It’s a strange paradox that the one thing that everybody is talking about is often the hardest to write about. What can one lone voice realistically add to a clamouring global cacophony? So it is with the totemic name of Covid-19. We can pontificate about how this pandemic has shattered our comforting illusions of security and continuity, shown the triviality of our petty daily ruminations and our childish heartfelt grievances, or highlighted the tenuousness of our attachment to the small luxuries that seemed to make life worth living, but such musings themselves (including this very sentence) can only sound trite, prosaic or redundant at this profoundly bizarre juncture. Whatever can be said then, may necessarily be uttered with that stark caveat in mind.
Given the all-encompassing nature of this crisis, it seems impossible to have a singular point of view on it and it is incredibly challenging to gather one’s thoughts about an ongoing event that has precipitated a complete transformation in the lives of almost every human being on the planet. The only course of action it seems, is to organise one’s own mind in response to specific questions. What is so bad about this and how bad is it? Can some good come of it, and if so, what will that look like? And, perhaps most interestingly, why and in what ways is this new circumstance so fucking strange?
I am neither a statistician nor a medical professional, so I will not expend any more mental bandwidth than the precious little we can spare on a detailed analysis of infection rates, mounting deaths, or the innumerable vignettes of human tragedy that few lives have been untouched by. Death, trauma, and collective suffering aside, what are the repercussions global society will be struggling with in the months to come, or perhaps indefinitely?
When initial lockdown measures, necessitating a curtailment of individual freedoms, first began to be imposed, to my great embarrassment I briefly scoffed at a friend’s concern about the extraordinary powers we were granting to government and civil liberties we were surrendering. I am as guilty as anyone of the complacency of the 21st century status quo. But as restrictions tightened so did my chest. In democratic countries we have ostensibly converted public servants into patriarchal overlords. Coming from a medical family I have supported social distancing measures, but there is no rulebook for doing this correctly or reversibly and the eternal vigilance demanded in exchange for freedom is not waived by the submission of a sick note.
In the fairly stable first-world democracies of Europe and North America, systems of government will probably limp back to some semblance of normality in the next 6 months or so but not all of us can rely on the privilege of relative political accountability. Here in South Africa, for example, while our president was praised for his swift imposition of lockdown measures and his statesmanlike engagement with the public around the crisis, the cracks began to show after the extension of the lockdown as the corrupt, amoral, and sometimes downright malevolent rabble that comprise much of the ANC cabinet sought to take advantage of this golden opportunity to indulge in a role-playing fantasy of Stalinist brutocracy they have long dreamed of. Our thuggish police chief Bheki Cele blusters about cracking down on “misbehaviour” and “crushing” those who defy him with the unseemly swagger of the prohibition gangsters he seems desperate to emulate (fittingly as all alcohol sales were banned until only a few days ago) while our already utterly discredited Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, puritanically undermined attempts by our president to relax regulations, particularly those around tobacco which remains banned. There has been a prevailing air of punitive mean-spiritedness to the whole thing and there is something truly repulsive about being spoken down to like a recalcitrant child by people of such incompetence and low moral standing. These are people that cannot be trusted with the authority of a post office cashier let alone the unfettered custodianship of a country of 58 million people.
I can waste many more pages venting about the situation in my own country but, given the global scale of this crisis and the measures necessary to combat it, it’s a sobering exercise to consider how many ruling governments worldwide you would trust with this kind of political blank cheque. While the regulations are slowly easing, it remains to be seen what the long-lasting political effects will be of opening the door to a swift and sudden suspension of civil liberties.
But beyond the political, there are more esoteric socio-cultural concerns. There is something deeply unsettling about navigating a world in which we must fear human contact. Accidentally brushing against someone in a supermarket aisle provokes a mutual physical recoil and muffled apologies through the obligatory masks that render us unable to read each other’s facial cues. It raises the question of how far this could go and how long it will last, or whether in fact this is only the start of a permanent retreat from human contact, a new era of atomisation and the deconstruction of community in any physical sense. The reduction ad absurdum of this can be found in E.M. Forster’s brilliant 1928 short story, The Machine Stops, in which humans inhabit individually isolated cells within a vast machine, communicating only electronically. As humans tend to, people around the world have used the resources available to them to make the best of the situation, namely connectivity of the internet, innovating everything from virtual raves to virtual safaris, but for all the good intentions behind these endeavours, it gives us a glimpse into a world where “the real thing” may no longer be available to us.
If there is some solace to be had in all this, like Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot image of a distant and tiny Earth, it underscores our need to deal more kindly with one another, to cherish every interaction, to look another in the eye at every opportunity, and lovingly care for the natural world which, if we are lucky, will live on after us if this or some other catastrophe brings us to our end.