by Shilpi Singh, Assistant Professor – Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi
The one question that constantly keeps haunting a lot of us is what went so monumentally wrong that we are all as a civilisation caught up so unprepared to face the virus, despite timely warnings and information? How is it that we as a civilization are collapsing politically, economically, ethically in the face of a virus causing illness and leading to a pandemic. This makes us ponder even further to conclude that there have been health conditions in the past to have prepared us better to face this pandemic. It even pushes us to regretfully admit, at times hesitantly, the failure of science, medicine, technology, market and modernity to address or find a solution to the pandemic. As Hegel rightfully said that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Thus, leaving all of us in a state of paranoia, anxiety and ambiguity about the future. Hence, Slavoj Zizek argues that the pandemic has made us realise that we are just another species with no special importance. A species that can possibly be wiped out by a virus.
Since the vaccine that can fight the virus has not been discovered yet. The virus has forced us to follow social distancing as that seems to be the only possible modality to avoid the spread of the contagious virus. The question that then arises is whether this corporeal or social distancing will strengthen or weaken our existing human links and bonds of society? To understand this better we need to differentiate between the two terms and avoid using it interchangeably. While on the one hand, corporeal distancing can make us feel closer to our loved ones. Social distancing on the other hand has only made us repeat the social history of ostracising and isolating certain sections of people.
However, there have been different sets of reaction to the pandemic similar to the ones described by Elisabeth Kubler- Ross in On Death and Dying. For sometime there was denial which make people think that there was nothing seriously wrong about the spread of the virus. Then there seemed to be a sudden eruption of anger against China internationally and against the Muslims in India. This lead to the third reaction of bargaining in terms of who can be affected and how one should curtail the spread of the virus. The failure to do this led to the escalation of the cases of depression and anxiety with the failure to curtail the spread of the virus and the possible consequences of that. The last stage seems to be the most difficult and that is reaching a point of acceptance. Accepting the fact that this is here to stay and is not passing away soon. Accepting the fact that this permanency of the virus will push us into living delicate and fearful lives.
Those of us who are hoping for the return of the normal and treating this as a temporary phase in their lives will be utterly disappointed to know that there is no return to normalcy. The crisis of the virus will create a new normal on the ruins of our old lives. This new normal will be different from the old but certainly has similarities with the most barbaric and yet so basic premise of ‘the survival of the fittest and the strongest’. The ignorance of the civilization has forced us to cross the threshold that separates humanism from barbarism is what Agamben responds on the ethical implications of Corona virus crisis. He points out that solely in the name of risk we have and will accept that persons who are dear to us should die without even being given a funeral. We will then go on to accepting, again solely in the name of risk the suspension of our relationships of love, friendship and camaraderie because our proximity is the possible source of contagion. Lastly, yet again, solely in the name of risk, we will accept the splitting of our vital existence into biological on the one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other. The threat of the virus is here to stay for sometime. Even if the health care system and scientific and technological advancement is able to postpone the threat now, it will reappear in different and rather dangerous forms in the future.
This makes us realise that human lives are meaningless. However lavish and magnificent one’s life might be, it can all end through a crisis created by a natural virus, bringing us back to the immateriality of life. However this is not the time to search for immateriality or spirituality. This is rather a time to find semblance and symmetry in our everyday without giving in to the social pressures created by social media along with the shame that comes with the failure to comply. It is the time to move at your own pace, finding meaning in the small things one might be doing.
The only way out of this pandemic is to think that we are all as a civilization in the same boat. Because it is only with that thought that we will develop mutual trust between people, state apparatuses and different countries. The invisible hand of the market and its other mechanism have failed to address the problem. The failure of the global capitalist system to find solutions as promised seems to be the last nail in the coffin. Now is not the time to follow who came first propaganda.
In fact this is the time to think of an alternative society with a sense of global solidarity and commitment similar to what Albert Einstein had imagined for the successful establishment of world peace. For Zizek the imagination of the future can be best captured through what he calls ‘disaster communism’ which according to him is an antidote to disaster capitalism. Under this, the state needs to take on a pro-active role in the production of necessities like masks, sanitizers and kits along with providing a safety valve to all those who are affected or rendered unemployed because of the crisis. However, we are failing to build an alternative society based on either of the model because we are failing to develop mutual trust. This mutual trust will be generated only when we acknowledge that we all might be in the same boat but our journeys and our paths are very different. We are all stuck amidst the virus but the precocity or safety of our lives vis-à-vis the virus is very different. It is through the acknowledgement of this difference that we can find the asymmetries on which an alternative society can be created, a society that will respect let alone acknowledging difference.