Hey you, your ivory tower is infected!
One subtle but incredibly far-reaching lesson from the Covid-19/Novel Coronavirus 2019 pandemic is this:
Human beings do not understand they are part of a tangible global social network.
All of us, from childhood, have been taught that we live in a society, that society forms bonds, and that each of our actions has an impact on others. In India, we are inordinately proud of the Sanskrit phrase vasudhaiva kutumbakam, “the world is one family.”
But, clearly we have only thought of this as an abstract, dryly academic, or even esoteric concept. “The world may be one family, but naturally we are the rightful head of that family, so don’t argue.” What else would explain the resistance people have demonstrated towards social distancing even now.
More and more frustrated accounts are surfacing of how infected or suspected infected people are moving about in violation of quarantine and passing on the virus. Similarly, many old and young people are going out for recreation despite the risk of catching the infection.
[Unfortunately, many workers are so badly let down by society that they must still go to work during this pandemic if they or their families are to eat and pay loans. They are not to be blamed for any transmission of which they might be a part.]
(Virus) Can’t touch this
What explains this bizarre syndrome of ignoring the warnings about a potentially deadly virus?
Is it a feeling of invincibility — such as that of a speeding biker without a helmet?
Is it a feeling of superiority — such as that of a powerful individual who uses money to open barriers?
Is it a feeling of mistrust — such as those who look at science and expertise with disdain because that clashes with their beliefs?
Is it the Dunning-Kruger effect — where ignorance actually leads to an illusion of greater knowledge?
The fact is, it’s all of these and more.
But there is one reality that underlies all of these, which I mentioned at the start — nobody realises that they are part of a species, part of a society, part of nature. Everybody only thinks of themselves in isolation — “Yes, I know this is happening, but it couldn’t happen/apply to me, it’s only for people.”
And while this is an infuriating thought process that is endangering the lives of thousands at this time, I am trying to look at it sympathetically (though heaven knows this aspect of human nature has caused incalculable harm for centuries and not just in times of disease).
Why would a family suspected to be infected with the virus travel on a train to reach their home town before they self-quarantine? Is it really a manifestation of one’s utter contempt for others’ health and safety, or just a belief that one can outrun even a virus if you only move fast enough?
There is an old joke about a person speeding home in their car so they can reach the destination before their fuel runs out. Jokes like this are extraordinary reflections of human nature, not because it laughs at something so comical, but because it shows a flawed line of reasoning, which we are all actually guilty of at one or another time. [I’ll admit I’ve looked at the fuel needle in my car more than once and hoped to hurry home before it runs out.]
There are forces at play in the world — laws of physics, of biology, yada yada., that are out of our control or even knowledge. There is no way to know the ripple effect of a butterfly’s wings, but suffice it to know that there are things that exist outside of our philosophy.
What we should know is that we are linked in a chain of events by our behaviour. One person thinking they can outrun the virus risks every one of us.
Don’t be stupid. Don’t feel invincible.
Just Netflix and socially-distance.
Viruses that don’t just wash off
But, what is the corollary outcome of this knowledge — that we are beings unable to understand we exist in a tangible social network?
Viruses are not the only things that we spread through our magnificent ignorance.
Watching how the disease has spread all over the world hitching rides on one person at a time points us to how the other diseases of our times have exploded — namely racism, sexism, communalism, fake news, and false bravado.
For many decades, we have been allowing these diseases to grown in our homes and societies and now, because of internet technology and irresponsible politicians, that tide has drowned us all.
Five hundred years ago Covid-19 would not have spread globally. It would have been limited like the Great Plague in Europe. That’s not because the virus would have been weaker, but just because we were not this profoundly interconnected. Even smallpox needed ships to travel across the Atlantic. Similarly, the biases and repugnant tendencies of one society would not have spread as rapidly to everyone else either.
Of course, as we can now see, no one in history lived in any golden age with golden minds and golden souls. If anything, people were more violent towards each other in past times. But at least the spread of novel untruths took time, and everybody was just running their provincial cottage industry of hatred, not a global industrial complex.
Just like we are tempted to pass on quack treatments for Covid-19, because “who knows, maybe this might be the one that works”, we are also tempted to pass on fake news because “who knows, maybe this might be the one that’s true.” And then we detach ourselves from the consequences because no one we know ever gets terribly entangled in the dirty outcome. But, if we think of ourselves as necessarily part of a tangible social network, then we would know that three or four degrees down the line someone must be getting hurt.
Every mass shooter is connected to your life.
Every genocide is signed off on by you.
Damage is being done in your name and with your complicity.
Justice is being desecrated in your name and with your complicity.
Death is being distributed in your name and with your complicity.
[You may be wondering why I keep reiterating certain terms like ‘tangible,’ ‘complicity’ and others. This is so we remember it’s not just something that exists online or in sociology textbooks, and it’s not abstract. It’s very real, very tangible, and very much within our bodies and minds.]
We have all betrayed the promises of globalisation by becoming more isolationist and xenophobic than before. Instead of importing the best humanitarian values from each other, we just export hate.
Just think of hatred as a virus that spreads by touch. People carry it to their families, then their friends, then to the public at large. We think the virus doesn’t affect us, whereas we are all zombies infected by the secret sectarian lab’s experiment gone awry.
There are fungi that affect insects in peculiarly gruesome manners — controlling their bodies and turning them into warm bags of food for the fungi. And, the pièce de résistance — the fungi keep ejecting toxic spores from the dead insect’s head. Familiar much? That’s how our political leaders treat us now. No longer does government serve us, but instead we are all servants of the government.
That’s the evidence of the virus in us all.
Our antibodies are compromised, our senses have been hijacked, we jump and dance like marionettes to the orchestrated score of hatred. Welcome to the new world order.
Do or die, there is no justify
And thus I come back to where I started — we need to understand we live in a connected world, and that none of us exists outside the tangible social network. And the same distancing that can help slow down Covid-19 is the same healthy scepticism that can keep us safe from the powers that wish to enslave us.
Taking personal responsibility for our actions, whether it is to stop the spread of hatred or a disease, is the only cure for these issues. And, tragically, I’m certain we will never rise to the need of the hour. Because this is something that needs universal cooperation, and I fear we don’t have enough time to change our ways. In my apartment building, if mine is the only household trying to keep a distance, we will be infected regardless. Similarly, if mine is the only household not keeping a safe distance, we will infect others regardless.
There has to be a stage where we cut off from hatred and agree to start anew with faith. This faith is stronger than any religion or politics. It’s the faith that we can make better decisions together as long as we care for the lives of others. This faith has been taken away from us, and it’s almost impossibly hard to sow anew.
But this virus is teaching us, for those who care to learn, you have to take personal responsibility if you want to avoid getting infected by it; you have to care for others if you want to prevent its spread, and you must have fidelity to objective truths if you want to truly assess it. You are responsible for preventing the spread of the virus to yourself, and through you, to others.
No government, no NGO, no superhero, no tech giant, and no god you worship, can come and do this for you.
And, if we fail to learn this? I say, very good. Because the next viral outbreak won’t be as gentle, and the scourge of humanity may be destroyed before we cause more damage to this beautiful planet we have been plonked on.
If you think I’m exaggerating now, just wait till … oh that’s right, we’ll run out of time long before till.