Hope, humanity and COVID-19

As I ponder the Covid-19 pandemic, I can only humbly defer to intellectuals who addressed epidemics through fiction. I think of The Plague by Albert Camus (1947), where the town of Oran in Algeria is slowly overtaken by an epidemic. Violence increases as the disease spreads. Docteur Rieux stands tall in my mind, as he ponders how a child can be made to suffer so much, contemplating the existence of a merciless God. I am reminded also of a quieter epidemic in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the one that robbed people of sleep. In a state of collective insomnia, people started to forget, forget everything including who they were, and the names of things. And finally, José Saramago’s disturbing novel Blindness (1995) comes to mind. Here, a blinding disease hits everyone – except one woman, who does not reveal she can see. The disease unleashes violence which she witnesses like Christ suffering on the cross. When the epidemic winds down and people recover their sight, she feels she is the one becoming blind to life, failing to understand everyone’s behavior.

Of course these are extreme and fictional situations, yet epidemics are part of our life on earth. They force us to see our individuality amidst the collective. Fear seeps in. There is a sense of suffocation. It is inevitable.

An equalizer… and yet

An epidemic is an equalizer. We can all potentially get it, notwithstanding our wealth, social status or political power. We are forced to take the same measures. No one is immune – and that makes us all equal. It reminds me of a Zen story about a man who kept repeating: ‘Look, everyone is dying! Look at me, I am alive!’ Well, we all know what eventually happened to him. There is an inevitability about death that disturbs many of us. Covid-19 brings it closer, and makes us feel all the more vulnerable.

The fact is that some are more equal than others. While some commiserate about being at home unable to go out for coffee with friends (I don’t mean to trivialize, I know it is more serious for many people), many have been living under those same circumstances for years. And the absurdity, and I hope you will recognize it, is that in the latter case it is man-made, and can be halted. I am talking about people living in a state of war and under occupation. Who think that at any moment they can be killed because of a bomb or a sniper or a stray bullet. Their reality is raw and violent.

The effects of Covid-19 do not even compare to their state of desperation. I am not minimizing the pandemic. Rather, I am hoping that people will wake up to the reality of millions who suffer under strife.

Refugees, war victims. Every day they are under threat; every day death is at their door. And now, add Covid-19. That feeling of suffocation —it is constant. Ask anyone in Idlib.

The weakness of mankind

I admit that I am having a hard time trying to be optimistic. Not about Covid-19. The pandemic will eventually wind down, and people will return to their routine, exchanging stories about what they have been through. Some will lose loved ones. But things will return to what suddenly seems wonderful, and that is ‘normality’.  Despite all the chaos in the world right now, the largest looming threat remains man-made, and that is war. War, over what I hope some may now see as absurd issues — a flag, a piece of land, a religious belief, a need for power, greed, etc.

Humility and lucidity

Humility and lucidity should guide us through this pandemic, as well as in taking a step back beyond our individual self so as to take a global perspective. I will refrain from quoting data about military expenditure and war deaths. I do not want to reduce the conversation to a comparison of victims. Every victim, be it of war or disease, deserves dignity and the right to be mourned. All I want is for people to think on a global scale and to put things in perspective.

I cannot conclude without mentioning Edward Jenner (1749-1823) and Jonas Salk (1914-1995), because humility and lucidity guided them. Both developed vaccines freeing the world of smallpox and polio respectively, without ever asking for any financial benefit or glory. Today we are faced with competition between pharmaceutical companies and countries, fueled by the lure for money, even obscenely offered. The decent thing to do would be to cooperate, exchange results and work together to find a vaccine.

The paradox of mankind

We are left with little in these times except our decency and compassion. Yes, we are all made of simple clay. At any moment we may shatter. As we remain in our homes, as we worry every time we have to go out, there are countless others who have been doing so for reasons that remain absurd – and that is war.

And here, I shall return to Docteur Rieux from The Plague with a tinge of hope. The very fact that he has the compassion in his heart that makes him wonder about the origin of evil means that he has the seed of love in him. And that is the paradox of mankind.

So let us hope.