Virtually overnight, coronavirus has rendered the vast global village more fragile than a spiderweb. The microscopic Covid-19 has turned an entire planet upside down. It has forced humankind, despite all its military might and science, into voluntary or compulsory isolation. It has heightened people’s fear of fellow human beings who have been reduced to potential vectors for the contagion. It has outlawed ancient customs for communicating friendliness and affection. Shaking hands, embracing, exchanging a kiss or two on the cheek are now taboo. Precaution is no longer the best remedy; it is the only remedy until laboratories can come up with a vaccine.
Conspiracy theories of various sorts have also gone viral. Washington and Beijing have been trading mutual recriminations, each accusing the other of fostering the virus’s spread. Conspiracy theories are short and simple fictions that often have a wide appeal because they are easy to understand and it is convenient to have somebody to point a finger at. Conspiracy theories have singled out, in turn, the Chinese, the Americans and the French. Neo-Nazis and other ultra-right groups have blamed the Jews. Until they are exposed for the falsehoods they are, such fictions will always find people to feed and disseminate them. It appears that the tendency to chalk everything down to a plot is an ingrained feature of the human imagination, despite how the premises and arguments conflict with the rules of logic, not to mention moral principles. Still, despite the prevalence of conspiracy theorising, it is safe to say that the dangerous spread of Covid-19 has exposed many of the disparities in the world today and laid bare the inconsistencies and contradictions in the international discourse on globalisation, humankind’s shared fate and human rights.
Above all, we can see how severely the crisis has shaken the very building blocks of modernist discourse: man at the centre of the universe, the ennoblement of the individual, the advancement of freedom and liberty and liberation from pre-modernist entities, the glorification of the human intellect, the power of reason and science to conquer nature, the rational and enlightened citizen at the heart of the social contract, the state’s enlightened self-interest in fostering such citizens and, accordingly, its duty to advance their well-being and prosperity, to eliminate the obstacles to the development and expression of their creativity and talents, and to empower their quest for self-fulfilment and their ability to determine their own fate.
The spread of the virus across the developed world, in Europe, North America, Russia, China and elsewhere has thrown into relief the fragility of humankind in times of natural disaster and pandemics. It has exposed the inability of modern healthcare systems to furnish the necessary healthcare services to tens of thousands of infected people. These systems, long acclaimed as advanced and sophisticated, were never designed to handle the types of crises that hospitals in Italy, Spain and the US have suddenly had to cope with. Hospitals lack sufficient beds and intensive care facilities. Physicians have had to prioritise some patients over others: citizens over immigrants or certain social segments over others. In some cases, field hospitals had to be created overnight, and in some hospitals, patients were being treated in the corridors. Because hospitals’ supplies of surgical masks, gloves, disinfectants, respirators and the like were depleting so quickly, emergency acts had to be passed to compel private firms into diverting resources into producing them, or armed forces’ manufacturing facilities were ordered to change their production lines.
The fragility and contradictions of modern civilisation were manifested in dollars and cents. While investing trillions in the development of atomic, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, developed societies spend grudgingly on the healthcare systems needed to protect the lives of their people. Might and glory and economic prowess and profit had taken priority over human health and wellbeing. Mere crumbs were “donated” to healthcare at the bottom of those nations’ national budget allocations when compared to the amounts earmarked for “national security”.
The crisis has exposed the world’s and globalisation’s inability to produce a global agenda to combat the virus and the international community’s failure to develop a worldwide campaign and promote universal solidarity in the fight to prevent the spread of this blight. One cannot help being struck by the irony of a global, transnational, transcultural pandemic confronted by nationalist, ultranationalist and xenophobic responses. Even in the EU framework, some members were reluctant to help out fellow members that were more severely hit by the epidemic. Italy, for example, had to turn to China and Russia for help.
The pandemic has isolated “modernism” between question marks until further notice. The human intellect and science at the very core of modernism appear sadly inept in the face of a miniscule virus. Governments are unable to meet the demand for medical assistance. Modern society’s innovative powers seem at a loss and it is losing vitality, disintegrating, threatening to split into isolated enclaves and islands.
The history of humankind is filled with outbreaks of epidemic diseases, from the Black Plague in the Middle Ages to yellow fever, the Spanish flu, Avian flu and Ebola in the 20th and 21st centuries. They have claimed untold millions of lives, more than mankind’s innumerable wars. However, humanity has yet to properly benefit from its collective memory. We have yet to learn and effectively apply the lessons from all that cumulative experience in order to develop the vital safeguards against such unpredictable perils. Worse yet, the values of consumerism, utility, pleasure and profit have prevailed over the value of human existence itself.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly