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An oncologist’s take on life, death and our quest for immortality

Dr Kashyap Patel

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You are neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind or space/ For the sake of freedom, know yourself as the embodiment of pure eternal consciousness and witness thereof/ You are unbound pure awareness, supreme eternal bliss, in which universe appears like the mirage of a snake in a rope./ Be happy.

— Ashtavakra

Since the beginning of time, human beings have been on a quest to defy death. Records show the quest for immortality dating as far back as the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang. He was obsessed with attaining immortality. He sent expeditions to find the secret to it, rumoured to be on the mythical island of Penglai, home to immortals. When this island was never located, he instructed his court chemists to formulate a compound that would give him immortality. His court alchemists concocted an elixir with mercury at its base. As you can imagine, drinking this elixir eventually killed him.

 Many pursued the secret of immortality in other parts of the world. Alchemy was practised regularly during the medieval period in the Middle East among Islamic communities, and in Europe in many religions, as well as by non-religious leaders and cultures. Muslims of the great Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates developed empirical approaches to it, which served as precursors to the more well-known European alchemy of the early twelfth century.

Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Sir Isaac Newton devoted significant time to alchemical studies, believing he could eventually discover the philosopher’s stone, which is thought to grant immortal life. With the medical advancements the scientific revolution brought, however, alchemy fell into disfavour.

‘Harry,’ I said as he (cancer patient Harry McGill) visited the following morning, ‘imagine that only you were granted immortality. What would it be like to see everyone you have ever loved — your friends, your children — all die one by one around you as you continue to linger on for centuries? What would that kind of life look like?’

‘Not good, doc. When everyone that I knew died, what would be the point of living?’ ‘Indeed, Harry. I agree with you! Yet, there are other ways to look at it. Depending on one’s religious leaning, there is the possibility of personal immortality in several theological or metaphysical modes—from physical resurrection and spiritual survival as a disembodied soul to reincarnation. The other possibility is through familial immortality. Our genes are passed down to our children, and to their children after them. Thus, our DNA continues to be part of the fabric of this world, even after we’re gone.

‘We can also leave behind a legacy through the influence we have on others. This form of immortality exists in the impact we have on individual lives—family, friends, students and members of our community. Even after we are gone, that influence remains, to be passed on to their children and their children’s children.

‘And when we die, we release back to the earth the elements we borrowed from it that constituted our body. These elements eventually give birth to new life forms and organisms. The elements of our body participate in the natural world long after we are gone. You can take comfort in the fact that your death will be part of the cyclical process of nature.’

 ‘Like when my friend drops my ashes over where I used to fly?’

‘Just like that, my friend. That one act alone will make you immortal. But I want you to remember all the good you’ve done for those around you… for society, in general. The love and life you’ve given Susan (Harry’s wife) and your children. The good you’ve accomplished through your work. The friends you’ve loved and encouraged. Yours is a legacy any man would be proud of. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, all of those things make you immortal!’

Harry shifted in his chair, paused a moment, then shifted back. As he adjusted himself again, he said, ‘You’ve told me about what your religion believes and what different people believe. What about you, personally?’

‘Well, Harry, I see my own immortality through oneness—or non-duality—with all existence. This was an idea expressed in the ancient philosophical Upanishads, and rehearsed by Ashtavakra and Sankaracharya, two of my favourite Indian philosophers. Such a state is described in almost every religious tradition and can be realized through meditation.’

‘So, you think that immortality is really something that humanity can achieve in different ways… without existing in this body. But since we’re just here for a short time and then die… what does it all mean?’

‘Harry, despite all of the psychological, existential and philosophical challenges death confronts us with, I believe that death is what makes a meaningful life possible, knowing what little time we have makes every day precious, and each moment sacred. Recognizing that we can pass on something enduring from ourselves to those who will follow us can give us a powerful sense of purpose, even if the brevity of our existence tinges our days with wistfulness.’

Harry said nothing. But I could see in his eyes the kind of wistfulness I had just mentioned.

 I continued, ‘If death is the end of us, does it make life meaningless? Or is it what makes life meaningful? Death is paradoxical in many ways. Death is bad, yet not bad for the person who dies. It is both important to hold on to it, and essential to let go of it. We are justified in fearing death, and yet we should recognize that death is what gives our life meaning.

‘Harry, death is one of our most powerful teachers. Hopefully, the wisdom we gain from reflecting on the impermanence of all around us, and from exploring the ideas of those who have faced and thought deeply about death and loss, will help us die better when the time comes — and to live wiser, richer and more fulfilling lives while we have them. Just as you’re doing, Harry.’

 ‘Just as you’re helping me do, doc,’ my friend said.

Excerpts from Dr Kashyap Patel’s book, ‘Between Life and Death: From Despair to Hope’ (Penguin). Dr Patel is a renowned oncologist in the US who works with terminally ill cancer patients.

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We take pride in trying our best to save lives: Marina Shaikh & Nandini Singh Jhabua

Marina Shaikh and Nandini Singh Jhabua from The Rising World Foundation recently joined NewsX on its special series NewsX India A-List to share how they helped thousands of people across India during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The Rising World Foundation (RWF) is a not-for-profit charitable organisation dedicated to relieving the impact of Covid-19 on India’s most vulnerable communities. Marina Shaikh, Founder of The Rising World Foundation, and Nandini Singh Jhabua, Communications Director of The Rising World Foundation recently joined NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List to speak on how they helped thousands of people across India during the second wave of the pandemic.

Marina, an experienced social organiser and philanthropist with international experience began the conversation and said, “I was in Brussels since 2017 when I found this organisation and it was my work with the international development committee in the European Parliament that gave me much understanding of what kind of work I wanted to do basically. I did a lot of public service projects and worked a lot with the international government. But I also realised that I wanted to come back and serve the people of my own country and hence The Rising World Foundation was formed.”

Nandini threw light on their collaboration and said, “Marina and I belong to Madhya Pradesh, our families are two generation’s friends and we grew up together. We both always liked community service as children. I remember we used to always plan that we’re going to do something and serve a community in a way that we wanted to, especially to the needy, to the marginalised community.”

Through her work with Marina and the RWF, Nandini hopes to combine her two greatest passions: her family’s connection to tribal art forms and giving back to the community. Talking about how the foundation operated and helped the community at large, Marina said, “The rural is our target. Rural communities in Madhya Pradesh is what we have been targeting and recently we have started with a fundraiser for oxygen supplies in Madhya Pradesh.”

“We have been working on that lately, as we got a lot of calls from a lot of villages that we have been working in for the past whole year. We started a fundraiser with Milaap. We hope a lot more people can contribute to this cause and you know help the state,” she added.

Elaborating on the working of RWF, Nandini said, “We have been working for the past year and a half ever since Marina started the NGO in 2015. The pandemic hit us and at that time we weren’t sure how would we start, we were immediately started relief works. Between Marina and I, we covered five different states along with Madhya Pradesh.”

“It was amazing the kind of work we have done along with drives including the educational, agricultural drives and breast cancer awareness drive. It was really nice that we were able to reach out to almost over 1 lakh people with information, mask sanitisers, hygiene kits, so I think we have made a tremendous difference in these five states,” she added.

Marina told us about her on-ground experiences during the devastating second wave of the Covid pandemic, “It’s extremely intimidating going to hospitals and distributing to their families, food and hygiene kits for women. It’s been very intimidating with whole new black fungus. I mean I’m glad that we’re doing whatever we can and yeah it’s very tough for us. We are trying our best to save lives and I take pride and say it’s alright to just go out. Somebody has to do it.”

Talking about their ongoing fundraiser, Marina said, “We have people who supported us from across the world. We have received about 20 lakhs and our target was 30 lakhs. We have already donated 26 oxygen concentrators to various districts in Madhya Pradesh.”

On a concluding note, Nandini mentioned how one can reach out and support the ongoing cause of RWF, “They can DM us and follow The Rising World Foundation. We hope every individual put the tools they need to thrive. The sky is vast the opportunities are limitless. Come out and support us to help us in every way to save lives, as many as we can.”

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A FATHER’S LOVE IS LIKE AN UNENDING TRIP OF JOY AND HAPPINESS

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Whenever we talk about God, One word that always resonates with it is father. Whether it’s our dad, brother, son, or any other father figure, these men need to know what a huge difference their presence makes in society.

Many of us are lucky to have our dad by our side. But for others who lost their fathers, this day is a painful reminder that their dad is no longer around. I hope they’re able to find peace during these testing times and if it makes any better, your dad will always be watching over you from the sky to keep you warm and protected.

Several atrocities came in where others left me midway. But it is my father who has always grabbed my hand and tirelessly crossed the other side with me. In every sphere of my life, I wouldn’t have become self-reliant without his blessings and constant support. His never forgetting life lesson made me who I am today. 

Here’s a part of him left in his diary, which I discovered on his bookshelf after he passed away. Unfortunately, the diary pages were left blank. That made me a bit curious. Why didn’t he write anything? By the time I flipped to the last page, I got to know what he wanted me to become. There was a crumpled piece of paper on the last page. Therein, it was written, “I know you would search for it someday. I just want to tell you one thing that you were born to rule the world and I can’t wait to see you conquer everything you touch upon from up here. I love you to the core, my strongest child.” – Your One and only Daddy

Losing a father is devastating. So, grieve as much as you want and cry and sulk but then think about your father’s hopes and dreams about you, he’d never want to see his little child so distressed. So collect the broken pieces of your heart and stand tall for him. You will discover this new strength that resides in you. Sharing photos and memories, and taking part in meaningful activities centred around your father’s life and tradition, will make this a more meaningful day for you.

And for the lucky ones who have the angels called dad around, here’s what can you do to make his day memorable: 

SPEND TIME WITH HIM 

Make his presence felt. You would certainly not like to see him neglected on this occasion. Spend little time with your dad on Father’s Day thanking God for the blessing of their presence; pray for their strength and guidance.

GATHER AROUND WITH FAMILY

A father loves to see all his family together. Make sure to plan a get-together on this occasion so that your father enjoys quality time with the family. Plan for a retro event along with homemade food that he loves so that he feels overjoyed and special. 

REMEMBRANCE

One of the most important things is to remember him forever. Not to forget that he made you feel jubilant whenever you felt gloomy. It is rightly said, “Encourage one another and build each other up.” And Father’s Day is a chance for us to make that happen. 

Lift their spirits, celebrate their joyous moments, and remind them how much they’re appreciated every single day. Remember his life mantra, do not exaggerate things, and always show your affection. 

Though it can be difficult — especially if your loss is sudden or recent — remembering dad openly and together will help your appreciation for your father grow. And you will be comforted as you hear the things that others remember most about your dad — stories you’ve never heard before or forgotten.

On this Father’s day where the world is a bit helter-skelter due to Covid-19, spend some quality time with your father. As you never know what would happen in the future. Cherish these moments because these moments would last forever in your memories. No matter how you reach out, your encouragement is sure to make this Father’s Day one they’ll always remember.

The writer is president, Purush Aayog.

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Genome surveillance for pandemic disaster preparedness

Covid-19 has ushered in a new digital era and is rewiring the world’s perspective to genomic science and sensibilities to personal data privacy in public health management.

Suravi Sharma Kumar

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Besides uncovering the gaps in healthcare infrastructure, the pandemic has thrown up the lack of a data-driven ecosystem and culture in the country at various levels of the healthcare system. In today’s world, as much we appreciate the potential of genome science, we need to know that it’s a resource-intensive work around quality data (input, storage, and analysis). Over the last few decades, the strong ties between DNA and Computer Science have revolutionised genomics technologies. At this juncture, about Covid genome sequencing we must know that we are now in an era of rapid (and cheaper) sequencing. But today the ability to determine DNA sequences is starting to outrun the ability of researchers to store, disseminate, and analyse data. Genome studies need pre and post-sequencing data management to make sense of the genome mapping and work towards the epidemiological goals. Genomic surveillance is the best we can do to track the virus and prepare public health defence measures against it. The importance of this aspect of pandemic management can be ignored only to our detriment in the face of the third wave/ future waves. 

Data generated from whole-genome sequencing is huge (in terabytes) and demands computational capabilities to manage it. Analysed genomic information requires to be combined with clinical/ epidemiological inputs that in turn can yield insights on the virus that can be used in public health interventions. The sequencing process needs a high level of laboratory infrastructure that is expensive. As India had spent very little per capita on healthcare before the pandemic, there is a lot needing investment/funding for the India genome project. The funding/investment, I believe should be through public and private involvement considering the immense capability of the Indian private sector in Genome Informatics when pitted against the public sector.

The convergence of biology and computing is necessary for this relatively obscure technology. Essentially a biologist and a programmer should work closely to facilitate the development of tools and systems that can solve a biological question. Many public health laboratories may not have the right bioinformatics capability (Kelly F. Oakes on Comments to Author, 2017) and data management resources for large scale public health projects. Also, Database management and big data analytical capabilities may not be in alignment with some of the public sector institutes’ objectives which are mostly around teaching and human resource capacity building in Biotechnology and microbial research. 

As we know detecting mutations/variations can identify the cause of outbreaks: the virus behaviour — the fast-spreading or the immune escaping variants — guide public health policies, and even find a drug/cure or inform vaccine researchers. To detect genome variations, millions or billions of data points have to be analysed through computational techniques — pattern analysing algorithms, mathematical models, image processing and so on. 

Apart from the public sector regional labs identified by the Genetic Consortium, there are Indian genomics companies in the private sector that have world-class capabilities. And apart from these, the IT giants of India, have one or two genomics labs each, and with state-of-the-art infrastructure handling liquid biopsies and doing work mostly in NGS (Next-generation Sequencing). These genome science labs of IT corporate houses are adept at preparing data files and computational techniques besides performing the steps of gene/ whole-genome sequencing. I believe, these capabilities in India’s IT sector can contribute to the country’s Covid scene by directly contributing to laboratory research work for its R&D experience in the field. This I believe will enable the delivery of standardised genomic data meeting international quality requirements; thereby catching up with the required GISAID or GenBank data contribution requirement for the country. 

In a well-designed PPP (Public-Private-Partnership) model, these Genomic labs in the private/corporate sector will be able to provide not only the required lab infrastructure for genome sequencing (or mapping) but also the much-required strong digital capabilities to complement the process and thereby support NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control). Authorities should find ways to incorporate these labs with high infrastructure that are not licensed for clinical use but have been contributing to high-level research work in tandem with renowned cancer hospitals and oncologists for their skill and include them in the genome surveillance efforts for the greater public good. The Bioinformatics capability of the Indian IT sector will be able to transform the genomic surveillance scenario of the country, thereby helping in pandemic preparedness.

As we know, by now India should have sequenced more than five million samples to have a good understanding of the virus and its strains, but so far 11,047 sequences have been performed (of the 1.4 million samples sequenced worldwide) according to GISAID. Currently, less than 0.05% of positive cases in India are subjected to such mapping while the recommended number is 5% of all samples. On the other hand, few countries (like the UK, the US, Belgium) have been doing whole genomic sequencing in real-time to inform/update the public health response system.

Unavailability of metadata along with Covid samples sent for genome evaluation is another concern which I believe is for data privacy or ethics issues. The authorities should address this the soonest and enable the collection of complete relevant epidemiological data (demographic, clinical and laboratory) through public health workers in the right format, and share it — anonymised or as-is with patient consent with the laboratories where the samples are sent for analysis. At this point, we must also remember that life sciences or healthcare data are always un-structured unlike other branches of science, and data scientists often find biological data technically trickier to organise. Readying the data for research use itself may be a struggle and may necessitate the use of high-end techniques like natural language processing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new digital era and is rewiring the world’s perspective to genomic science and sensibilities to personal data privacy in public health management. Governments around the globe are imposing new digital surveillance tools to track and monitor individuals for the new norms of Covid etiquettes as well as the morphology of the virus for variations to bolster defences against the novel virus. 

The writer is a medical doctor (pathologist) and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. The views expressed are personal.

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WE ARE FOCUSED ON HELPING THE HELPLESS AND FEEDING THE NEEDY: ARIDAMAN RATHORE & AANJNEYA SINGH

Aridaman Singh Rathore, Founder, Act Jaipur and Aanjneya Singh, Member, Act Jaipur joined NewsX’s special series, NewsX India A-list and spoke about how social media became a valuable tool in making their aim a fortunate reality.

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Covid-19 was an unprecedented disaster that wreaked havoc on the world and is still at its prime momentum. Humanity is being tested daily, and some warriors are holding up its sanctity with valour and pride. NewsX’s special series, NewsX India A-list, aims at acknowledging such warriors. Aridaman Singh Rathore, Founder, Act Jaipur and Aanjneya Singh, Member, Act Jaipur, participated in the special series for their excellence in social work.

Introducing the concept behind this initiative and how it all came together, Aridaman said, “It was nothing but friend and family coming together to do their bit.” Driven by the feeling of helplessness and witnessing the Covid-19 pandemic exploding onto our country, he added, “We are focused on helping the helpless and feeding the needy. Even people with a good job profile who got laid off are suffering, and we came to their aid as well.”

Aanjneya Singh, who has been working in New York for six years, came to India for holidays and couldn’t go back due to the lockdown restrictions. Explaining how he came to be a part of this noble initiative, he said, “Actions speak louder than words. We had the resources and the network, so helping people in need was our responsibility.” Aanjneya also mentioned how donations from across Europe and New York, through his contacts, have been beneficial in propelling social aid.

Both the individuals spoke about how social media became a valuable tool in making their aim a fortunate reality. Aridaman connected with his cousins and friends over a WhatsApp group and started their page on Instagram. Social Media proved to be immensely helpful in propagating the idea further.

Throwing light on the reach and expansion of ‘Act’, Aridaman said, “Our initial goal was distributing 10,000 food packets. Today, we have distributed 23,791 meals, and are projecting close to 50,000 packets by mid-June.” Reiterating the importance of social media in times of the pandemic, Aridaman talked about the ease with which people with similar aim and equal drive connected with Act on Instagram. The platforms also facilitated their networking with several NGOs. One such NGO is ‘Raksha’. In collaboration with Raksha, Act Jaipur also fed stray animals and has expanded to distributing dry ration in slums.

“We wanted people to act out. We had had enough of just talking, it’s time to act now. We wanted people to realise the power of Social Media and reach out to the needy in such trying times,” said Aridaman while enlightening about the name of their initiative. He said that they want to do as much as they can in their limited capacity and are unwilling to stop until they achieve it. Aanjneya echoed Aridaman’s thought and said, “Doing something is always more beneficial than just speaking up.”

Humanity is facing a crisis, and initiatives like Act Jaipur gives people hope and a dose of positivity which is the need of the hour (after a dose of the vaccine). Ending the interview on a hopeful note, Aridaman said, “No amount is less, and no effort is lost.”

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WHAT OTHER STATES CAN LEARN FROM MP IN DEALING WITH COVID-19

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The worst ever pandemic, Covid-19 has affected the mankind world over, almost every country was caught unaware and unprepared. The gravity and severity of the pandemic were very much visible over time. It affected almost every aspect of human life including health, economy, development, and growth. It all came to a halt. The scientists, doctors, government, and the common man didn’t know what had hit them.

The worst situation the country ever faced after independence — the leadership and the common man didn’t know what had hit them and didn’t know how to deal with it and what to do. Everyone including scientists, doctors and researchers tried their level best to find a way out to deal with this dragon of the pandemic.

Though at the national level, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the charge of the affairs and in Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan took the bull by the horns. So what made Madhya Pradesh different from other states in dealing with this pandemic is the Chief Minister taking the charge directly to control the scenario before it could get worse by taking adequate steps. This helped to not only control the pandemic but fight it and try to finish it. The fallout was much less than the anticipated one, damage to the economy and people were within control.

It was precisely because of the leadership of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, owing to his vast experience, know-how of the state, people, flora and fauna, as well as his vision and long term measures, nipped the problem in the bud itself and stopped it from blooming.

Whether it was managing the affairs at the state level, inter-state level, or national level, he was at his best, using all his resources in dealing with the pandemic.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan saw to it that the necessary medicines were made available besides providing oxygen and medical equipment, availability of beds to the needy ones on the one side and on the other side, making a team of dedicated officers to ensure the availability of necessary medicines that are not overpriced, keep a check on black marketing, hoarding etc. Also he ensured to check the supply of genuine medicines and lifesaving drugs, all these were made available timely to the patients at reasonable prices.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s way of dealing with the situation was lauded by the Prime Minister and other states were asked to replicate the Madhya Pradesh model especially in dealing with the pandemic in rural areas.

Whether it was dealing with the problem of migrant labourers, farmers, and agriculture-related issues, and getting the right prices to the farmers for their produce, the Chief Minister excelled in everything.

In this time of distress, his government made special policies for helping street vendors. Apart from this, taking the responsibility of the orphan children whose parents have died in the traumatic situation, Shivraj Singh Chouhan set an example, which was later on replicated by the Centre and other states also.

The Chief Minister, on regular basis, tried to get community feedback from various sources. He invited suggestions from every quarter of the society before framing any policy or taking any important decision. Involving public participation was the key to his success. On important issues, he didn’t shy away from taking advice from leaders of opposition and taking their help in case of need.

At the national level also, due to his vast experience and long stint, he was in regular touch with several Union Ministers in case of any help the state government needed be it the Union Railway Minister, for running Oxygen Express to various destinations of the state, or talking to Union Health Minister for the supply of necessary medicines, medical equipment, masks, oxygen concentrators etc. in time of need, or asking the Union Commerce and Industry Minister to open oxygen plants for various places in the state.

In case of severity, Shivraj Singh Chouhan didn’t even hitch in requesting the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah for timely release of necessary funds under various schemes to cope up with the dreaded situation. He didn’t shy away in asking for help from Chief Ministers of other states for helping the migrants from Madhya Pradesh stuck in their states. Meanwhile, Shivraj Singh Chouhan also helped the migrants from other states stuck in Madhya Pradesh. He took full care of them and ensured their safe return to their native places.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan is is the real son of the soil. In the state, he decentralised the powers to the ground level and made all district magistrates act and take quick decision, and in case of fatality, were answerable also.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan held regular meetings with the health and district officials and that helped him to get the right feedback and act accordingly as per need. It was this approach that all the districts of the states are out of the red zone and the state has begun with the unlocking process from 1 June onwards. It is his confidence, grit, and zeal to work for the people of the state to move forward with confidence and courage that worked wonders for Madhya Pradesh in fighting with Covid-19 pandemic.

The writer is Joint Director (P.R.), New Delhi, Government of Madhya Pradesh. 

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The Greek connection of the pandemic and more

When the world is looking for politically-correct nomenclature and yearning for a medical utopia in which everyone is protected from the pandemic, ancient Greece is as good a place as any to start looking for beginnings of ideas and experiences that preoccupy us today.

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One of the latest developments in the year and a half old pandemic has been nomenclatural. On 31 May 2021, the WHO rechristened Covid virus variants of interest after the first four Greek letters — alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. The Greek alphabet is the major contributor to English, but even in original, it occupies an important and euphonious place in domain-specific jargons, popping up in unlikeliest places. The Phi Beta Kappa Society, active since 1776, has 290 chapters in the US. Leaders of social groups are called alphas, betas, and omegas, in the order of dominance, based on research originally conducted on wolves in captivity. Software development goes through beta testing. We sleep wrapped up in alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and theta waves. Some unconscious patients end up in an alpha coma. Theta captures the decline in the value of a stock option over time. The Riemann Zeta function is used to study the properties of prime numbers. Lambda has come to stand for gay liberation, besides dozens of others meanings in as many disciplines. The examples can be multiplied almost without end. If Greek enrichment of jargon is diverse and wide-ranging, Greek contributions to ideas and culture are encyclopaedic. 

 To ancient Greeks, we also owe the idea of Polis. Poleis were nascent city-states established in ancient Greece over two millennia ago. The Covid-19 pandemic, already a year and a half old, has germinated a new aspiration among people across the world- to acquire as quickly as possible membership of a polis that might be called Immuno-polis. It is the virtual, global, and utopian community of those who have developed immunity to the SARS-CoV-2. Some have become its unwilling members by contracting the disease and developing antibodies against severe future attacks. Others are members by vaccination. The remainders, still a majority of people, await membership after getting their shots. Fears that they might be expelled from the protective borders of Immuno-polis by emerging strains have largely proved unfounded. Immunopolitans will continue to enjoy most of their privileges with the existing vaccines, with more on the way. From polis have arisen Metropolis, Cosmopolis, Necropolis, as well as the above-mentioned Immuno-polis. When herd immunity is achieved, benefits of this imaginary community would be available to all, even those who haven’t suffered from the disease or received a vaccine; we would all end up living in a Utopia.

Utopia, or an ideal community, is also a Greek idea, though morphed. In most intellectual histories, coinage of the word is attributed to Sir Thomas More (1474-1535) by whose work of the same name we know him best. However, he was only the efficient cause of neologism, as Aristotle might have put it. More seems to have got the word while translating the works of Greek satirist Lucian, whose True History, a compilation of events that never happened, is based in outopia, meaning ‘no place’. From this root, and ‘eutopia’, meaning a good place, More invented a pun, Utopia. Today we think of Utopia as goodness incarnate in a state. But More’s Utopia is dysfunctional, what we would now call a dystopia.

 This is not merely a linguistic quibble. The idea of a flawless state, and by implication, a flawed one, was Greek before Lucian got going. Plato, and Aristotle after him, assumed an idealised political entity of which all earthly republics and entities were imperfect forms and corruptions. The thread was picked up by Polybius and Cicero in ancient Rome after the disintegration of the Greek city-states. With the spread of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo and several centuries after him, St. Thomas Aquinas developed the idea in the context of a Christianising Western Europe and Italy. Plagues that wracked the medieval world contributed to a concrete concept of the opposite of Utopia. Ideal communities and their debased variants have been imagined, written about, and romanticised and demonised at all times and in all cultures. Dystopian writers today are respected distant descendants of Old Testament writers and Dante, whose descriptions of hell were alarming enough for his native Florence to drive him to seek the protection of Verona. Perhaps the greatest 20th-century creator of dystopias, Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell, was at home in the Greek language. Writing a decade before Orwell, Aldous Huxley, in his Brave New World (1932), ordered his imaginary casteist society from alpha at the top to epsilon at the bottom. 

If renaming the variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus after letters of the Greek alphabet and ideal imaginary communities has ancient Greek roots, so is one of the earliest descriptions of epidemics and plagues. Hippocrates, the great physician of Greek Antiquity (460-370 BC), was perhaps the first to define endemics and epidemics. His pre-modern theory of humour continues to inform several enclaves of alternate medicine. Thucydides, the greatest among ancient historians and chronicler par excellence of The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), describes the Athenian plague in the second year of the war, a contagion he contracted and survived. ‘At the beginning, the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. Mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they come more frequently in contact with the sick’, he writes. He goes on: ‘Some died in neglect, some despite every possible care being taken of them, what did good in some cases did harm in others. Those with naturally strong constitutions were no better able than the weak to resist the disease’. There were crises of faith, disorganised funerals, overwhelmed public facilities, changed attitude towards wealth and leisure and much else that sounds familiar in these times. What now and what next were as pressing questions then as they are now. When the world is looking for politically correct nomenclature and yearning for a medical utopia in which everyone is protected from the pandemic, ancient Greece is as good a place as any to start looking for beginnings of ideas and experiences that preoccupy us today. 

The writer is a physician and a civil servant in India.

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