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The Overseer of the Plague

Reading Oedipus Rex during COVID-19

Maaz Bin Bilal ( teaches at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

A critical reading of the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex with a focus on the protagonist as a ruler overseeing a city under a plague, is illuminating for our times. The role and responsibility displayed by Oedipus can be compared and contrasted with the performance of the major political leaders of our own contemporary world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Civic duty and the sovereign’s responsibility towards their people during the crisis are examined.

“The Ancients are modern.” This was G M Lowes Dickinson’s conclusion about the ancient Greeks according to E M Forster, as expressed in his preface to Dickinson’s book, The Greek View of Life (1909). The most well known of Greek tragic plays Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is certainly relevant for us today as we grapple with COVID-19 and look at government res­ponses to the pandemic internationally. In the play, the main protagonist, Oedipus, rules over the city of Thebes that ails under a plague. His actions alert us to possible roles of responsibility during an epidemic, many of which seem to have been handled egregiously by many contemporary world leaders.

As the play opens, the citizens appeal to the king to help them as they are ­dying in large numbers. In accordance with the conventions, what may even be understood as the science of the time, there is an attempt to unravel the cause of the disease so as to find a cure by sending an emissary to the prophet at Delphi. But even before the appeal is made, Oedipus, the kind, concerned, and alert ruler has done what is required. An embassy to the oracle is already on its way.

In contrast, in our own post-enlighten­ment times, various governments meant to act for the people, took a long time to spring to action when faced by the emer­ging and rapidly spreading COVID-19. Local authorities in China censored the ophthalmologist Li Wenliang when he spoke about the dangers of the disease in its early phase, as early as 30 December 2019. The doctor’s voice was suppressed, and he is now dead from COVID-19 at the young age of 34. Britain, freshly made purportedly greater on popular demand by Brexit, kept putting on a brave front till 23 March before imposing a lockdown, leaving the disease to unleash its mayhem to the point that its overseer, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was diagnosed with the disease on 27 March. More than 40,000 people have died due to COVID-19 in the United Kingdom (UK) alone, as for the longest time it continued to strive for herd immunity, without taking other concrete scientific measures.

In the bastion of the free world, the United States (US), over two million people are infected with the virus, and over a lakh are dead. Even as his own White House staff has been infected, President Donald Trump is busy blaming the pandemic on the Chinese, calling it the Chinese virus, and calling for reparations from China.

In India, the land of the Buddha, roughly a contemporary of Sophocles and for whom detachment from worldly possessions and greed was the ultimate goal, various critics had accused the central government of deferring the ­required lockdown so as to have time ­required to form the government in Madhya Pradesh (MP). The lockdown imposed on the next day of the swearing in of the MP chief minister meant that the state had one of the poorest responses in the country to the disease.

Lack of Self-scrutiny

In Oedipus Rex, the emissary, Creon, comes from Delphi bearing the message that the murderer of the previous king, Laius, must be brought to task to end the plague. It is this murder that has met no justice that has brought the plague to the city. Oedipus immediately sets out to find out who the murderer is, “I’ll bring it all to light myself!” As conscientious ruler, he plays detective, researcher, ­observer, trying his best to do what is right for his people. He is a rationalist, and even an intellectual, who had previously saved the city by solving the nigh impossible riddle of the mythic monster Sphinx that had posed another big threat to the city.

Contrast this to the bluster of the aforementioned contemporary world lea­ders and their actions. Moreover, where Oedipus continuously sought to think and act for the people himself, in countries today, such as India, the emphasis has been to put the onus on the people, not just to isolate themselves, but also to contribute to the cause by making donations for which a new special fund has been set up. It is a different matter that in contrast to Oedipus’s self-scrutiny, which ultimately led to finding himself guilty and punishing himself through exile, this new fund, PM–CARES is devoid of the conventional scrutiny ­afforded all such present and past funds in the country. Testing remains inadequate, public funding on health being a minuscule percentage of government spending.

Moreover, in the play, once Oedipus discovers that he is guilty of patricide he gives his all to atone for this murder that has brought on the pestilence to his society. In contrast, even as the first case of COVID-19 was already detected in India on 30 January, and in the US on 20 January, the two heads of state met in India amidst great celebrations and jubilation in February. The country had ­already been reeling under nation-wide protests against the controversial Citizenship (Amendement) Act (CAA) combined with the National Register of Citizens, which together give India’s citizenship laws a non-secular or religious bias. During President Trump’s visit to India, “riots” or “targeted violence,” as they have been differently labelled, also emer­ged in the national capital of Delhi, while the heads of two states toured ­Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. Some comparisons with Nero were made as large parts of the city burned. Unlike Oedipus, the leaders in this case made few attempts to directly stem the tide of violence, or to address the agony of millions of Indians who feel disenfranchised and affected by the CAA. Furthermore, the state has filed first information reports against and made arrests of various anti-CAA, anti-caste, and civil rights activists (including students, and women) during the lockdown, sometimes under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which allows for individuals to be charged with terro­rism and for month-long ­arrests without having to present the accused before a magistrate.

Oedipus, keeping in with Athenian notions of limited citizenship that could tend towards xeophobia, makes it a point to ask if the source of the plague is ­foreign, “if anyone knows the murderer is a stranger, a man from alien soil.” COVID-19 has also resulted in increased xenophobia in all the countries so far discussed. China, where it all began, is now acting in a racist manner against people of African origin or other foreigners, as it believes that having contained the disease in its own country it will be outsiders who can spike the numbers again. In the UK and the US, people of Asian ancestry have been targets of ­increased racist attacks and abuse, particularly since the virus has been deemed “Chinese” by Trump. In India, since the disease spread at a religious event orga­nised prior to the government lockdown by a Muslim organisation, the Tablighi Jamaat, national media propaganda has often labelled this as “Corona Jihad” and government statements have also provided a separate data set to the disease’s spread from this particular event as ­opposed to others.

Unlike these xenophobic pursuits, Oedipus is far more dogged about the pursuit of truth and lucid in its recognition. He does not blame the citizens for the misery wreaked upon them by his own actions. India’s lockdown in contrast has resulted in the death of purportedly 200 or more people due to the migration and starvation of the poorest of labour who had no work, money, or food to sustain them in their cities of work.

Civic Virtue

Oedipus in marked contrast freely admits, “And all these curses I—no one but I/brought down all these piling curses,” and the messenger tells us that blinding himself upon finding out the horrible truth of his guilt, Oedipus addresses his eyes in a moment of righteous, blinding rage, “You’ll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused!” The big men of the world today, on the other hand, show little repentance for the curses they bring to their lands through mismanagement that leads to death. In the absence of adequate testing or medical care, these leaders pamper the rich and damn the poor. Oedipus Rex, king, had instead damned himself to rid the city—state of its evil.

Civic virtue was indeed a top priority of the ancient Greek world. But this was foremost embodied in the ruler, and one finds it practised by Oedipus. In contrast, the world leaders of today continue to urge the citizens to be vigilant, to donate, to help their neighbours, to sacrifice for the nation, etc, but do little to alleviate the pain of the poorest themselves. Civic virtue seems to be only ­invoked for ordinary citizens today but members of democratically elected governments seem to be outside of the pale of such responsibility.

One of teh big quarters where the ancients were not modern, perhaps, is in their treatment of women. Let alone leadership roles, women were not full citizens of Athenian civic life. In drama they had no participation as playwrights, actors, or audience. Thankfully, in our world, many women are scripting its history as leaders of different democracies. Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand), Angela Merkel (German Chance­llor), Erna Solberg (Prime Minister of Norway), Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Prime Minister of Iceland), K K Shailaja (health minister of Kerala) and Jung Eun-kyeong (director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) are some of the women leaders who are showing the path forward to combat the pandemic and work appropriately for the people. They have utilised the best of scientific knowledge and practices through swift and timely action to contain the virus. Perhaps, Arisophanes’s comedy Lysistrata provides the one vision of women’s leadership that the tragedy lacks and the women leaders of our world have provided. One may conjecture that Oedipus, who was a foremost thinker among the Greeks, would have been proud of these women as lea­ders of their people amidst the pestilence.


Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020


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