Coronavirus Contemplations

This 14-part essay written by Azmi Bishara consists of a series of think pieces originally posted on social media, republished by Arab 48 and some other sites. Colleagues at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies suggested that the posts be amended and re-published in the form of an extended essay as part of the ACRPS Covid-19 series. The essay covers the current Covid-19 pandemic from various angles and was originally published in Arabic on 20 April 2020.

The first part is published below, with the full text available to download as a PDF

I: On Life as We Know It

Having realised in our housebound isolation that this year there will be no spring for us – telling ourselves that this is at least better than losing whatever remains of our sunset years, that to forgo the gentle vernal breeze for one year is at least easier than gasping helplessly for air or begging that death release us from slow asphyxiation, nameless and alone in some makeshift hospital – we have begun to wonder when life might possibly return to normal. But was there anything ‘normal’ about the life we were living before? What was ‘normal’ about our ‘normal lives’?

Are we really ready to return to a ‘normal life’ where it is not Coronavirus but civil war in Syria, Yemen or Libya that dominates the headlines alongside the proclamations of tinpot sectarians, the machinations of petty warlords or the antics of vacuous celebrities? That is, of course, when there is nothing new to say on the US elections; when the Trumpian gestalt of self-confident teenage narcissism and swivel-eyed anti-intellectualism that today characterises many leaders from Brazil to the Philippines has fallen temporarily silent; when Putinism’s alliances with the populist right in east and west, with Assad and with Netanyahu, have produced nothing newsworthy; and when it is a slow day for racist bigotry and that particular form of nihilistic political violence against civilians that we refer to as ‘terrorism’.

This is not the intended meaning. What people mean is the minute details of life as they know it – details that they sorely need to return to, and which some of them miss dearly, depending on their circumstances. Making ends meet, trying to make a living, and embracing loved ones; grumbling about everyday problems in the office or on the commute, moving up the career ladder, or taking joy in small victories at work; meeting friends and commiserating and joking together, setting the world to rights and enraging at politicians, whether genuinely or more often just to pass the time; being seen by doctors and finding the money for medication – and not worrying about the possible risk to the people and things close to us, or having to wonder whether we ourselves might unwittingly be placing those around us in danger. All right, then – perhaps it would be better to say ‘life as we know it’.

There is no going back to a ‘normal’ life. Human memory is incapable of retrieving a ‘normal’ moment. But there is nothing wrong with assembling a putative ‘normal’ in opposition to the ‘abnormal’ that we are experiencing, and fighting for it on that basis despite the fact that it is as constructed as anything else. To act in the name of ideals can be productive: in the human world – luckily for us – conflicts not only take place between competing interests, greed and will to power, but also between different ethical conceptions of how to live together. These different conceptions in turn may give rise to different conceptions of interest.

The current collective longing for a return to day-to-day life, life as we know it, is in reality a healthy desire to move past the state of exception under which all humanity is now living – the state of shared fear. Politicians have lost the luxury of their favourite expression; their ‘concern’. They are as scared as the rest of us, and if like addicts they continue to use it, it is perhaps only to express their ‘concerns’ regarding fear itself. The epidemic has intersected with globalisation – in short, it has itself been globalised not only “pandemized”. The state of emergency is no longer a local affair, the fact that it is still states that declare these emergencies notwithstanding; a global état de siège prevails, accompanied by a keen individual sense of danger. This danger, this anxiety, hangs over everyone. People cannot behave towards it as they have previous grave political events – wars, hurricanes, famines – in other parts of the world, thinking about it when they feel like it and ignoring it when they do not. The measures taken to fight the epidemic affect them. They feel that the virus is targeting them personally, and as such, they are not mere passive objects: they contribute directly to the atmosphere of fear, panic and hope, and to the confusion around how to deal with the epidemic. And this might well be the first time that every media outlet in the world has run the same headline story on a daily basis for months.

Thinking about the fate of humanity in a time of plague cannot be separated from concern for loved ones and speculation about the fate of those with whom you have lost contact. ‘Humanity’, ‘the world’, ‘the human race’ – these are no longer abstract concepts. You are genuinely and specifically interested in conditions in every single country, whether near or far. You want to know about the measures being taken and how different societies are behaving in the face of the epidemic. The figures that now concern you are the number of cases and the number of deaths. You engross yourself in these figures and closely follow their peaks and troughs. They haunt your conversations, your worries and your day-to-day thoughts. The plague may come upon you at any moment: you are a deer in its headlights. You are constantly in death’s presence. Death is not selective: it can strike anyone. And since it can strike anyone, it is everyone’s concern. The epidemic and the measures taken to combat it have obliterated the distinction between the public and private spheres. And other important issues – and likewise other deaths – have been pushed to the sidelines.

Fear and uncertainty restrict freedom of action in exactly the same way as inevitabilities and necessities. There is an epidemic that we do not know how to deal with, which controls us and our behaviour. Perhaps biology, epidemiology or virology will set us free – a treatment, or a vaccine. The knowledge of natural inevitabilities is an important rule of human freedom: there is no freedom in nature. But we can sometimes become slaves to a belief that we can conquer nature or influence it from the ‘outside’, leading us into folly.

As things stand, the Coronavirus test is of no help to the person taking it, but does help the collective – specifically those close to you. Unlike most preventative measures, you don’t do it for your benefit but so that you can protect those around you from the virus.

In any case, you take the test. If the results come back negative, this does not mean that you will not be infected later. And if they come back positive and you are asymptomatic, you will have to sit at home hoping that you didn’t infect anyone before you knew that you are “positive” and wait until you recover or develop symptoms, in which case you will spend every second, perhaps every millisecond, following their ups and downs from moment to moment. If you recover it is not at all certain that you will not become ill again, and if you do not recover and are sent to hospital, then it is not at all certain that they will be able to treat you. Uncertainty hems us in on all sides, which cannot but mean anxiety and exhaustion, whether conscious or otherwise. But tests nonetheless remain crucial, and everybody wants to be tested so that they can help control the virus’s spread, so that those who are infected do not wander freely among the public as if wearing suicide vests.

Some philosophers have described this constant worry that you might harm others as ‘moral fatigue’. But this worry is invariably accompanied by a fear that you might yourself be harmed by others. You are simultaneously and ineluctably afraid for yourself and for others. Nobody is doing anybody else a favour. And while it is certainly exhausting, it is wrong to describe it as moral fatigue. This term was developed for different conditions, and its contrived use here is no more than a fruitless psychological exercise. Perhaps we should call it ‘anxiousness fatigue’ instead.

From another perspective, this new inseparability of the global and the individual has made humans far more aware of their direct relationship to their humanity. This is perhaps the most ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ thing to have happened to us for a long time. Individuals are sensing their humanity in and of itself; their simultaneous helplessness in the face of nature; the state of uncertainty and the attendant predictions, hopes and fears – above all else the fear of the unknown and for loved ones and hope that others will be safe – and the waiting for others’ efforts to bear fruit; and the desire to do something to help. Is there anything more ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ than that?

All this talk of ‘nature’ brings to mind the philosophical ‘state of nature’, which some imagine as a paradise lost and others as a hell of anarchy and constant war where it is every man for himself; these visions of the state of nature are the foundation on which differing conceptions of how society and state should function are built. But the state of nature is a pure fantasy: so long as humanity has existed we have done so in social groupings in order to guarantee food, security and shelter. It is more useful to think about our human nature than the state of nature. The state of nature is no more than an intellectual exercise allowing us to think about the meaning of organised society and the role of the state.

Fear of the unknown and a tendency to cling to hope are part of our human nature just as much as reason, thought and the capacity for speech, as are self-interest and the instinct to survive, altruism and the desire for recognition. The struggle to survive drives attempts to overcome powerlessness in the face of nature and uncertainty, whether using reason, knowledge, imagination or mysticism. And just as human nature is capable of producing hate, envy or be covetousness, it also generates solidarity with and attachment to others, love, and the desire to be loved.

In our isolation we find ourselves alone with our humanity, our fears, and our solidarity with others. We listen closely to ourselves, and discover that we are in fact multiple selves, multiple voices in one self. Our solitude may be lonely and still very crowded, we may discover a rich internal dreamworld of elliptical and interwoven places, people, stories and times, moments of similarity as we form new relationships with the world, moments of immanence between the self and death. But in every interaction with outside influences we also find our prejudices and jealousy, our pride and selfishness and our desire for revenge rearing their ugly heads, jostling for position with our love and sympathy and empathy for others – that is, our ability to imagine ourselves in their position, confronting problems, choices and moral dilemmas.

Fear of death is not simply a matter of instinctive love of life but also of our love for those around us, our fear of losing them and of loss more generally, it is the pain of the parting the separation. Love is the finest of the human emotions, and the foundation of life as it deserves to be lived.

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