The plague: Searching for meaning

Counting the cost is about more than numbers.

Sunset photo
A motorist waits at a stoplight on an empty street as the sun sets during a coronavirus lockdown on April 28, 2020, in downtown Topeka city, US [AP/Charlie Riedel] [Daylife]

It may be premature to take stock of the coronavirus pandemic or make sense of it while it is still going on. But how we confront this calamity and what we learn in the process will determine what or who we are when it ends. 

Within the first four months of the outbreak, COVID-19 has already killed hundreds of thousands and infected millions more, pushing tens of millions out of work and forcing hundreds of millions into home quarantine.

The culprit, the novel coronavirus, is still at large, with no cure or vaccine to contain its spread. Its exact origin, mutations, patterns of contagion, and full impact on the human body remain a mystery.

The ramifications of the outbreak have gone so far beyond public health, complicating the already complicated economic and geopolitical conditions of countries across the world, rendering it abundantly clear that there is no quick fix, no magic wand out of this crisis.

Many have taken to framing the pandemic as a war. But as I have previously argued, the “war on the virus” may be attractive and practical for leaders and their followers who seek quick wins, but for the majority of people stuck at home, the fight takes a whole different form.

Political expediency

The war metaphor obscures more than it clarifies since the virus is “an enemy” that cannot be deterred, does not die and will not surrender. It can mutate, adapt and reappear when it is least expected.

Declaring war glosses over and even mystifies the real nature of the challenges we all face by resorting to a familiar but inadequate framework.

It lacks the vision to address our own failures and the imagination to reinvent our post-coronavirus future.

Worse still, the rush to accept any medicine as a cure, declare a victory and go back to “business as usual” is as naive as it is dangerous.

After all, it is our “business as usual” that either keeps getting us into trouble, or keeps us ill-prepared to deal with new trouble.

The call of science to “test, trace, contain” is proving an effective medical strategy, devoid of war reference.

If governments were to invest in scientific research as they do in arms and the military, we might be far better prepared to deal with the next plague.

But even science has its limits. Why? Because it depends on what we as humans do with scientific knowledge.

Fortunately, most of us have come to consider science, not politics or war, as the way forward, to find a cure and a vaccine to protect us from this and other health crises.

But this realisation still needs to be translated into public policies, putting health above profit, especially in developed countries where leaders are addicted to profit and dismissive of science.

Social adaptation

Meanwhile, for the majority of us staying at home, the struggle is emotional, existential and utterly instinctive.

Regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality or class, we seem to move from one phase to another along different stages which stem from our common human experience.

These include, denial, alarm, fear, suffering, anger, resistance, bargaining, exhaustion, depression, resolution, acceptance, and unity.

The reader, potentially anyone from anywhere, may recognise many if not all of these feelings and may have experienced them in a different order.

Thanks to social media, we have discovered through sound and image that not only do we share similar woes and worries, but we also express them through a similar sense of humour, and lots of it, surprisingly, self-deprecating.

It is a victory for human civilisation that in the middle of tragedy, comedy proliferates faster than COVID-19, allowing our humanity to connect us when social distancing, well, separates us.

This should pave the way for the healing stage and for finding some meaning in this crisis, which helps prepare us for a potentially graver threat in the future.

Searching for meaning, including soul searching, both personal and collective, is especially important if we are to emerge from this tragedy stronger than when we were at its onset.

Could we, in its shadow, hope for a gentler, fairer, more humane society? Commit to a world where everyone, or at least every child and every senior, have access to healthcare

Social restoration

The coronavirus might have separated us physically as nations, communities and as individuals, but it has also brought us together as human beings sharing a common destiny.

Never have we all panicked together, feared for our lives together, felt that we are changing together, that we are all in this together, and must all get well together, as we do today.

This has also left us facing more of the same dilemma: Reopen the economy to save jobs or prolong closures to save lives – a choice we need not have to make, if we are better coordinated and better prepared.

That is why we need to rebuild our immunity system not only as individuals, but also as a society – and indeed, as a civilisation. We must prepare for the next novel virus attack – an attack that will surely be no less lethal or contagious.

And it is not the only danger we face collectively. Lest we forget, we are facing the consequences of global warming and a string of natural or man-made disasters.

Going back is not the way forward

No doubt, we all want to forget this tragic encounter with the strange and scary pandemic in order go back to some semblance of normalcy.

But there is no going back.

Only forward.

And that may not be such a bad thing after all.

For we want our new normalcy to be better than the old – less pressing, polluted and cumbersome, and more humane, green and just.

And more poetic.

It is said, in every crisis lies an opportunity. Why let this crisis go to waste?