Like the coronavirus, La Bête du Gévaudan, aka the Beast, was a mysterious creature which ravaged rural France between 1764 and 1767, killing around 100 men, women and children.
Its first attack was on a young girl tending cattle. She survived and described it as “like a wolf, yet not a wolf”. She escaped because the herd defended her—herd immunity of a different kind.
Three centuries later, all the king’s men—wise, clever and stupid—are trying to figure out the nature of the viral beast. Is it a flu mutation? A multi-strain nemesis? Is it biologically engineered bacteria? Is it a virus at all? A bat-born Chinese Dracula? Most dead patients are old. Oh wait, the young get it, too. It’s a blood vessel disease. It loves diabetics. The cure is close. No it isn’t. Vaccine will be ready soon, but may not work. Anxiety and confusion have taken us to a metaphysical plane of truth.
The coronavirus is us. It’s defeat and triumph. It represents the ebb and tide of life, the hidden forces that govern circumstances and consequences while strutting out the X-Factor like a cigar maven blowing smoke rings on Havana bay. It plays on our hopes and angst in the helpless isolation of familiar rooms. Its spectral touch chills us, reminiscent of the coldness of misers. It creates both political monsters and angels like the frontline doctors and caregivers who die, exhausted and infected.
Mankind has almost destroyed the world and it is moot whether we deserve to survive. But we have, for better or for worse. We’ve endured wars, pestilences and natural cataclysms. We’ve conquered smallpox, syphilis, measles, TB and given HIV patients a long lease of life. We are the Beast. We’ve also forgotten despair and death as collective experiences because life is impersonal and silo-bound by tech. The horrors of Syria, Nigeria and Iran are flickering images in a foreign documentary; thank you, it’s nothing to do with us, we’ll order Swiggy Thai; we are safe. Are we, really?
The terrorist is more afraid of the virus than drone missiles because there is no martyrdom by ventilator. The hoarder has lost the illicit joy of caressing currency notes. Lovers are afraid to kiss and hold hands. This too shall pass. The trick to beating misery is not to be afraid, and ignore the tympanum splitting screams of TV anchors who frighten us more than they are frightened themselves. The trick is to care about safety, ours and that of people who are not like us. The virus is a guest who has pointed out the flaws in our hospitality.
Covid-19 has brought us home to our humanity. We could accept its lessons to refashion the world as a kinder, gentler place because we’ve felt the breath of death. Or we can march to the Pied Piper’s tune of our own hubris. The virus is not a living being like us; it’s just a relentless piece of parasitic protein which feeds on death. The Beast doesn’t give a damn. Do you?