Research Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs,
COVID-19 VS HUMANS: ARE WE UP FOR THE CHALLENGE?
In The Plague, a novel that has received a flare-up in the midst of another pandemic, Albert Camus’ narrator poses the following question: “But what does it mean, the plague?”. The answer that follows – “It’s life, that’s all.” – causes both a shrug of the shoulders at life’s absurdity, as well as a shiver at its bottomless complexity. The entire human condition is captured in this simple expression “that’s all”, where “all” is everything, especially when you consider that Camus is said to have written it in the traumatised, bloody aftermath of the second world war.
We are definitely experiencing some interesting times right now. Who would have thought that in our day and age, we would be locked willingly in our houses due to a pandemic and that it would not be a fictional scenario taken out of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year? To address the challenges of our times is our duty, as it goes along with posing questions that relate to the formation of our future. In writing this article, the words crisis, transformation and shift kept swirling around in my mind. With the outbreak of the pandemic, we were bombarded with images related to Covid 19 by the media. As Roland Barthes argues, “if the image is in a certain manner the limit of meaning, it permits the consideration of a veritable ontology of the process of signification” (1977: 32). In other words, the pandemic, as it was projected by the media, was forming a reality in the making and even though slowly, it was nevertheless approaching in our part of the world.
Media continuous referral to “normality” (i.e. pause of normality, new normality, gradual process back to normality) made me think of Britain’s pre-Brexit slogan “Make Britain great again”. To my understanding, the common point in both situations was the misleading innuendo that the concepts called for, that is normality, which was meant to refer to our pre-Covid 19 lifestyle and “great” Britain, which referred to Britain before her engagement with the European family, were both wished for, as they represented the “healthy” part of history, where control was in people’s hands.
On another note, the terrorization that was partly created by Covid-19 itself and partially created by the media, brought to the surface a kind of irony: the guiltless resurrection of the nation-state trying to embrace its long lost children and at the same time, a type of collective consciousness –perhaps a remnant of our tired, good old friend called globalisation- as regards the global impact of the virus on every single aspect of our lives, that is, our physical and mental health, our societies at large and, of course, the world’s economy which itself is the source or, better put, the starting point of everything of value in modern societies.
Fear has been the dominant drive for preventive action, and it seems that it has worked. Similar to how the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (Lacan qtd in Barzlai, 1999: 37) associates fear with the notion of ‘the Real’ as a sort of semiotic stand-in for that which is beyond representation, I would like to draw attention to the way Covid-19 was portrayed as “the invisible enemy” that cannot be quite represented or identified, as its workings haven’t been understood yet. Following Lacan then, I suggest that fear is the local instantiation of our contact with anxiety that arises from being confronted with this dreadful non-represented ‘Reality’.
I choose to place emphasis on the adjective “local”, as I believe that during our effort to deal with Covid 19 pandemic, we have been confronted with a choice between nationalist isolation and global solidarity, as implicitly suggested previously in this article. China sent to Europe medical equipment and shared knowledge with Europe regarding the management of the crisis, since China had already faced the climax of Covid-19 first. It seems to me that the only way Covid-19, as well as the upcoming crisis on the economic front, can be handled effectively, is through the realisation that countries must be willing to share information openly, exchange opinions humbly, trust the date they receive and have each other’s back. In other words, globalisation has to be revisited anew, as a necessity.
In my perspective, another factor that makes global solidarity absolutely necessary is the US leader’s reaction to the Covid-19 crisis, which revealed now more than ever the urgent need for the rest of the world to de-associate its survival possibilities from America. While in the previous global crises faced by humanity (i.e. 2008 economic crisis, 2014 Ebola crisis), the US willingly assumed its role as a world leader, ready to offer relief and support to the rest of the world, now this role in history is taken by none, a fact that renders the strong alliance of the rest of the world an urgency, if we are to fill in that void, so that our future won’t seem auspicious.
As a response to the heated question of whether the sudden outburst of the epidemic manifests an opportunity for social, economic, political, cultural, environmental and last but definitely not least, intellectual transformation, I am an advocate of the opinion that the Covid-19 crisis indeed represents an opportunity for personal, as well as collective transformation, grounded in the capacity of individuals, groups and nations to revisit the perspectives through which we interpret our experience of the world. I believe that this issue lies at the core of the situation we have found ourselves in, that is, how has the experience of this crisis affected the way we critically interpret the world we live in, socially, politically, intellectually, financially and environmentally? As suggested above, global solidarity as opposed to nationalist isolation is one possible answer. Citizen empowerment through knowledge instead of technology surveillance and excessive policing is another. Media and politicians coming clean on current affairs instead of misleading people, according to their interests is certainly another suggestion. It is clear that while we are leading ourselves back to “normality”, we are faced with the emergence of so many issues we have to address.
Having had the time to stand still and observe our previously owned normality, most of us have come to the conclusion that what we once considered as the norm should not have been it, in the first place. Take the environment, for instance. In The Economist’s March 26th edition, there was an article referring to the chance provided to us humans to do good to the environment, stating that “Around lockdown Covid 19 has been controlled, while emissions of greenhouse gases are following a similar pattern”. So, what is the case now, when people are not locked in their houses anymore? There should be governmental policies sustainable by the people, so that the good done to the environment during Covid-19 lockdown will be a permanent practice, and not a coincidental one. On another note, people and states are dealing with the issue of privacy and in effect, human rights. An excellent article by Olivier Nay  raises the question of whether a virus can undermine human rights, pointing out that due to the emergency state many governments have found themselves in, in some places in the world (e.g. China) governments did not hesitate to use the latest mass surveillance technologies, an act which would signify a serious violation of privacy, had it not been considered “necessary” due to the epidemic. The issue raised is whether the exceptionality called upon during Covid-19 will jeopardise certain democratic principles in the long run. Moreover, considering how citizens in democratic states have been forced to accept limitations of their freedom, one justifiably wonders whether this will affect their perception of freedom in a democratic state, as well as the governments’ perception of their citizens’ freedom in such a state?
Locally, as regards the way our nation functioned under these conditions, as a citizen I have observed an uneven treatment, once more, of the private sector as opposed to the public one (i.e. employees getting paid 2/3 of their salary while working in some cases longer hours than usual to cope with the new methodologies, as opposed to employees in the public sector getting fully paid while in some cases they worked a few days within a week or not working at all at times). As an educator, I have also observed teachers in the private sector working full-time, even longer hours if needed from the second day of the lock down, while steps towards this direction in the public sector were really slow and at times, ineffective due to the intervention of their Unions or perhaps, the inability of the state to act on the spot. Also, I have realised that the people living at Pournara refugee camp were left alone, apart from their basic needs being met. This resulted in the case of harassment of unaccompanied minors that came to the public eye only recently. These are issues that have to be addressed. We just cannot turn a blind eye…
At times like these when uncertainty and fear prevails, we need to remember that we remain the focal points of our own stories. We need to find solace and solutions in our humanity and in the rebuilding of a collective consciousness, a global solidarity that will enable us to come out stronger, and united. What we will certainly find, as Camus wrote, is life. And that’s all. And “all” has to be better than our previous one.
Barthes, R. 1977 Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press.
Barzilai, Sh. 1999, Lacan and the Matter of Origins, Stanford University Press.