By Moin Qazi*
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. — Marie Curie
The COVID-19 pandemic is a human tragedy of potentially biblical proportions and has convulsed societies like never earlier. Even as the world remains gripped in the fright of an invisible threat, Mother Nature has sent countries into a dystopia. Coronavirus has forced millions of people into internal exile, many of whom have plunged in a deep sense of loneliness. The pandemic has made our understanding of solitude more acute. While the outbreak has opened our minds to the benignity of isolation, uncertainties have instilled a deep sense of fear and nightmare among the populace.
Covid has also unmasked the ugly face of society, it’s shown us how uncaring and dismissive we can be towards our fellow human beings. There have been endless stories of misery, hunger, and job losses as fear of the unknown gripped communities. Even the dead were not spared: Dead bodies were sent back from graveyards as people protested their last rites for fear, they may contract the disease.
Nevertheless, amidst the gloom, there have also been shining examples of fearless, selfless service by healthcare and social service responders: the amazing work of some of these men and women away from public glare. Doctors and nurses dressed in white PPEs, bustling about with their diagnostic kits, giving injections, scheduling tests and infusing hope in desperate patients and their loved ones.
A crisis has a way of sharpening our focus. When we suffer a loss or become ill, we take stock of what’s important. We appreciate the parts of our lives that maybe we took for granted. We revisit our values and our relationships, and we think about how we might honor them if we had another chance, if we had more time. Crises force us to reflect.
We’re normally forced to balance things in life-between work and family, fitness and rest, thoughts, and emotions. We keep adjusting things consciously and unconsciously to stay on an even keel. But when unexpected storms (such as this pandemic) strike us, we are caught off balance. That’s when we need to know how to stay anchored to survive. The events surrounding the pandemic have forced all of us to reflect on what matters most. They have revealed what was already frayed in our social fabric. They have spurred all of us to act, in ways large and small, to move beyond the world as it is and create the world as it should be.
Part of the reason why the pandemic is so frightening is because it sets off the fear of not just being in quarantine but also of people being abandoned altogether. Trepidation is profoundly affecting the psyche of an individual and world view, too. Those who have been infected with the virus have no visitors; no shared meals and no one to hold their hands. They are cut off from their closed ones, trapped inside the walls of the private space/hospital – this is the 21st century’s version of being deserted.
Social distancing – sometimes self-quarantine – is one of the most crucial protective gears to counter the spread of Coronavirus. But that, too, isn’t easy when it comes to practicing being socially distanced from each other. One of the fixed costs is social isolation and loneliness. More people live alone now than at any other time in history. The weird gift of solitude is that it grounds us in our shared humanity. And the entire world is in the same boat.
However, as much frightened we may feel, we have never been less alone. On the positive side, the pandemic has led to an increased sense of consciousness about belonging to one family. It has shown us that only when we take care of one another — as well as the planet on which the entire humanity remains dependent — can we hope for a better future. It has shown how helpless individuals are despite being blessed with the best in this world.
In particular, the pandemic has revealed one shocking aspect of our societies and economies: Nations have been operating on a thin margin. The edifice seemed so shiny: A world of silver jets stitching together gleaming cities and a globe of soaring markets and industrial empires. But a couple of months into the pandemic and economies were tottering – the jets were grounded, the cities remained silent, and one after the other, industries moved towards bankruptcy. However shiny our world may have appeared, it wasn’t sturdy. Our systems and society seem to be very fragile. All of this has exploded the many myths about a robust and resilient order.
We’re now realizing that we were all traveling in a high-speed train that was fast hurtling towards disaster, what with, concentration of the world’s wealth in too few hands and global warming at alarming levels. The corona pandemic has halted this journey and given us the opportunity to disembark, reflect and change track to take our world to a much better destination where we can have equity, sustainability, inclusivity and a greener, cleaner, healthier planet.
Loneliness is the nightmare of the social animal. It is a taboo in our social world. It may not be completely accurate under ordinary circumstances or even under quarantine, but there are other ways in which seclusion causes pain – it leads to tangible physiological and behavioral effects on our brains and bodies. The need for connection is so central to our being that to experience its absence plunges our body into a state of minor emergency.
COVID-19 has been the most extreme form of social isolation experienced by us in recent memory. Bereft of any choice but to live in solitariness for the greater good, it has been hard not to wonder what we will desire once we exercise individual autonomy. Such experiences give us a renewed appreciation for human contact.
The pandemic has taught us many lessons. Much of the sad condition of our planet is on account of mindlessness and heartless consumerism. At the root of human suffering is our excessive self-centeredness, a fixation on our own needs rather than the greater good.
This is the time for us to recalibrate and shift the narrative on how we are dealing with nature, the environment and climate. We need to appreciate that science and technology are not just tools to hasten our monopoly over other species but they can be great levelers and instruments that can help in ensuring the survival of all, if used wisely. It is time for us to recognize that we have no exclusive right over the planet, and we need to respectfully share it with all other living organisms
The feeling of insecurity is directly a result of self-interest rather than selflessness. As the pandemic overturned everything, including the great myth that we knew everything about our future. It has taught us that we all must embrace a life free of expectations. The crisis has revealed that we have little control over our environment and the challenges that come our way. It’s time to reframe the system because we have had a mechanism that put profit at the centre. And what we need to do is to put humanity at the centerstage. This understanding will help us prepare better for a world order that will follow the eventual subsidence of the pandemic. The most important learning is that more than a technological revolution, we need a moral revolution. This can be driven by moral imagination and courage.
We should take solace in the fact that resilient people have used such isolation for human advancement. There is no limit to human endurance, imagination, and achievement, except the limits that we put on our minds. We owe our modern understanding of light and colour to the multifaceted genius of Isaac Newton. England saw its last major outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665-66. As a precautionary measure, the students at Cambridge University, including young Newton, were sent home. He spent his enforced vacation working on ideas underlying his spectacular accomplishments: gravitation, laws of motion, calculus, and optics. Newton not only survived the plague but succeeded in using the time and isolation to achieve four important breakthroughs that laid the foundations of modern science.
Many people accept the idea that each of us has a certain resolute innerness—a kernel of selfhood that we can’t share with others. Levin, at the end of “Anna Karenina,” calls it his “holy of holies,” and says that, no matter how close he grows to the people around him, there will always be “the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife.” Perhaps the spiritual minded drawn artist among us have used the isolation imposed upon them by the pandemic for this self-protection and self-renewal.
The pandemic has taught us that it is time to change our values, priorities, and perspective if humanity is to survive. Indeed, the present is what the ancient Greeks regarded as “kairos”, the opportune moment to respond to the constraints of the “zeitgeist” (the spirit of the times). the coronavirus pandemic teaches us is that if humanity is to survive, this is the time for it to change its values, its priorities, and its perspectives,”
As part of humanity, for each of us today, life and death are critical points when we must respond to the zeitgeist. The coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of those historical moments when our past, present and future seem to be colliding in the same zeitgeist. The non-human world of the coronavirus has proclaimed its supremacy over the human world and taken control of human destiny. But the human world has not yet pronounced its last word. Humanity is living its kairos, its propitious moment and its opportunity to take a decision…But more importantly, the kairic moment of human destiny is to invite humanity to introspect and to make a fundamental change in its approach to living and dying,”
We need to re-evaluate some of the basic values on which the socio-economic and political contracts of our world stand. this can only happen by “redefining the art of living together as an act of global exchange.
The art of living together cannot be measured in terms of self-interests and personal ambitions (as it is in the corporate world), but in terms of virtue and excellence applied to a global citizenship.
This is our only kairos, our unique window of opportunity to save humanity from itself… Because our choice is no longer between good and evil, but between the art of living and a life of meaninglessness and fear.
Those who have been resilient enough to cope with the pandemic times can endorse Rudyard Kipling’s words:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!