Art Culture

Ending pandemics and a message from Coleridge

Nayan Sayed Jibon | Published: 15:05, Jul 08,2020


The redemption of the ancient mariner was accepted only when he was fascinated by the beauty of the sea snakes. Nayan Sayed Jibon argues that this is the high time we realise the destruction we do to the nature and make policies to protect the nature to prevent further pandemics

To be storm threatened, adrift in the middle of a cold sea, becalmed, disoriented, and being at the mercy of incomprehensibly avenging forces that somehow reveals the mystery of who you are, I’ve got a poem for that. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ (1798) written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It shows an archetypal journey. A journey -- you might say -- from crime through punishment to redemption. You might say further: It’s the journey mankind is going through right now.

Resulted from the industrial revolution of the 19th century England, the romantic poets were conscious of the natural world and perceived human’s violent engagement with nature and could foresee what consequences can take place down the line. Therefore they were consistently passing ecological messages in their writings. So, today when mankind is at risk of extinction because of an infectious disease like COVID-19, it is Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ that indicates to what have we done and what needs to be changed to survive peacefully on this planet.

The US president Donald Trump called the coronavirus as the ‘Chinese virus’ and doing so he is propagating an image of the pandemic as a foreign invasion. He is not the only one. Although many of us (hopefully) not saying this kind of racist term but also no denying that we are being attacked by an aggressive foreign virus that comes from wild animals. Yes, we can compare this crisis with a war. But who started this war? It is time to dig deeper into the causes of this war. It is time to address why a virus that silently existed for ages in the animals suddenly turns into a pandemic-causing pathogen.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with the ‘ancient mariner’ stopping a wedding guest from attending a wedding celebration. He stops the young man to tell him the story of his ship voyage. The story starts with the ship leaving the harbor and sailing southward in the sea. A storm then pushes the ship even further to the South Pole and they lost their way. Then an albatross comes to their ship and the sailors greet it as a good omen as it brings new wind propelling the ship. Day after day the albatross appears but one day the Mariner whimsically shoots and kills the albatross with his crossbow. 

Then suddenly the wind stops blowing, and the ship becomes trapped on a vast, calm sea. The sailors and the mariner become very thirsty, and some sailors realise that by killing the innocent albatross the mariner has angered nature, and now they are being cursed. The sailors then vilify the mariner and hang the albatross carcass around his neck.

After that, they encounter a passing ghost ship with two ghosts, ‘death’ and ‘life-in-death’ that are playing dice for the souls of the crew. With a roll of the dice, death wins the lives of the sailors and life-in-death the life of the mariner. Then one by one all two hundred crew members die, but the mariner lives on, being alone and lost seeing for seven days and nights the curse in the eyes of the crew's corpses.

So among the many other interpretations this story resemblance our current situation and the murdered albatross symbolises everything we do against nature. It stands for every tree we cut, every plastic water bottle we throw, every coral we bring back home, and every wild animal we kill or torture.

In 1996, a virus called Ebola which was unexpectedly overflowed out of the nearer forests in Mayibout, Africa, and caused a small epidemic. The virus killed 20 of 37 villagers who were reported to have been infected, including the people who had carried, skinned, chopped, or eaten a chimpanzee from the forest. The villagers said that everyone who cooked or ate it got a fever, some died immediately while others were taken to the nearby hospital. Does this event echo with the story told by the ancient mariner?

Moreover, the COVID-19 which is also a zoonotic disease, meaning they originate in animals is a pandemic that emerged in December 2019 in a seafood market of Wuhan in china where wild animals were being sold. It is in those markets where live wild creatures of much variety are mixed together, tied or chained up or killed on the spot which became the hotbeds where bloods, germs, and viruses from different animals are mixed and caused this pandemic.  

So the finger can be easily pointed at China and Chinese people’s consumption of this type of food but the world cannot deny its role in failing to stop the widespread deforestation, killing of the wild animals and birds for food and skin or medicine or just for ‘fun’ for years in China and elsewhere in the world.

So the finger can be easily pointed at China and Chinese people’s consumption of this type of food but the world cannot deny its role in failing to stop the widespread deforestation,

For instance, in Bangladesh, people are not aware of the fact that development and natural conservation can walk hand in hand. Despite the killing of the wild animals by the local people (for purpose or accident), deforestation, encroachment of rivers, and plundering of wildlife are very common. The laws are grossly ignored, violated, and politicised. It is also a sad reality that we are moving ahead with two coal-fired plants near one of the most significant mangrove forests, the Sundarbans, which is a move that poses enormous threats to the environment and wildlife and can initiate another war, another pandemic like COVID-19.

So, how can we end pandemics?

To end pandemics, we’ve to go through the realisation the mariner goes through in the poem. As we find at the end of the poem after many lonely days and suffering the mariner understands the beauty and harmony of the nature. Suddenly when he sees water snakes, love arises in his heart for them. The snakes are no longer ugly creatures to be killed, but are creatures to be loved and appreciated. He realises the inter-connectedness of everything in the nature. This new insight helps him to make peace with the nature and becomes his first step towards redemption. Immediately the albatross fell from his neck and he continues his journey to inform others as we find in the beginning he is telling his story to the wedding guest.

Likewise, this isolation period as a result of coronavirus pandemic is a time for us to rethink our attitudes towards nature. If we want to justify our living on this planet, at a personal level we have to be more aware of wildlife creatures and our ecological condition. Then we need to inform other people as the ancient mariner tells his story to the wedding guest.

We should spread the message of treating nature as morally as possible to the local people, hunters, loggers, market traders, and consumers of wild animals. And it will be possible only when every nation in the world institute new policies of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with mother nature.

Nayan Sayed Jibon is a student of Jahangirnagar University

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