Annus Mirabilis or Annus Horribilis ?

“I see a city of more precious mould: With silver paved, and all divine with gold. Already labouring with a mighty fate, she shakes the rubbish from her mounting brow, and seems to have renew’d her charter’s date “

John Dryden (describing the City of London) in his poem Annus Mirabilis

During the Bubonic Plague of London, Isaac Newton, then a college student at Cambridge in his early twenties spent a year quarantined in his family estate. He discovered calculus, laws of optics and gave the world the concept of gravity. The year was 1665–66 and Newton’s discovery apart from other things (including the rise of London from the great fire and plague in 1666) earned the year the exalted status of , the year of wonders. It took mankind another two hundred years before it discovered the bacteria that caused the plague, but there is little doubt that Newton utilised his time well. More than three hundred years later, the Queen of England reflected on 1992 as a year “which did not gave her undiluted pleasure.” The fire in Windsor Castle, separation of both her sons (Prince Charles with Diana and Prince Andrew with Sarah), divorce of her daughter Anne, suicide of her nephew Prince Albrecht, earned the year the dubious distinction of being called , the horrible year. She did not make much of the year and an opportunity was lost.

Twenty-eight years later, in 2020, as the Covid-19 virus hit the world, millions of students, teachers, professionals, bankers, artists, migrant labour and commoners travelled thousands of kilometres across continents, nations, borders and states in a span of few days. Their only destination: Home. After several weeks they are wondering what to do and getting increasingly impatient? Binge eating, drinking, smoking weed and hash, Zooming, Tindering, endless banter on online chat rooms, hogging useful bandwidth (Whats App, You Tube, Netflix), playing online Tambola and Counter Strike (a popular online game), some of them are truly lost. And then there are those who are staying productive by discovering new friendships and relationships in a real world, exercising in their home made gyms, offering online teaching and medical services and sermons and funeral services, writing, reading online newspapers, educating themselves, exploring gardening and yoga, taking care of the elderly, cooking for the poor and entertaining the world through on-line music concerts. Some are floundering and some flourishing. We are living in a world full of divergent realities.

Human history, through the years has doled out the unpredictable and the apocryphal. Some years through sheer triumph, achievement, virtuosity and discovery and some, through sheer tragedy (natural or man-made), stupidity and dottiness have stood out. One thing common to all these events or years is adversity. Adversity has its own life span and expiry. It brings out the best and the worst in us. It is left to us how we react. It alone can make us a better or bitter person. Breakdown can create a breakthrough.

As thousands of people lose their lives and livelihood, business comes to a grinding halt, stock markets crash, the daily damage to the economy outstrips the damage to public health, crops stand unharvested in the fields, the Olympics and Wimbledon get cancelled, healthcare buckles, people cope with depression and personal relationships, tales of hideous destruction abound. We are all vulnerable. However, in the midst of chaos, there is opportunity to rediscover and reinvent ourselves. Those who do, will survive, the rest perish.

Napoleon said, “You don’t reason with intellectuals.You shoot them.” This is not the time to intellectualise or deliberate or vacillate. Beyond the data and the numbers, statistics about and the political rhetoric about “just hang in there” there is a human story to tell of individual and collective leadership, of developing unique strengths, talents, new knowledge, skills and expertise. How are humans taking advantage of these portentous times? In this era of social distancing according to Time magazine we may be apart but we are not alone. Housewives in India are cooking chapatis and rice to feed the hungry on the streets. Doctors and medical workers are hitting the ground running and learning to prioritise between heart attack victims, women in labour, the young and the elderly and Corona Virus patients fighting for the limited number of ventilators, beds and supplies in hospitals based on gut feel and instinct. Communities are getting together showing innovation and resolve. Competing with big online retailers like Amazon social media sites like are helping the mom-and-pop shops stay afloat. Customers are chipping in by buying credit from these shops to be used later when things settle down. People are going local, promoting local brands and ordering local cocktails to help struggling businesses. In India, platforms like Swiggy and Zomato are offering their customers services like no-contact delivery and the customers are showing gratitude by buying their two year gold memberships to help the delivery boys. Bollywood stars are offering their swanky offices to be used as quarantine shelters. Indian automobile majors like Maruti Suzuki, Mahindra and Mahindra, Tatas are gearing up to produce ventilators. Diageo India, a leading beverage alcohol company with brands like Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Captain Morgan is gearing up to provide 3,00,000 litres of bulk hand sanitiser, donating 1, 50,000 masks and offering rupees three crore as health insurance cover for bartenders. The corporate sector in India has offered hundred of crores to fight the Corona Virus. The Indian political establishment has shown maturity by agreeing to lift an export ban on hydroxychloroquine, a possible cure for Covid -19. In the US the Department of Defence is harnessing the production and delivery capabilities of more than 300,000 businesses working with the Department to produce vaccines and face masks. Prisons in the US have released prisoners involved in non-violent crimes to protect the prisons from the risk of spread of the Virus. In Israel, the online app is using location data to triangulate the user’s interaction with any virus hotspots. CIA spies are acquiring HUMINT (human intelligence) sitting at home by honing their hacking skills. The pubs in UK have been converted into supermarkets. Broadband companies across the world are offering free Internet packages and online education courses for students sitting at home. The list is endless. The entire world is coalescing around the human spirit of enterprise.

The Queen of England is ninety-three years old. She has survived the plague, smallpox and malaria epidemics. She is the longest-reigning British monarch having served 65 years on the throne. She may survive the Corona virus pandemic too. Isaac Newton has reserved his place in history as the most influential scientist of all time. But for people like you and me, especially at a time when history is in the making, there is lot of work to be done. Only our work will decide whether 2020 will be or Annus

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Sumeet Suman Singhal

Sumeet Suman Singhal

I am a blogger and writer from New Delhi, India. I am interested in the quirkiness of human behaviour . “You have to understand first and win later!“