remarkably like us!

‘A virus is a small collection of genetic code surrounded by a protein coat’. A human being is a collection of genetic code enclosed in a physical body.

‘Viruses infect cells and use components of the host cell to survive and make copies of themselves’. Human beings live on earth and commandeer its resources to survive and make copies of themselves.

‘Viruses can replicate only inside the living cells of an organism’. Human beings can reproduce only on this planet because earth makes homeostasis – and therefore life – possible.

‘Often, they kill the host cell in the process, and cause damage to the host organism’. Often, they destroy essential elements of the earth in the process, and cause damage to the host planet.

In other words, our lungs are home to the corona virus just as the earth is home to us, and it seems we treat our homes the same way!


There’s news that the Delta variant of Covid-19 that first surfaced here in India has mutated into a more virulent version. It’s called Delta+ and seems resistant to currently used medicines.

We have watched the unicellular virus mutate over several virus generations now, and seen how it’s been adapting to stay one step ahead of us. Since we are multicellular and complex, we can observe human adaptations over generations only historically.

Our ancestors took thousands of years to change from quadrupeds to bipeds. Our out-of-Africa ancestors who migrated north took thousands of years to develop blue eyes and blond hair . . .

Over time, human beings tamed animals much bigger and stronger than themselves: cows for milk, oxen for plowing fields, horses for transport, elephants to haul logs and granite blocks, whales for oil to light lamps, feral dogs trained to herd flocks of sheep, etc.

We devised apiaries to lure bees into making honey for us, cooped up fowl, penned in sheep, goats, pigs, cows and other even-toed ungulates our gods permitted us to eat.

We designed dwellings to keep out big cats, and snakes, lizards, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other ‘vermin’. . .

Then we made anthelmintics to kill or paralyse worms that use us as hosts for part of their life cycle, we made antibiotics to attack cell walls of bacteria, antivirals to block receptors on our cells that viruses use to hook their spikes into . . .

We did a good job of promoting ourselves, perhaps at the expense of others who also live here on earth. I’m not complaining, it was a question of survival, and Nature is not kind to weaklings. We’ve come a long way, but I confess I am bothered by the use of animals in labs, slaughter of animals for meat, sometimes by caged animals in zoos too, but as debates on these topics are never conclusive, I never get into them.

Human exceptionalism has made us believe we own the earth and all its other inhabitants. We have behaved towards other animals exactly as did colonisers who invaded other continents and treated indigenous people as lesser beings, to be used and abused. We have turned the planet into an exclusive gated community for humans.

For all we know, Corona might be an Avenging Angel acting on behalf of all the animals that have fallen prey to Homo sapiens, the ultimate predator, for hundreds of years! And to think we might have shot ourselves in the foot this time by creating our own tormentor! God must be watching grimly from heaven, having decided He won’t lift a finger to help us.

born under an unlucky star

Parents feel immense grief and helplessness when too many things go wrong, one after another, in the life of their adult child. So they get him to come back home, to take care of him until things are better. They say he was born under an unlucky star.

What is Luck? This is what researchers who have been studying Luck have to say:

  • Luck is subjective, and a positive attitude can make you luckier.
  • Alert people who watch for opportunities can create good luck by grasping a chance quickly.
  • Lucky people tend to use serendipitous encounters cleverly, though they might say, “I got lucky”.
  • Lucky people vary their routines and thus increase the likelihood of serendipitous events.
  • Successful gamblers hone their betting patterns to get luck on their side. I don’t know how that might work, but that’s what they say.

Is there no such thing as pure luck that is controlled by Destiny alone? I do believe there is. Some people seem more prone to having things go dreadfully wrong with everything they try. I think the fear and negative attitude are a result, rather than the source, of bad luck.

I’ve heard people described as ‘someone whose touch can turn gold into mud’, the opposite of ‘someone with a Midas touch’. Some of them have gone from mistake to astonishing mistake, so you might wonder for a moment if they did create their own bad luck. But if you listen carefully to their story you can quite see that they couldn’t have done things differently in the circumstances of the time. Only in hindsight does it look like they could have.

As psychiatrists, we don’t usually make room for luck in interpreting patients’ problems, especially as people in India express it in astrological terms like, “Our astrologer told us he is going through saade-saatha shani”, and we know nothing about Astrology. We are trained to look at events in a patient’s life pro forma:


How did it start and progress

What was the immediate cause

Why does it persist

What has been done about it so far

Has such a thing happened before

Family history

Personal history

How is his current mental state

Though we empathise, our primary job is to objectively work out how best to alleviate his distress using solutions that Science offers.

Answering our questions can’t be easy for the patient. He can’t always justify the steps he took as he tried to scramble to his feet after each slide. He can’t explain why all his efforts have failed. He looks and sounds utterly defeated. That’s when the accompanying family member protectively steps in to say that he has had a lot of bad luck, and gives a number of instances.

His family is not going to abandon him when he is down and out. This impression could be something that inched into my mind subliminally over the years. Or, it is unconscious cherry picking I did out of a need to believe in human goodness, because I’m one of those people who read the newspaper every morning.

These cases give me hope that people still care, though things I read make me feel that we are done with all that, and now it is only about making the world high-tech, obviating the need for human beings and their troublesome emotions. Of course, I’m also aware that for every person who gets support from a loving family there are many who aren’t welcome back in the fold, but well . . .

With the corona virus unleashing a sort of guerilla war on us, a lot of young adults who are graduating from college this year are apprehensive. For many, confirmed job offers have been rescinded. Those who graduated last year and are in their first job are no longer certain what will happen to them. Young people who started new enterprises in recent years, and have not yet broken even, are worried. Those studying abroad are in limbo, online classes being a poor substitute for the vibrancy of real college life.

It’s bad luck that the corona pandemic intersected with their lives at this point in time. Many of them will suffer from anxiety and depression, and incipient psychotic illnesses will flare up in those at risk. It’s quite likely that many of these graduates will be jobless and need family support for an unpredictable length of time. This is pure bad luck and it’s not because of a negative attitude, a lack of alertness, or wasted chances.

They will eventually find a way around it. Some say “And this, too, shall pass away” was first carved by wise sages on a finger ring for an unknown Eastern monarch centuries ago. Some say the Eastern monarch was King Solomon. Some say Rumi originally wrote these words, and some say Rumi got them from Attar . . . Whatever their source, these wise words are our common inheritance, they belong to everyone, and are especially comforting for youngsters who might be feeling very unlucky in these locked down times.







it is what it is

My friend has taken a fortnight’s leave from hospital work and might extend it if she needs to. She is a specialist in Internal Medicine. She is in her fifties and her mum is over eighty, hypertensive and diabetic. She says she can’t expose her mum to the corona virus.

She talked anxiously about this with me for nearly two weeks before taking the step. It’s an ethical dilemma that many doctors have faced since the onset of the pandemic. It’s an individual decision, but there isn’t always a choice because there are legal contracts, apart from your own pricking conscience.

Doctors and others in the medical field are now referred to in the media as soldiers. The analogy fits only up to a point. Soldiers and their families know from the outset that they may have to die for the country; doctors and nurses don’t. It’s not common or expected that we die in the line of duty.

So there is fear of being infected, of passing it on to family members and fear of dying from it. Added to that, there is anger about not having enough protective equipment, anger towards patients – some of whom are acting entitled out of their own fears, and anger against the world for not acting fast enough to control spread of the disease.

Doctors working with infected patients are now reaching out for help in dealing with all these emotions. Used to keeping emotions under control, doctors have no experience with an overload of anxiety, anger, sadness, and a sense of danger, though nobody minds the physical exhaustion much because that’s not unusual. But this time even that has been excessive.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are offering online CBT ­– Cognitive Behaviour Therap­y – or at least basic counselling ­– to these overwrought people.

What is CBT?

It’s a way of changing a person’s negative view of his problem and the way he consequently responds to it. The therapist focuses on the patient’s thoughts, beliefs, associated emotions and attitude towards the situation he is facing. The goal is to identify the problem, think of possible solutions and choose the best one. Something like this:

  • How do you know this thought is the truth?
  • Why do you think it can’t be wrong?
  • What is the worst-case scenario if your belief is correct?
  • What’s the best?
  • If someone else asked you for advice with the same worries what might you tell her to do?

All this takes time. Held to this line of reasoning, the patient starts seeing the situation a little more realistically. He gets that there are serious limitations to his power to effect all the changes he wants. He gradually reaches a level of acceptance: it is what it is. There might be an associated sense of loss, sadness or helplessness in this, but it’s better than a constant anxious muddle in his head I suppose. It’ll keep him going so he can do his job as a doctor, nothing more, for that’s the need of the hour.

Many doctors have died from contracting the virus from patients. What could have been done differently? I don’t know what to think anymore. In any case, reviewing the past won’t change the present, though it might help in planning for the future.

We often don’t realise that the world is a decent place only because of all the little cogs in the wheel of this composite entity called People functioning as a whole. Every worker fills a need. There is a division of labour that exists in all societies – bees, ants or us – and we contribute our mite to the whole. Right now it’s the turn of doctors and nurses, and of people who supply food and other essentials, to do their bit.

If we think the corona pandemic is a wake-up call we ought to listen, learn and change. If we choose to treat it like the pandemics that have come before and say “this too shall pass” and go back to exactly what we were doing before the pandemic, well, I’ll have to find the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference, to quote Reinhold Niebuhr. I hope we don’t go back to being our blasé selves.

For the time being it is what it is, and governments are trying their best to deal with its effects. Meanwhile, we have all been forced to live the epicurean way, and some of us may develop a liking for it and continue with lathe biōsas even after the pandemic is over!