It began as “panspermia”, a hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, that was coined by the 5th century BC Greek polymath Anaxagorus. He theorised that the first contaminants – as also other organisms – made their appearance via meteors that had loosened from large stars and plunged down to earth, carrying “seeds everywhere and thus generating life”. Aristotle pipped him at the post with the more believable theory of spontaneous generation of life on earth.
Forgotten for nearly 2,000 years, Anaxagorus was revived at the turn of the 19th century when astrobiology became a respectable science. Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe published “Diseases From Space” in 1979 that ascribed the 1918 flu pandemic to an unspecified extraterrestrial source.
“It did not go down well. After the SARS epidemic of 2003, the idea was revived briefly – as it will be now, without doubt,” Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, doctors writing as Kalpish Ratna, contend in “A Crown Of Thorns – The Coronavirus And Us” (Context), adding for good measure that in 2009, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which has for long conducted air-sampling balloon experiments, had recovered three novel strains of bacteria from altitudes of 27 and 41 km.
Today, as Covid-19 sweeps the planet, we are panicked and baffled. Bombarded with disinformation and panic-inducing statistics, we are cowed by the enormity and uncertainty of what’s unfolding.
The narrative, so far, has been about a novel coronavirus. But Covid-19 is not just about SARS-CoV-2. It is about the virus and us.
We have coexisted with viruses from the dawn of evolution. What has changed? Is it this ‘new virus’? Or, has something changed in us? Have we disrupted something crucial in Nature?
“A Crown of Thorns” is science and history woven into the human story – the long view on a pandemic that’s consuming us. Kalpish Ratna, writing in the singular, distil their study of plagues and epidemics into a work packed with ideas that provoke and insights that illuminate.
Their previous book, “The Secret Life of Zika Virus (2017) examined the emergence of the Congenital Zika Syndrome. “Synapse” (2019) combines fiction with a heavy dose of facts and deals with crucial breakthroughs in neuroscience, and with cameos from numerous scientific luminaries; the hair-raising stories traverse time, space and the dark underbelly of scientific progress.
Covid-19 was no surprise, the book maintains.
“After the 2003 outbreak of SARS and the 2012 outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), it was only a matter of time before another lethal coronavirus struck us.
“Were we unprepared”, or rather, “Why did we let it happen again?”
“We failed to prevent it because we failed to recongnise a truth that stares is in the face.
“It would be more correct to say we refuse to recognise it,” says the book, that attempts to take the reader away from the “Hai Ram, yeh kya go gaya hai” (Oh God, what is happening) syndrome to a more rational line of reasoning.
Be it yellow fever, zika fever, chikungunya, ebola, Nipah virus or what have you, they might be different but “their landscape of origin is the same. And it is a shockingly familiar one no matter where you live. It is a landscape without trees”.
All these diseases emerged – or remerged, more virulent and dangerous – as a result of human encroachment on forests.
“Historically, we might trace them to tropical rainforests, but right now we must look closer to home. Because the forest was, till very recently, right here somewhere, in and about your housing colony, around that gated highrise and its adjacent slum,” the book says.
“Disease is driven by capitalism today: the forests of Asia, Africa, Central and South Americas are enslaved to richer nations to produce goods that serve few and bankrupt millions. The use of forests to fuel the greed of capitalism must cease. Else, a landscape without trees may soon become a landscape without people,” the book says.
What else can we do?
Noting that the standard narrative of Covid-19 is biased – the virus gets all the attention, but Covid-19 isn’t about the virus, “it is about us”, the book says: “We are a species in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. The virus is much older at this game of survival. Still, we’ve survived viruses since we emerged, haven’t we…History is the narrative of conquest, disease is the narrative of defeat” and the human race today is “poised between these two”.
So, “why not reclaim the playbook (all the pieces and parts that make up the go-to approach for getting things done)?
“Why not reconsider Covid-19 from the human vantage, from our point of view?
“And while we wait for vaccines and therapies, why not repair health?
“Whose life is it anyway?”
Yours and mine, Kalpish Ratna; so let’s get on with it!