Learning to Live With The Virus

Learning to live with the covid 19 pandemic

The coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened as many as 145 million people around the world. It is raging in several countries like never before. The second wave of COVID-19 has seriously exposed the health infrastructure in India. Even as I write, thousands of dead bodies are waiting for their turns in temporary cremation grounds. Thousands more are dying on the streets waiting to be admitted into the hospitals. Several thousand is begging, borrowing & stealing oxygen cylinders to keep their loved ones alive.

It is a manufactured crisis. The election rallies in Bengal, and Kumbh Mela were buzzing with millions of devotees – both political and religious – clinging to one another, chanting their respective Gods names. The megalomania of the supreme leader & the consequent downplay of the virus has spiralled into a crisis, like never before.

The COVID-19 pandemic – and the loss of loved ones – has created a void in our lives. More particularly, human’s anxiety over life and death has risen. In reality, we survive near-death experiences every day. Mental health has taken a huge toll on each one of our lives. As we scroll through Instagram and Twitter day-in-day-out, we are anguished by the current crisis. Each one requires the other to say: “Hey, you. I know things are pretty crazy right now. It is all overwhelming and scary. But, you will be OK – eventually.”

covid-19 pandemic and Kumbh Mela
Amid rising coronavirus cases in the country, thousands of saffron-clad seers and ash-smeared Nagas flouted Covid-19 norms and gathered at Har Ki Pauri ghat in Haridwar for a holy dip in the Ganga during the second “shahi snan” (royal bath) of the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. | Press Trust of India (PTI)

The pandemic has completely changed our lives. Let’s take something as simple as our experiences of space: our mobility is enormously restricted and is under the constant gaze of the other. We don’t go out for morning walks – if that luxury existed for some of us. We are restricted to four walls of our homes, working while sulking in bed. We don’t even realize what time it is, what day it is – for all days are the same. Anthropologist Jane Guyer calls it, “enforced presentism”: we are coerced to live only in the immediate present, having lost the ability to plan ahead. (However, the reader should note that Guyer coined the term in her seminal 2007 essay on contemporary forms of temporal reasoning.)

It is this enforced presentism that raises questions about what it is like to live in times of normalcy. Can there be a normal life after the pandemic? Amidst crisis, it is hard to imagine a future that looks different from the present. It is here, we seek to ponder over life’s big questions: What is the meaning of life? What it feels like to be dead? Does God exist? If so, how can Almighty witness the suffering of millions on their death beds, in anguish, in vast numbers? However, I do not seek to engage with these questions in depth – at least, in this essay.

With regards to God, Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” His reasoning: the existence of God helps establish social order. Decades later, somewhere in Russia, Mikhail Bakunin wrote: “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.” A century later, Albert Camus, a scholar of existential philosophy, sums up the God dilemma in this quote: “If God did not exist, we should have to invent him. If God did exist, we should have to abolish him.” As a student of philosophy, I am convinced that – God or no God – we will have to live a life. It is here, the epicurean thoughts come to my rescue.

Mass cremation in times of COVID-19 pandemic
Mass cremation of victims who died due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, India, on April 22, 2021. | REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism was developed in 300 BCE in Athens by Epicurus. And its main proponent: Titus Carus Lucretius, the author of the great didactic poem, “On the Nature of Things”. Epicureanism challenged society in ways that seem unacceptable at the time in Greece. It teaches that the greatest good is to seek modest pleasures to attain a state of tranquillity, freedom from fear, and the absence of bodily pain. This combined makes up for eudemonia (happiness).

Epicurus and his followers formed a small commune in Epicurus’s house, surrounded by a garden, outside the city walls. The Epicureans took their meals in common, discussed philosophy, and socialized. Epicurus was a pragmatist. He declared, all that exists is made of indestructible atoms – tiny mobile particles invisible to the naked eye.

Prayers, to Epicureans, were useless for there was no hell. “The life of eudemonia was simply the one where pleasure dominated over pain”.  To them, happiness was derived from external things and socialization. When there is no immediate danger of dying, people are less afraid of death, Lucretius says. But when illness or danger strike, people begin to think of what comes after death.

Epicureans believe, when things go bad, they do so badly. We will suffer. And there is no real cure, except time and distraction. They say, it is essential for you to be aware of the external causes of misfortune and steer clear of them before they occur. These thoughts resonate with humans’ reaction to the 21st Century pandemic.

COVID-19 pandemic & Varanasi
A man selling masks on the busy street of Varanasi during the pandemic. | Shubhangee Vyas for Unsplash

Bad things occur – again and again. Already, the pandemic has fueled inequality both among and within countries. New virus variants have ravaged the streets of London, Mumbai, and California among others. Everything is scarce, everywhere – hospital beds, doctors, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, Remdesivir tablets, etc. Quarantines – and the general concern about the raging virus – have taken a huge toll on our day-to-day life.  Mental health has been neglected since. Living has become a misery for many of us. Death does not come easy. And the dead don’t die in peace. With COVID-19, we feel it all – one at a time. So, how do we cope? Or can we really cope?

To be frank, I don’t have answers to both of these questions. COVID-19 is a new disease, and there is no road map for a predictive future. No one really knows how long it will take the world to reach normalcy. But, as an Epicurean would have responded: “We just need to learn to live with it.” HOPE, I guess, is what drives us forward. Let’s hope, someday, the world will have the full toolkit to tackle the pandemic. Our future needs better management. We will need to focus on building the infrastructure to mitigate such health crises. We need to cooperate better. The rich are obliged to help the poor – both among and within countries. We need to build a sustainable future.

In the meantime, we need to focus on learning to live with the pandemic.


Picture: National Geographic

Politics in the Time of COVID-19

politics of covid-19

The COVID-19 crisis has created a new normal – empty streets, closed cafes and restaurants, sealed borders, restricted travels, and virtualised human interactions – a world paralysed at its own pace. Coronavirus has engulfed everyone’s lives with the fear of the unknown, or rather, of the unforeseeable. People, in billions, have been forced to stay at home. Young and the old alike, complaining of fever and dry cough, have filled hospitals in thousands.

Citizens, at least the privileged, lined up in supermarkets to stock up groceries and toilet papers. Meanwhile, the rest complained, “We will die – either from the virus or from hunger”. In a globalised society, the pandemic has produced a new form of self-organisation that isolates the self from others to sustain itself. The pandemic has made uncertainty a new normal.

COVID-19 and China

The novel Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The virus has since spread like a wildfire across the globe. More than two million people throughout the world have contracted the virus and tens of thousands of them have died.

Initially, China had covered up the extent of the spread of the Coronavirus outbreak for several weeks in December. The Chinese Government denied all the initial evidence and suppressed those who had warned of it, most tragically the Wuhan physician Dr Li Wenliang. The global response to the crisis has been too little, too late, and too laggard. The nation-states have been seeking to look inwards. As a result, the COVID-19 crisis seems to be nowhere in sight of control.

Pandemics provide the nation-states with an opportunity to seek to control the human population. They enable the rise of a big-state that takes tough measures towards its survival. Three such features of a pandemic-state are surveillance, authoritarianism, and xenophobia.

Surveillance

Countries, both democratic and non-democratic, have been using technology to track the movement of their citizens. Surveillance has become a new tool to control the spread of the pandemic. Nation-states have enforced their citizens to follow the norms of social-distancing, while also punishing those not adhering to them.

Surveillance technologies have been used to track where people are, where they have been, and what their recovery status is. This data is further used to determine the extent of the spread of disease and then track those who have been in contact with those infected by the virus.

Israel has authorised the internal security agency to tap the secret trove of cellular data of its citizens. South Korea and other East Asian countries have had their initial success in digital contact-tracing using mobile applications. Many countries across the globe have been following suit. States have been exercising the power to monitor people using technology. Several leaders across the globe have been using the pandemic as an opportunity to suppress their population, thereby resulting in an Orwellian State – Big Brother is Watching You.

Authoritarianism

In response to the crisis, the world autocrats have been employing a mixture of propaganda, suppression of political rivals, and expansion of political powers. As an old maxim goes, “Never let a good famine go to waste”, many world leaders have been successful in their power grabs.

Pandemic has enabled the leaders to legitimise the use of executive powers, detain people, and infringe on the freedoms of expression. Hungary has passed a new law that grants Prime Minister Victor Orban the power to suspend the country’s existing laws. An indefinite State of Emergency has been declared in Hungary, curtailing the freedom of expression and penalising those breaking quarantine orders.

Philippines legislature has granted President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers. And the President has imposed shoot-to-kill orders of those not following the quarantine norms. In Egypt, chemical warfare troops, clad in the protective suit have been deployed to disinfect the suburbs.

Pandemic has allowed the Governments to ban public assemblies, quarantine, close borders, limit trade, impose restrictions on movement, and censor media. History also suggests that after a crisis, the state does not give up on all the ground it had secured. Thus, it is imperative to speculate about the kind of state we would live in after the crisis.

Xenophobia

There has also been a rise in the process of ‘othering’ with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of taking the opportunity to embrace and support one another, the nation-states have become the spouts of xenophobia. Even as the Coronavirus spread across the globe, reports of racism towards East Asians have been on the rise in Western democracies.

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has repeatedly referred to the Coronavirus as ‘Chinese Virus’. Incidents of racially motivated crimes have risen throughout the United States since the outbreak of the virus. Xenophobia has become a petty tool for governments and their citizens to colour responses concerning the pandemic.

Media also plays an important role in the creation of ‘the other’, as a contrast to the self. Xenophobia systematically enables the social stigma towards others in society. The moment a pandemic is regionalised and stigmatised, humanity will suffer a sad demise.

Scholars across the globe have given their verdict on a post-pandemic world, with many affirming that the “world will be less open, prosperous, and free”. Some scholars believe that China would rise as a new global power; some others have written an obituary to hyper-globalisation. Climate change, for good, will gain limelight in a post-pandemic world. It is interesting to see how the crisis in itself pans out over the period to provide an affirmative answer. A pandemic-State will always be mired by the rise of authoritarianism, surveillance, and xenophobia.

Conclusion

However, such a State will not be suitable for a post-crisis era. We need to keep in check the power of Governments in a post-pandemic society. United Nations, as an agency, has failed to provide a collective global response. Its decline seems evident, more than ever. It should not mean the demise of ‘global governance’. We need institutions with a robust and structured form of global governance mechanisms.

A world government with structured power-sharing with nation-states would be a sophisticated alternative to human society. Such a government would require enforceable jurisdiction on issues that threaten humanity, such as poverty, health, terrorism, war, and climate change. We need cooperation between countries more than ever. The pandemic will not end for anyone until it ends for everyone.


Disclaimer: The article was first published with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), and with KhabarHub.

Picture Credits: The Economist