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May 03, 2020 Sunday 01:19:20 PM IST

Covid-19 -The Pandemic Outbreak and the Virus Within Ourselves

Image by enriquelopezgarre for pixabay.com

It will not be my aim, in the thoughts offered below, to provide palliatives. Palliatives delude us with the illusory prospect of bypassing the truth. I start with the premise that we are not the first, nor the last, to face crises. Many before us have fought these demons. There is much we may learn from their experiences and insights. The loneliness, for example, that will afflict us thanks to the Corona was already identified by Hannah Arendt as ‘the crisis of the 20th century’ (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1962). A long time before this virus subverted our social interactions, we had wilfully compromised them. We have chosen to be aggregations of individuals, not communities and congregations. 
The present crisis, like its many predecessors, too shall pass. Nothing is forever. We need to endure. But how we may endure differs. And how one endures reflects who one is. So, the important thing is not which crisis hits us; it is how we face it. A crisis is our date with truth; the truth that we’d, otherwise, rather ignore. 
Here’s the core of what I wish to say. A virus is not an enemy, but a mirror. The poor virus is unaware of targeting us. It simply is doing what is best for itself, unmindful of what distress and danger it occasions for humans. But, given the chance, we do pretty much the same to each other, won’t we? How is a person or a party that tries to promote his or its interests at the expense of others morally any better than the Corona? The world is perishing today because the difference between human beings and viruses is becoming merely notional. 
The existential issues this pandemic has precipitated are: acute individual loneliness in the wake of lock-downs, disruptions of social life, polluting the inter-personal space with distrust of each other, tension in intimate relations and domestic ambience, and anxiety aggravated by fear of death. 
Fear of Death

There are reasons why this infection, like HIV/AIDs before it, activates fear of death. There is, as yet, neither any preventive vaccine nor any effective, affordable therapy. It’s also alarmingly contagiousness. Going by the current UK data, one infected person transmits the virus to two others. If so, as many as 200 infections result per month on account of the one person currently infected. The US estimates that 40% to 60% of its population could be at risk. As per tentative projections in India, about 100 to 200 million people could be infected. About 2-3% of those who infected die. So, the problem is real and serious; especially given our abysmally inadequate medical facilities. 
But life, not death, is the basic issue. Our attitude to life shapes our attitude to death. The fear of death implies a failure of life that conjures up a frightening sense of emptiness. It is from life that death borrows this spectral sombreness. Drifting in routine life, we remain indifferent to the value of life. In this respect, the Corona is a wake-up call in regard to the value of life. If this awareness survives the crisis, we shall emerge wiser from it. We are better killers of ourselves than the virus is. Why do tens and thousands commit suicide year after year?Hencetheparadox. On the one hand we fear this virus because it could kill many. On the other hand, manymore are desperate to be rid of life. So, death per se is not the issue. It is life. 
Isolation, Loneliness 
Isolation-and-aloneness would not have been a poignant issue for us, if we were not social beings. However, it is the social aspect of life that we’ve marginalized today. We live as atomized, self-enclosed individuals. Loneliness is its by-product. This concern looms large in the philosophy of late 19th and 20th century (Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Sartre, Arendt, Derrida, Levinas and others.) Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a study of the disintegration of the individual psyche in a state of aloneness. Dickens’ Dombey and Son foregrounds the loneliness inherent in living for material goals alone. It is the preference of the modern man to live for himself alone that, according to Hannah Arendt, makes the modern orld vulnerable to totalitarianism. “We live,” she wrote, “in a world of singles”. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” The rupture in social solidarity results from our deliberate choices. But when it happens via a virus, we feel aggrieved. We are lonely, not only because we are alienated from others but also from ourselves. 
But the fact that we are shut out of others, in the wake of an epidemic, does not mean that we have to be lonely or relapse into emptiness. We could fill this time usefully in two ways. First, we can enter into a dialogue with ourselves so that we deepen our self-understanding. In that case, we could realize that we have not been investing adequately in ourselves. As a result, we are stagnating; especially in regard to our inner treasures. Second, this is the time to invest in relationships at home, which we tend to take for granted. Home is our fortress when the external world becomes inhospitable or out of bounds. A period of self-quarantine doesn’t have to be a time of loss. It can be time of gain too. 
 A crisis illustrates, as nothing else can, the value of human solidarity. The pain of loneliness arises from our need for others; especially the deeper to be needed. Yet it also happens that we are relieved to be rid of people of a certain type. This illustrates not only our need to be in company, but also our duty to be authentic human beings, so that we can enrich and reassure each other. The need for human solidarity cannot be met by any kind of mere presence. It takes persons of quality to do so.

The Plague of Distrust 
The virus comes as an enemy lurking in the inter-personal space. This makes us apprehend others as carriers of perils. The invisibility of the virus aggravates this anxiety. It is hard to tell the innocuous from the infecting. Everyone is painted with the broad bush of hostility. This makes having to be with human beings worse than walking in a minefield. 
It helps in such contexts to remember that, beyond taking reasonable and feasible precautions and safety measures, it doesn’t help to live paralyzed. At any rate,it doesn’t help. Life involves the acceptance of reasonable risks at all times. Risk-free life is a myth. We could choke on a sumptuous meal and die! The ‘reasonableness’ of the risk we accept is not, however, a fixed thing. Each person has to decide it for himself or herself. If a dear one is infected, would I risk reaching out to help? I think I would. Love, not fear, must decide the issue. But, in doing so, I will do all I can to scrupulously ensure my safety. I will, in other words, be open to taking risks; but not be ‘resigned’ to it. 
The truth is that others are not threats, but blessings. That it seems otherwise now, is a contextual aberration. So, it helps to look this distrust in the face. Consider also this strange thing. Spreading fear and distrust is a profitable enterprise today. Elections are won by this strategy. Can it be all right to resort to it when it helps us to thrive at the expense of others, but is pernicious when it endangers us as well? 
The Ordeal of Communication 
Consider this irony. COVID-19 is a ‘communicable’ disease. That is, it proliferates through communication. Communication is basic to our being. It plays a significant role in our development and health as social creatures. This age of communication is also characterized by a failure of communication. Rather, we drown ourselves in an ocean of shallow communication (cf. social networking sites). The most poignant thing is not that we do not communicate, but that we have nothing to communicate. We make a lot of noise, but we have no voice. Who we are is not in our communication. Then what is it that we communicate? How is perverse propaganda that incites genocidal violence any better than the deadly ‘communication’ of this virus? 
In the social isolation that the need to contain this epidemic enforces, we have an opportunity to audit our communication. Karl Jaspers recognizes four different modes of communication. Most people do not care to go beyond the merely factual and functional. The experts, on their part, handle generalities or the esoteric minutiae of super-specialization. Very few reach the level of the ‘spirit’ (Geist) that makes one respect,in communication,the underlying unity ofall things human. Fewer still attain the level of ‘existential communication’ in which one Existenz (Jaspers’ word for authentic existence) communicates with another Existenz. So, we could be at the bottom of the dry well of aloneness, even while we are in a crowd, if remain shallow egos. Society as an aggregation of such individuals is imagined by Prophet Ezekiel as the valley of dry bones. The transformation of this heap of dry bones into an army of living souls happens through spiritual communication.  
We note in passing a phenomenon that has reportedly surfaced in China in the wake of the Corona epidemic. In China divorce rates threaten to increase on account of enforced togetherness.  This proves that mere physical proximity is not always a blessing. It can be a burden, if we do not grow in our capacity for person-to-person relationship. (Jesus recognized the ‘weary and burdened’ human existence cf. Mtt.11:28). In this phenomenon we must read a warning that we could be a liability to others, if we stay shallow and insensitive.Hence the irony: even as we feel hurt by loneliness we remain a source of burden and weariness to those who relate to us. 
Victimising Infected 
The motive for this arises from a false idea of security. It assumes that the other is the problem. In contrast to this stands the medical fact that improving one’s immunity is as helpful as avoiding infective points of contact. But that is a long-cut. In comparison, victimizing the suspicious other seems a quick-fix. There is an illustration of this in the Gospel of St. Mark: the healing of the demoniac. The narrative presumes a connection between the menacing condition of the demoniac and the value system of his society. No one wants to change in any way. So, the only option is to drive out the demonic, who has to live among tombs. Jesus, in restoring him, highlights the connection this society was unwilling to face. This is the significance of the herd of swine perishing as part of the healing and the restoration of the man. It is unrealistic to assume that we shall emerge from a crisis without facing the realities that lurk in it.

 What shall we do?
1. We must assume responsibility, first, for ourselves and, next, for others in the ambit of our social reach and personal interaction and help to break the chain of transmitting the infection. We need to mind personal hygiene. Minimize travels and social exposures as far as possible, without undermining quality of life altogether. Safety is secured not by irrational fears, but by informed choices and responsible behaviour. 
2. Prepare mentally and spiritually for a period of self-quarantine or community lock-down, marked necessarily by loneliness and the disruption of familiar routines.  Isolation does not have to entail existential emptiness. It can be a blessing in disguise as well. It could be a time for deepening and enriching our inner life and inter-personal relationships. Certainty a time, say, for improving our reading habits and life of the mind. 
3. It could be a time to enrich family life, which needs to be worked at; for it is unlikely to happen automatically. Culturally, a shift is happening from home to life out there. So, having to stay home-bound could induce restlessness. Restlessness denotes unused or under-used energy. There is no remedy for it other than devising a strategy for using one’s time and energies in a purposive and self-enriching way.  
4. Special attention must be paid to meeting the needs of children. It is more difficult for a child and a teenager to stay put in the home. Abandoning them to the resources of the virtual world is a bad idea! Parents need to recognize their additional responsibilities in such a context, and prepare themselves to discharge them adequately. If done well, this could ensure matchless long-term gains.  
5. Finally, as even management gurus tell us these days, reckon the reality of death in our view of life. We are sure to die. It is a matter of time. If will be tomorrow, as Hamlet says, if it is not today. We can’t decide how long we shall live, but we can decide how well we live. There is nothing tragic about our dying; not even dying young. What is tragic is our dying without ever having opened our eyes on the beauty and meaning of life. 
If at all we have to be in social isolation, we could remember the instance of Jonah inside the whale’s belly! (ref. The Book of Jonah)It turned out, in his case, to be a state of transformation. It could also have meant ignominious death. It was Jonah in prayer, not the killer whale in alimentation, who made the difference. So, who we are, matters; virus or no virus. Especially so, when the virus is slithering, unseen, in the garden of our life.


Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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