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Guest column: Life before corona and after

“Virus” in common parlance has become a sinister word. In the last six months, the mere mention of the word sets off alarm bells in our heads. One becomes wary of people who say they have travelled recently, or that their relatives have attended a marriage. The novel coronavirus is so feared, that one is advised to avoid not just the house of a positive patient, but an entire neighbourhood just because a case was reported there a few days ago. In offices, the visitor’s chair and the table are sanitised after the visitor leaves. God forbid if someone coughs or sneezes, the whole office is on tenterhooks and the visitor is cursed. If it happens in an elevator, there is panic!

The novel coronavirus has drastically changed our lives – the mask has become ubiquitous, files are handled only while wearing gloves, and pockets and purses always carry hand sanitisers. Social gatherings, batch parties, marriages and religious functions are frowned upon and invitations turned down outright. Just the previous Sunday, I was invited to the marriage of a close friend’s daughter. Even though I was lucky to have made it to the extremely short guest list, I had to refuse politely. Sensing my reluctance while talking on the phone, my friend tried to reassure me, saying that all the groom’s and bride’s relatives had been tested for the virus. But the thought of my patients’ safety took priority, and I had a hard time refusing the invite.

Picnics, outings, sightseeing trips, tourism and travel for leisure all have become things of the past. There was a time when my entire family looked forward to our annual visit to Barog, a hill station near Chandigarh, and it was an occasion for three generations of our family to get together to enjoy a drink in the lap of nature. But coronavirus has stopped such outings. Visits to movie theatres and malls, too, are strictly prohibited, and even though some restaurants have opened their doors, people are reluctant to go there. The new “normal” involves staying at home and ordering food online, watching a movie on Netflix and other such platforms. The government advisory says shun everything non-essential, and the mighty WHO is quoted repeatedly. All this because of a “virus!”

But it was not like this always.

There was a time not too long ago when the word “virus” used to be just another innocuous word in the dictionary. At best, viral fever was a dubious diagnosis to seek medical leave or skip classes, while viral pharyngitis or viral gastroenteritis were still acceptable as valid excuses, even though they just meant sore throat or indigestion! Although viral conjunctivitis was always a ‘keep-away-from-me’ diagnosis in medical circles, only viral hepatitis or viral encephalitis were accorded the reverence of serious ailments.

Viruses are very small infectious agents made up of a piece of genetic material, such as DNA or RNA, that is enclosed in a coat of protein. It was Martinus Beijerinck who named a non-filterable infectious agent afflicting tobacco plants as a “virus” towards the end of the eighteenth century. By the early 20th century, many new viruses had been discovered, with some of today’s commonly known viruses being hepatitis, dengue, chikungunya and polio.

The novel corona “virus” is highly contagious and the best way to prevent getting infected is to use a mask, hand hygiene and social distancing. The world henceforth would probably be described as BC — Before Corona — or AC — After Corona. I just wish AC comes soon!

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(The writer is a professor in the gastroenterology department of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh)

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