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It is now received wisdom that an individual recovers from a personal crisis, such as a divorce or bereavement, through a seven-stage process. Denial, fear, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression/frustration and acceptance. I would like to postulate that society as a whole goes through a similar process when confronted with a crisis like the ongoing pandemic that affects large numbers of people. Of course, at any given moment, individuals will appear to be at different stages of this process. We each know of deniers and dare-devils among us, but two years on, as a society, we appear to be somewhere between frustration and acceptance.

Scientifically, a pandemic typically concludes with an end(emic) game. In societies, it usually concludes when absurdities abound and humour makes its way in. The pandemic has been no joking matter, but humour is an essential coping mechanism for handling adversity and is critical to getting beyond the acceptance phase. Look just a bit beyond the obvious, and irony and humour appear to be acting as ‘vaccines’ everywhere.

The World Health Organization (WHO), in its infinite wisdom and after consultation with its member countries, decided to name the variants of Sars-CoV-2 after letters in the Greek alphabet. A “variant of concern" is decided based on the virus’s properties: how easily it spreads, associated severity of disease, diagnostic ability, therapeutic medicines, performance of vaccines and other public health measures.

The WHO is currently monitoring a handful of these variants named Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron. Most people have only a hazy recollection of the Greek alphabet. The early letters that have some role in high-school mathematics are better recognized. As the 15th letter, omicron has no such name recognition, even though it has some uses in advanced mathematics and astronomy. The WHO is continuing to monitor some other variants that include epsilon, eta, iota, kappa, zeta and mu, though for the moment they do not appear to be of concern. Revealing its smarts, the WHO decided to skip the letters Nu and Xi altogether. It did not want to confuse the public with ‘Nu’ conflicting with the ‘Novel’ moniker that this coronavirus has. And since the very purpose of adopting a naming convention was to disconnect the virus from its place of ‘origin’, the WHO astutely stayed away from using ‘Xi’. So, we have arrived at Omicron, the ‘o’ of the Greek alphabet. The next letter in the alphabet is ‘pi’. People are drawing comfort from the fact that the value of pi famously has a ‘non-repeating’ decimal. Alas, it is also non-terminating. The WHO has not yet communicated what it would do if we needed to go beyond the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet or indeed whether it would resolve to use only one of ‘phi’, ‘chi’ and ‘psi’ to avoid phonetic confusion.

Society today reflects itself best through memes on social media. Did you know that ‘meme’ is short for ‘mimeme’, an ancient Greek word for ‘imitated thing’? British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins used the world ‘meme’ to represent an idea or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture, often carrying a symbolic meaning. Wikipedia adds that “ a meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures."

The novel coronavirus and societal memes, with their shared Greek heritage and inbuilt virality, appear to bear genes of the same cluster.

Hundreds of memes are doing the rounds. Common themes relate to alcohol, eating, facial expressions, war, extra-terrestrials observing earthlings, and re-purposed Bollywood dialogues. The war metaphors are particularly ironic because they celebrate ‘inaction’ as a way to conquer this threat. Paraphrasing Lord Kitchner, who was secretary of war in the British Cabinet during World War I, the phrase “your country wants you" has been replaced with “your country needs you to stay at home." For Indians unused to the idea of personal space, social distancing has been a bemusing discipline that’s nigh impossible to adhere to. Jostling for space at the Kumbh Mela in the North or the Melmaravathur Adiparasakthi temple in the South is more our modus operandi than maintaining a polite six-foot distance. The second season of the popular Family Man streaming show has its protagonist, RAW agent Shrikant Tiwari, masked and distant. TV vigilantes seem to have picked up that the mask was photoshopped on.

Memes do not age well, but often represent the moment perfectly. Memes are akin to inside jokes for a group of people who care about the same thing. Covid has been a big theme. The seven stages of a society in crisis are evident from the ghostly towns during our early lockdowns and gallows humour amid last year’s Delta wave to today’s semi-adherence to protocols for Omicron.

And so, as another New Year gets underway and Omicron rages on but hopefully gives way to a more benign pi, take strength from the absurdities and humour of it all. And don’t forget to socially distance yourself, mask up and wash your hands. Repeat.

P.S: “An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random change, memes are altered deliberately by human creativity," said Richard Dawkins.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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