Opinion Columnists 09 Jan 2021 Of Chinese virus, Sp ...
In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."

Of Chinese virus, Spanish flu, UK strain: Do points of origin matter?

Published Jan 9, 2021, 7:35 am IST
Updated Jan 9, 2021, 7:35 am IST
 An illustration picture shows a vial with Covid-19 Vaccine sticker, a syringe and an earth globe. (AFP)
  An illustration picture shows a vial with Covid-19 Vaccine sticker, a syringe and an earth globe. (AFP)

“Now the new year reviving old desires

The thoughtful soul with his bottles retires

With good wishes for friend and foe alike

And for saints and even for consummate liars.”

— From Rubaiyat of Bachchoo Ka Adda


The soon-to-be ex-President Donald Trump insists on calling the Covid-19 plague the “Chinese virus”. Very many viruses have been given adjectival and territorial names. The least antagonistic is “common cold”. It blames no nation, continent or species as do the descriptions like “Spanish flu” , “Asian flu”, “swine flu” and “bird flu”.

The last two are comparatively innocuous but Mr Trump’s insistence on calling this worldwide pandemic “Chinese” is part of his nastiness and his attempt to deepen the antagonism between Americans and all things Chinese.

I don’t know if there was any malignant intention on the part of Britons who christened that infliction “Spanish”. Just part of British xenophobic contempt.  I have no doubt that if Mr Trump is challenged, he will produce evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic originated in Wuhan. He might even say that it was deliberately set free from a laboratory there in accordance with some devilish Chinese world domination strategy.

Incidentally, there is now an invitation from Wuhan scientists for objective observers to re-examine the common claim that the epidemic originated in that city. What the result of this challenge will be is yet to be seen.

Britain is, as I write, gentle reader, under a severe lockdown. The last two weeks have seen an exponential rise in the number of cases of infection and the number of deaths as a result. I use the word exponential literally, as the graphs of the spread that are plastered on the TV screen each day and night are the shape of the ones that we studied for our Pune University maths degrees.

The increase in person-to-person transmission of the pandemic, scientists say, is owing to the virus having mutated. The mutation is, the epidemiology and science tell us, is much more easily transmitted through the air. And now this mutated organism, is with some justification, known in Spain as the “British virus”.

Referring to it as such is possibly motivated by Spanish revenge.

The phrases “British variant”, “British mutant virus” and other such descriptions are spreading through the world media and, of course, occasioning a backlash in Britain, even though the fact stands that the mutant strain and its effects were first noticed in this country. Nevertheless, there is a sense of shrill protests of victimisation from those who challenge the description.  

One of the shrillest protesters is a character called Roger Helmer, who used to be a British Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and is a supporter of the jingoistic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

His tweet, reported in Private Eye, says “it was FIRST IDENTIFIED in the UK” and that is not tantamount to it originating in the UK. Earlier last year, Mr Helmer had objected to the characterisation of Mr Trump’s contention that this pandemic was a “Chinese virus” as racist.

“So, is it racist to mention ‘Chinese food’ or ‘Indian curry’ or ‘Korean Kimchee’ or ‘German Sauerkraut’? So why not ‘Chinese virus’?” he tweeted to his followers.

One may wonder how many of his followers have now noticed a flaw, dissension or even hypocrisy in his statements.

I don’t tweet (though I can whistle inefficiently), but if I did, I might point out to poor Roger that if a virus first identified in China can be called the “Chinese virus”, then a variant of it which was first identified in Britain… “Geddit Roj, me ole fruitcake?”

And then there is the question of what characterises a flu as Spanish. Does it say, “tonight we drink, tomorrow we kill the gringos!” as it threatens to infect another human, or “hasta la vista?” as it is expelled or killed by a vaccine?

The gaping flaw in poor Roger’s argument is that “Indian curry” carries in its flavour everything that characterises Indian cuisine. If I want, which I frequently do, a “Goa sausage”, I want it not just because it originates in Goa, but because it contains the ingredients and flavours particular to that region -- a bratwurst or a Polish-garlic sausage won’t do just as well. Whereas Covid-19 doesn’t carry the characteristics of anything Chinese and its variant, apart from infesting places where the sun never sets, has nothing British about it.

Of course, viruses, just like us Parsis, are sometimes named after the things we do and sometimes after the places from which we come. So, a Parsi called Batliwalla must have ancestors who dealt in bottles -- and it should be quite clear what my distant relatives Russi Immoralearningswalla and Imoji Feromonereplacementwalla do for their living.

And moving on to places, Satarawalla and Poonawalla come from the places with those names. What has always been a dilemma for my family is the origin of our surname “Dhondy”. It certainly doesn’t derive from the town of Dhond in Maharashtra, so eliminating geographical origins, we come to professions. Now in some Gujarati dialects the word might mean stonebreaker, which points to the option that my ancestors could have been stone masons.

The other possibility, which we pointedly disregard, was that they were perhaps put to breaking stones in an institution as guests in the colonial era of His Imperial Majesty, the King Emperor.



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