It must have been ages ago since I read Albert Camus’ novel The Plague. I recall it started with rats dying, followed by a tsunami of human deaths. Initially the town’s leaders were reluctant to acknowledge that there was an epidemic. Even when the death toll kept growing, they ignored the human suffering taking place right under their noses. Eventually, they had no choice. Martial law was imposed. No one was allowed to enter or leave the city. And as law and order broke down, riots and looting became common. The residents of the city were in a state of despair. Being cut off, unable to communicate with or see loved ones or move freely, weighed heavily on everyone—for some, even more so than the threat of death itself. As the plague continued to ravage the town, its citizens filled the hospitals and cemeteries. Finally, a serum was developed but it turned out to be a failure. As time went on, the number of deaths due to the plague decreased and a more effective serum was released. The quarantine was lifted and the gates of the town were opened.
A more recent foresight of what we are now experiencing can be seen in Steven Soderberg's 2011 film Contagion. While watching the film, many of its scenes hit very close to home. In the film, a disease that originated in Hong Kong, rapidly spreads around the world through basic human contact, killing millions. The outbreak of this pandemic sends officials from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) scrambling to stop the outbreak. And like what has been happening with the coronavirus, it takes much teetering before anyone realizes the gravity of the epidemic. The film also explores the contagion of fear and distrust which is spreading faster than the virus itself. The fictional virus portrayed in the film originated from a bat, which then jumped to a pig, to move on to a person. Very much true to life, it reflects the fact that 75% of new diseases in people come from animals, including HIV, Ebola, SARS and now, Covid-19.
Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, people should also have taken this film and Camus’ tale more seriously. More than a decade ago, medical experts had sounded the alarm that a pandemic like the coronavirus was bound to happen. Unfortunately, nobody paid attention. The warnings to the governments of the world—and the need to prepare for such a crisis—went unheeded. Instead, both the novel and the film were seen as science fiction. But after what’s happening now, denying the reality of pandemics is no longer an option.
In spite of our lack of foresight, the more pressing question is what the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic is going to look like? There is no crystal ball for the future; but what we do sense is that things are going to be different.
When the crisis subsides, do we go back to normal? Or does Covid-19 provide us with an important learning experience?
Covid-19 will eventually subside. An antidote will be found. But in the interim, how we respond to this pandemic will have an enormous effect on what the future will look like. More than anything, the coronavirus has highlighted political, economic, and social dysfunctionalities. It has also shown the crisis of leadership. In spite of all the human suffering, this pandemic is also a warning to make radical changes in our social behavior, economy, and the role of government in our lives.
Let’s consider two scenarios, keeping in mind that elements of either could overlap.
Dependency and autocracy
In situations of crisis, most people tend to regress to a state of greater dependency. Crises very rarely evokes mature responses. What usually happens is to turn to leadership that can provide a semblance of mastering collective fears and anxieties. This regression may explain the paradoxical phenomenon of highly incompetent leaders rising in popularity during crisis situations, especially when they give off the impression of being in control.
Looking at the facts, we are faced with the question of whether the current leadership of the most powerful countries of the world do have it under control. What the pandemic has done is to highlight our interdependency and the need for a truly globally coordinated response. Instead, what is currently happening is that most countries are looking out for themselves, vying for badly needed items to combat the pandemic. If this continues, identity politics will become even stronger.
Sadly enough, during times of uncertainty, populations will be more willing to trade civil liberties and hand over control over to governments to run their lives. These include:
What’s also likely is the search for scapegoats. After all, nothing is more effective for uniting a population than the perception of outside threats. Thus, apart from regressive processes, paranoid reactions will also come to the fore. An idea that originally was seen as unimaginable—a 1984-like society of government over-reach, mass surveillance and regimentation of human behaviour—is becoming reality.
The question becomes, how much of our life do we want to sacrifice at the altar of greater sense of security? Do we want to live in a world where human beings rarely congregate, where activities are tracked, and freedom of movement determined by government officials? Do we want to live in a society where nearly all of life happens online: shopping, meetings, entertainment, socializing, working, even dating? What are the longer term mental and physical consequences of the measures being instituted now to get the pandemic under control?
Gemeinschaft, or community
The second scenario taps into the more positive side of human nature. Disasters not only bring to the fore regression and paranoia; they can also provide an opportunity to reflect, learn and create greater solidarity. And as we have seen many times over, when humanity is united in a common cause, extraordinary things can be accomplished. The pandemic should be an inflection point to harness our collective will to work together on solutions focused on what’s really important.
We can start by asking ourselves:
Taking an evolutionary psychological point of view, human life thrives in a community, not in isolation. Gemeinschaft—or a society characterised by strong social and family ties—is crucial to mental and physical health. As it is, we are already living in much more distant ways through the rise of technology and social media. This pandemic can provide an opportunity to restore lost connections, creating a greater sense of community, and more broadly reviving interrelated, cooperative societies.
The coronavirus puts us at an inflection point: do we regress to greater autocracy or do we work towards building more compassionate and interconnected societies?
This pause from the normal gives us a chance to collectively confront urgent issues that existed pre-Covid 19: rise to power of dysfunctional leaders; inequities in many societies; addictions and mental health; and imminent ecological collapse. Sustainable solutions to these issues require that we transcend narrow, parochial concerns and act in the belief that we live in an interconnected world.
The Indian Chief Seattle once said, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
If you are interested in learning more about this topic:
Photo credit: Dan DeAlmeida on Unsplash
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