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Opinion & Analysis

Learning the Lessons

‘The Commission of Public Health had feared that the plague would come to the duchy of Milan with the German troops; and so it did, as is well known. It is also known that the plague did not stop here, but went on to invade and depopulate a large part of Italy.’

Change a few of the incidental details and the quotation could have been culled from a current Italian newspaper. In fact, it’s taken from Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, The Betrothed, a standard literary text still studied by students in most Italian schools.

Italy is no stranger to pestilence (though we avoid this archaic word and now use epidemic). In 1340, Florence could boast a population of 95,000. By 1427, after a spate of plagues, only 40,000 were left alive.

In Milan, the setting of Manzoni’s novel, and the epicentre of today’s pandemic in Italy, the plague of 1630 killed half the population. The parallels are terrifying though not exact.

The medieval and Renaissance plagues were a gruesome affair, with bodies left unattended in the streets, rumours about the provenance and nature of the disease rife, and a feeling of helplessness pervading the heavily-charged atmosphere.

If we recall these devastating events, we can only thank scientists, experts (those much maligned people!), medical staff, for the sterling work they are doing in controlling and containing the virus, and looking after and, in most cases, curing those affected by it.

Every significant historical event has generated a whole new vocabulary. The Second World War created the doodlebug, the U-Boat, Blitzkrieg. Our pandemic has also coined a whole lexicon of new words and phrases.

A typical pandemic-influenced narrative could go like this: ‘I WFH (work from home), but occasionally WFO (work from the office). When in the office, I observe social distancing, though I am told I should really say ‘physical distancing’ as the first phrase is ambiguous (it could mean just avoiding parties and big gatherings); meantime the children practise distance learning at home and hand washing has acquired the solemnity of a religious ritual.

I watch the news, waiting for that much desired ‘flattening of the curve’. I try to figure out if ‘herd immunity’ is a good thing or just too risky with many people getting infected and thereby acquiring immunity. Lastly, I shudder at the shape the ‘new normal’ will take, but mustn’t forget to clap at eight o’clock.’

Everyday, stories of selfless service to the community, doctors and nurses having to confront the virus without PPE, seeing their colleagues becoming ill and dying, darken the news media and cast a shadow over our days in quarantine. Trying to find a moral parallel to this dedication, I stumbled across the example of Buddhist saints.

In early Buddhism the saintly figure was called an ‘arhat’. This person, who had achieved Enlightenment, saw nothing wrong in entering nirvana and enjoying the fruits of his achievement. This figure was superseded by the ‘bodhisattva’ who, upon achieving Enlightenment, postponed his entry into nirvana in order to give himself selflessly to caring for others, showing compassion towards all sentient beings. Our carers and medical staff are the true bodhisattvas of today!

So what are the lessons we can learn from our present predicament? Satellite pictures taken before and after the outbreak of the pandemic have irrefutably shown that we are the biggest polluters of the environment. The pollution hotspots around Wuhan and Milan were heavily concentrated. Now, after the different lockdowns have kicked in, these same areas have experienced a dramatic drop in air pollution. One can breathe the air again minus car and motorbike fumes.

How do we implement this lesson? Obviously, we need to overcome our motor mania, walk to and from work, use public transport, and avoid using our cars for short or non-essential journeys. I have stood at the bus stop opposite Ince’s Hall around eleven, waiting for No 9 Bus. At that time there is usually heavy traffic, so heavy that there are no more than five seconds between one stream of cars and the next. When you cross the frontier into Gibraltar in your car, you are immediately surrounded by a swarm of motorbikes, mechanical bees buzzing around you and weaving in and out of the traffic. One of the positive effects of the lockdown is that most cars are stationary and only used for big shopping.

Now that we are confined to our homes (why did ‘Stay at Home’, the new mantra, become ‘Stay Home’?), we have had, per force, to slow down and relish the quiet passing of the hours. Surely, the lesson here is that we should change the frenetic pace of our lives. Caught up in the busy schedule of modern life, we have no time for the finer things which require repose, quiet and thinking. Silence has returned for the time being, making some of us listen to our own hearts, the song of birds, the music of a much-loved poem, the voice of someone we love deeply. A propos of this thought, there is a Wordsworth poem which speaks to our current dilemma: ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,/getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’ The poem laments that ‘little we see in Nature that is ours;/we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!’ Maybe the ‘new normal’ could be a more tranquil appreciation of what really matters, a deeper commitment to what is lasting and fulfilling.

Dr Rawal has repeatedly said we can learn another lesson from the current crisis: give up smoking. We know that heavy smokers are more likely to become critically ill if infected with Covid-19. Because it is a respiratory illness, it attacks the lungs, when the virus gets lodged in living tissue and starts to replicate and thrive. Healthy lungs have a much better chance of combating the virus successfully.

We have got used to the phrase ‘global pandemic’ without realising it’s really a tautology. Pandemics are by their very nature world-wide. The etymology of the word tells us it’s a disease that is spreading or has spread throughout the world-the word just means ‘all the people’ from the Greek ‘pan’ (all) and ‘demos’ (people). An epidemic can easily, as with the coronavirus, become a pandemic.

Among the less well-known words the pandemic has thrust to the fore, are iatrogenic, (of or relating to illness caused by medical treatment) and the superb ‘zoonotic’ (yes, it sounds like the name of some extraterrestrial creature from a sci-fi movie!), but it means ‘relating to any disease of animals communicable to humans,’ which could be a possible explanation for the genesis of Covid-19.

Easter has passed without the usual family gatherings, the sharing of typical Easter fare and the packed services in church for those who profess the Christian religion. The celebration of Pesach has also been muted.

But already some of us are talking of an ‘exit strategy’ (another nonce phrase!)-maybe this is premature, but psychologically uplifting and consoling. If this becomes a reality relatively soon, next Easter will be a bumper one!