Enervating and educational – two words sum up this last year for me. Two major lessons learnt. First, that it is possible to learn even while doing nothing – no texts read, no MOOCs taken, no assignments done, no new spaces physically travelled to and energetically inhabited. It is possible to learn things solely by carrying on from day to day, it just requires a state of mindfulness, to pay attention to the mundane, the overlooked, stuff which I tend to brush aside.
And second, time flies, no matter what. No matter how dire the times are. This was a monumental surprise, to be honest. I had always thought time flies only when one is having fun. Otherwise it should drag on and on interminably. But no! Look at this last year – this annus horribilis, probably the direst of our lifetimes for many of us, so much hardship, so many obstacles and yet it’s gone, the whole year, just like that. Even on the days when I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed, the mornings turned into afternoons and then into evenings with astounding supersonic speed. That too is a blessing, this speed, the steady rush of hours and minutes of lived and lapsed experience. The speed at which time flies is really determined, it seems to me, by how event dense the period is, whether the events themselves be pleasant or unpleasant. It took a pandemic to bust the myth of bad times being slomo.
Epidemics are nothing new of course. Disease is as old as humankind but settled agriculture made their spread easier and faster. Plagues were the price humans paid for giving up the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, for congregating in ever larger numbers, sowing crops and building cities where everyone lived in close communities with shared facilities. Paradise for parasites and bugs. Malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, small pox etc have existed for at least 10,000 years. Travel, war and trade thickened the plot progressively. Pandemics happened when an epidemic spilled over the borders of one country into others. Those too are not new, unfortunately.
The first recorded pandemic occurred during the Peloponnesian War in 430 BCE. Something historians suspect to be typhoid-like passed through Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya and then onto Athens. It decimated the Athenians and was a factor in their defeat. Plagues kept happening with monotonous frequency every 100/200/300 years, between the 2nd and the 6th centuries a series of them affected Europe. India and South Asia on the other hand have evidence of female deities dating back to around 2nd/3rd centuries, whose particular power was to 'cool fevers' and protect children, most likely from the small pox. As trade between the Mediterranean and South Asia grew, so did the pandemics. By 11th century, leprosy was a huge issue. And then the dreadful Black Death of 1350 killed one third of the world population.
The Columbian Exchange introduced new crops and resources to Europe by the end of the 15th century, from where they were taken by traders and colonialists to Africa and Asia. India wouldn't have chilies, or Ireland potatoes had this voyage not happened. But the flipside was the exposure of indigenous peoples to diseases they had no immunity against - the Native American populations were devastated, an estimated 90% perished throughout the North and South Americas. Plagues continued during the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries as colonisation and global commerce grew. In the 20th century, air travel and ever tighter linkages between nations compounded the issues manifold. But just as the problems grew, so did the search for solutions. But perhaps that's a subject best left for another time.