A great sophist- Protagoras of Abdera (circa485-415 BCE) in ancient Greece is still remembered for stating that Gods’ existence could neither be proven nor disproven. During the lockdown, my thoughts turned to him and I will explain why. Protagoras was in great demand as a teacher and charged exorbitantly for his teaching !
Not surprisingly, most of his pupils were rich. But he once took a working-class pupil, Euthalos, who persuaded the great teacher to accept deferred payment. He gave the teacher his word of honour that he would pay the fees the day he won his first court case. But Euthalosgave up his legal practice before winning a case.
The exasperated teacher took his disciple to court for non-payment of his dues and argued, “If I win this case, Euthalos will have to pay me what he owes me. If I do not win this case then Euthalos will still have to pay me because, under our agreement, he will then have won his first court case.”
Euthalos, however, contested this claim, stating, “If I win this case I will not have to pay Protagoras, as the court would have declared his claim invalid. But If I do not win this case, I still do not have to pay as I would then have lost, not won, the case !” This remains one of the unresolved paradoxes of logic and is known as the Protagoras paradox. The present has an uncanny similarity to this paradox.
Projected figures of the death toll due to the coronavirus, from Harvard to Imperial college, are based on complex calculations beyond the comprehension of most of us. Equally baffling is the downward or upward revisions by the same institutions. It is truly an infodemic within a pandemic. While the value of a human life can never be compared or quantified with economic cost, there is enough evidence to suggest a direct qualitative and quantitative relationship of economic wellbeing with life.
Health and economic issues aside, the virus has played havoc on our social fabric. In a small village in Sitamarhi in Bihar, a 19-year old boy was lynched to death by people of his own village. His crime? He had reported to the police about his neighbours who had eventually returned from Delhi, braving all odds during the lockdown. The boy was afraid the migrants who returned would infect others, that the contagion would consume him and his family.
A similar incident was reported days later from central UP with the only difference being that the victim was shot and not lynched. Strange things do happen in strange times. In a small town on the UP- Bihar border, a husband turned away his wife, who had returned from her ‘maika’. Small town mohallas have declared themselves a ‘no entry’ area. In Amritsar a Padma awardee in his death with virus was denied cremation by all crematoria of the city that was his home for 82 yrs.
Jharkhand had its first Corona Positive case when a woman, a foreigner, tested positive. She had attended the infamous congregation in Nizamuddin. The reactions ranged between fear and blind anger. The fear was natural; the virus is here in the backyard- not just in newspapers.
But the other reaction, of unalloyed hatred and shrill cries for retribution, was truly baffling for a civilised society. There was not only a complete lack of sympathy for a fellow human being, from some far- off country afflicted with a feared disease in a foreign land, but stark hatred. Newspaper headlines and chats on social media made it appear that the virus had a religious affiliation.
Who are we going to blame next? The criticism of China has become muted following the realisation that China alone can bail us out with supply of even basic, protective gear. Muslims were the next to be blamed. And now we can perhaps blame Malthus for the present catastrophe. Didn’t he predict that when population would overshoot the earth’s sustainable capacity, natural calamities and disease would restore the balance?
Pandemics come out of nowhere and go the way they came. When all this ends- and fervently hopes sooner than later-- proponents and opponents of every action will undoubtedly claim to be vindicated and pat their own back even as distinction between experts and astrologers will increasingly get blurred.