The coronavirus pandemic has made people anxious-ridden and despondent. But people are managing to survive the calamity by remaining connected. Even in these difficult times, founder of Biswa Shahitya Kendra, Professor Abu Sayeed Abdullah, inspires people to keep their spirits up. He speaks to Prothom Alo in an exclusive interview.
How are you keeping during this pandemic, in lockdown?
Personally speaking, two things hurt me. One is that I have lost many dear people in this span of time. Because of my age, I have a great number of friends and people with whom I am close. During this COVID pandemic, I have lost persons whom I have known for many, many years. This has pained me deeply.
The other thing is the constant anxiety. I am getting on in years. Older people naturally have less immunity to disease. Young people have a much higher immunity than older people and so many of them have managed to overcome the crisis.
Around 40 percent of our working class does not take antibiotics. Many of them do not have access to modern medical treatment and care like us. The immunity bestowed upon them by nature is robust and so they stand strong like the primeval man. In comparison, the immunity of us elderly people is weak. That is why I am worried for myself and other elderly people in these coronavirus times.
Outside of the anxiety and concern, have you had any new perceptions?
Let me share a thought about spending time restricted to the house. In the struggle against British colonial rule, many people had to spend year after year in prison. Inspired by patriotism, they suffered for years. How little is our sufferings compared to theirs! We probably will get a vaccine within a year or a year and a half. Then people will be able to reach out to each other again. Now it is as if everyone is an enemy. We are isolated from others, exiled.
It seems as if man is the most vulnerable species in nature. Various animals have different defence mechanisms. Some protect themselves with their fangs, some with poison and so on. People don’t have these. Man is the most unprotected and helpless creature in the natural environs.
How has man survived in this unprotected vulnerable state? People have managed to survive because they reach out and help each other, they stand by each other. People survive if they stay connected. That is how the human race protects itself. So mankind’s greatest strength is dependence on one another. Man survives because of man. Today people stand separated. Never before have people been in such a state of separation.
There have been some people, maybe not too many, who have reacted strangely to the pandemic, refusing burial of Covid patients, ostracizing families of Covid patients, some landlords even evicting tenants who have contracted the virus. How do you view this?
As I was saying, people no longer stand by each other, not in any way. Out of fear of being affected, and out of ignorance, they remain away from each other, not even going to burials. It is a risk to visit patients in hospital. Members of the family are falling ill at home. Even tending to them is a risk. That is why they remain isolated. It is such a contagious disease, that people are being forced to abandon each other, to remain apart.
There are adverse reactions too against tenants being evicted or people being barred from burial.
Yes, people may be alarmed, but they have not lost their human sensibilities. Cruelty hasn’t been accepted as a norm.
We had gone into a high-pressured life. Everyone was in a rush, no time to spare for each other. All time had been bought, all time had been sold.
Capitalist civilisation has bought up people’s time. Some people just didn’t have time. I have noticed in this time of the pandemic, people who wanted to meet me but didn’t have the time, are now calling me over the phone, contacting me online. It is not out of any necessity, just reaching out from the heart. Real humans have arisen within us, humans who look out for each other. Before they would contact each other for work, for profit. Today they talk out of love, pain and sorrow.
There was a destructive pandemic about 100 years ago when medical science and healthcare wasn’t so developed. But this pandemic in the 21st century has almost brought the entire world to a standstill.
We indulged in excesses, crossed limits of greed. We overdid our avarice, our competitive drive, our rivalry. In the past there were great men who would come forward at such times and lead the way out of the chaos. But we do not have that now.
There was a time when I thought nature was not conscious, mankind was conscious and talented. But I have changed perception. I find nature extremely conscious, intelligent. I believe nature has a spirit of awareness otherwise it would never have been able to survive. Nature is indestructible and has an automated mechanism to go along its own course.
How can we use this time to the fullest, to make the most of life despite the despondency, anxiety and fear?
Most people lead linear lives, tied up in their work. But the person who has many worlds within himself, can resort to these worlds, outside of work, in these lockdown days. No matter what our professions may be, we all must build up a separate world for ourselves. There are all sorts of pursuits, music, books on a variety of topics, art and more.
How do you spend your time?
This lockdown time personally has been of great benefit to me. I always dreamt of writing profusely, but all sorts of preoccupations, organisational work held me back. I had books but hadn’t revised them. Now I have the time and am happily using this time. I have more or less revised the books that I wrote.
You have written many books. Have you revised them all?
No, not all, I have published 40 books. I am revising the ones which people have commented positively about. I have revised about two thirds of those books so far. It looks like it will take some more time for that pandemic to end, so I hope to finish revising all of the rest by then.
You must be reading a lot too.
I read a lot of things all at once. I listen to music. I watch films. The internet has made watching films very easy.
Many people say that Covid will change the world, people will change. What do you say?
We had become very proud and arrogant. I believed we had conquered nature. That arrogance has been shattered. The volume of virus than can infect 2 million people, hardly weighs more than a drop of water. So our arrogance is meaningless. The greed, avarice, luxury, competition which was making us into machines, is all meaningless. And perhaps this is not the end. We have done such harm to nature that such pandemics may return again and again. In the lust for material gain, we have destroyed the balance of nature, the bond between mankind and nature.
This pandemic has been a lesson for us. Perhaps now we will understand that it is in our interests not to be mechanical, but instead to be natural. The future of mankind lies in living at one with nature.
* This interview appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir