valour doubtful, birth and race

Speak trumpet-tongued…”

The speech of Ajax from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XIII, Lines 17-27

The fight was also between lockdowns

And reopening economies for business

Vaccines attracted both relief and frowns

When they were the route to success

Against this mighty adversary

That would not be tamed

It soon became necessary

To fight variants, no matter how named.

Leaders of rich countries wanted booster doses

And their little ones to be vaccinated

When poorer countries hadn’t had their first doses

And the pandemic was exacerbated

It didn’t matter how hard the brave fought

This was simply the way it had to be

All their valiant efforts come to nought

Because the rich must have their way, you see.

“What folly bids thee seek

This worse than useless prize? If, sore misled,

Greece held thy claim the better, of what boot

Would be the boon —To make thee robbed, not feared;

Thy foes would spoil and mock thee! Or thy speed

In flight—wherein above all living men

I hold thee paramount, and there alone,

“Would fail thee, weak with that heroic weight!

The speech of Ajax from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XIII, Lines 144-151.

Not to be deterred, the pharma companies

Simply keep churning out new drugs

The rate of new discoveries

Is, of course, hard to shrug

When not enough have access to them

What should the heroes do?

Fall on their sword at the helm,

Like Ajax was wont to do?

The featured image at the start of this post is of Sorrowful Ajax by Jacob Carstens (1791) from Wikimedia Commons

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