The Meaning of the Pandemic (open release)

There is a lot of noise in a world with an array of approaches to the COVID-19 reality. Who is right and who is wrong? Besides the effort to get past this, is there any shared meaning that we can derive from this historical disruption?

by HA!Man | 5 February 2021

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I regularly express opinions in the form of essays. But since the pandemic started, a grave condition affecting us all, I hardly wrote about it. Perhaps I resist being yet another cocky individual in social media style, with pretensions of knowing better than governments and scientists and the dreaded so-called “main-stream media.” There are of course also individual scientists, journalists, intellectuals and activists that push themselves forward with alternative views and strategies spreading the not so subtle message that those in power got it horribly wrong, or that they are using this crisis to abuse their powers, to overreach, or to advance sinister agendas. Not to mention the happy party of conspiracy theorists with their fact-free creativity, luring the unaware into traps of emotional escapism and pseudo empowerment. And to be honest, the more I think about this topic, the more difficult it becomes to derive clear meaning from it all. Nevertheless, this is my task for the day: to write about the meaning of the pandemic. Because meaning we must derive from it. We must.

The human body is estimated to consist of around 30 trillion organic cells. They are all cells, but they are also all unique with different shades of functionality. Right now, Mira is ill with a flu, a bad cold, whatever it is. Yesterday her whole body was hot from fever. All her cells being active in fighting whatever the enemy is. Trillions of unique cells acting together in common cause. Now, there are nearly 8 billion people on earth. A pandemic hit us. Every individual is affected in one or the other way. How do we match up as a collective, fighting for a common cause? I am happy for Mira’s illness. She’s been perhaps too healthy for her three young years. This is an opportunity for her cell collective to learn, to strengthen their ability to work together. A flu is one thing. Tomorrow there might enter a stronger enemy. But why fighting it? Somehow, naturally, none of us wants to die before it is our time. Our bodies and our spirits instinctively stand up against a disease. And as it is not humanity’s time to die yet (I think!), as we are still young adolescents on this planet still testing our unique powers and still finding our way as part of the living whole, we will actually resist when hit by a fast spreading virus that can scar and kill many of us. So, the pandemic is an opportunity to strengthen our ability to act as a whole. This should be meaningful: that we learn to work together in better ways. Immunity is the resilience of the whole. And yet, each cell, each individual within this whole, needs to be free to be itself in order to contribute in its own unique way.

Where there is no immunity at work, there is no dis-ease. No illness. Illness is the fight. The fire of fever is the heat rising from a battleground. The disruption caused by an illness amounts to the time and focus needed to fight the battle, the war. Without the armour of immunity, the enemy walks in and cause damage, it kills against no resistance. A peaceful affair. A deadly affair. This is what happens when individuality reigns. That social condition where society counts for little and individual freedom for everything. This is the society of “limited government” and the survival of the fittest. This is the “I can achieve anything I want” and “leave me the f…k alone” society – which is not much of a society at all. Such libertarian dabblings with anarchy is written about and fought for in ideological battles, but hardly ever see the light of day as it is so self-defeating. This is the cancer-society where each cell takes the freedom to grow itself without limits. A Darwinian death trap (even though Darwin never really advanced the idea that evolution is driven by conquests of the powerful).

The individualist cry for complete autonomy is most prevalent in the US of A today. And there are natural reasons for this as I’ll touch upon later. There are also some good fruits emanating from such a “free” society. But Mira does not need too many individualist cells at this point, just as America, in the face of a pandemic, needs less individual prowess and more ability to act as a collective. It needs to build immunity. And the mechanism through which individuals garner the ability and the strength to act together, is through leadership. A system of government. A system of collective defence. An immune system. Trump’s failure to lead resulted in America’s failure to contain the virus and prevent tens of thousands of deaths. Not to mention the many more disrupted lives and permanently damaged bodies and all its ripple effects on its quality of life for all.

If a failure of government is against our preservation instincts, neither is absolutist government the answer when it comes to the need to act collectively. A dictator like Hitler could manage to whip up a whole nation into frenzied war-making – ostensibly a very effective and victorious way of fighting off enemies. And yet in the world war he instigated, he and his fascist allies were ultimately defeated by mostly democratic nations. And let it be noted that if China was not as autocratic as it is, it might have killed off COVID-19 before it spread throughout the whole world. It would have had to be responsive to its citizens who warned about this virus in the first place. The reason why absolutist governments are not that effective when it comes to collective action is because they share the same weakness as unbound individualism: too much is coming down to individual decision-making. Dictatorship is individualism for the whole. No wonder that an over emphasis on entrepreneurship – the individual striking it out on his or her own – can easily lead to market monopolies – the concentration of an inordinate amount of wealth, and power, in the hands of a few. And that is also why America – the land of the free – came so close to a Trump-dictatorship: for long, its economy was already dominated by a few all-powerful techno-autocrats. Individualism gone too far.

How is effective collective action then achieved? How do we build immunity as national “herds” and as a global human society?

We do it by fighting this war together. But the strategies we employ are going to differ from place to place, region to region, culture to culture. This is what COVID-19 brought strongly to the fore. We are constantly comparing national governments and the way they responded to the threat, especially in terms of the rate of success achieved, because of these differences. And this is where things get complicated.. Where is the middle ground between no leadership and too much leadership? For now we can leave the issue of no leadership aside. In my mind at least, it is pretty clear that when faced with a collective threat, that is the last thing you want to argue for. But there’s a lot of resistance against what is perceived as government overreach, in the form of lockdowns. Why should everyone be restricted when the disease mainly affects the weak and elderly? Why should economies suffer the way they do under lockdowns when relatively few people die? Why does it seem that governments rush to impose lockdowns while there are examples of countries doing much better without shutting things down? These questions fuel suspicions of governments as power-hungry entities in cahoots with profit-seeking cooperates. A mistrust of leadership is aggravated in many corners of western world, which is the opposite of what we would wish to happen during a crisis like this. Surely we need more trust. Not less?

Let me put this straight – as a pillar of my perspective: it is that governments on the whole responded in sensible ways. The fact that many countries in the West opted for lockdowns and did worse than some countries in the East, for instance, who did not employ hard lockdowns cannot be reduced to better or worse strategies for the same problem. What I would like to point out is that the way governments responded is more culturally bound than what we would like to admit. And furthermore: that culture is more geographically bound than what we generally acknowledge.

As we are all confronted with the same virus and fighting against it, in different ways, what is it that we are actually fighting for? Is it to prevent death on a mass scale? No, this virus is not that deadly. Do we just want to keep people healthy from a new disease, while there are many other diseases plaguing us? No. It might not be that deadly, but this one is not only new, it is different. It is spreading super fast and it is nasty. Very nasty. And while not that many die, the numbers are still inordinately high. Those who need medical care are suddenly many more, putting pressure on health systems. Without containment, those systems can crack and break, sending waves of disruption and breakdown through the whole of society, not to mention the multiplying death-effect this would have. This is the kind of scenario that would bring populations in rebellion against leaders who failed them, whether democratic or not – more so than the protests we see against mere economic disruption. In the end, life still counts for more than money. Thus, what we are fighting for comes down to keeping our societies stable. No individual can thrive within an unstable society. Not only does this fight require all individuals to collaborate, it is also in each individual’s own interest that this battle is won. our current reality is that no country’s health system was prepared for the potential numbers that COVID could generate in a short space of time. The bottom-line for any political leadership is then to put measures in place that can keep the numbers down, so the system can cope. This must come before any economic considerations. Even though there is an interdependency between health and economy, health is more fundamental. The historic evidence is that if you do not make health your priority, the economy that you think you want to preserve, will do worse than otherwise.

But again, different countries’ leaders took different steps to limit the overall amount of infections, even though what is basically needed is rather universal and simple: each individual just need to behave in such a way that you don’t receive or transmit the virus. Easily done? Well – and here is the tricky point – it depends on the culture. If you have a culture of social inhibition, people not being physical with each other much, being more cordial in their relationships and disciplined on the whole, a few extra measures of contact limitation will not be too difficult to achieve. If, on top of that, you have a more homogeneous demographic, most people will sooner understand and handle the situation in a similar way. This would be a country where hard rules won’t be necessary as the chances of having recalcitrants that endanger everyone else’s lives would be much less It would also be easier in this unitary environment to launch contact tracing and isolation mechanisms more effectively. So, South Korea is not France, for instance. Let’s look at France: France is not as multicultural as the States, or Brazil, but is not as homogeneous as South Korea by far. It is also a typical Western country where there is more individual dynamism than the dense social cohesion that is typically found in the East. The application of the basic measures to contain the spread of the virus will not come so naturally for the French as for the South Koreans. But the containment is nevertheless needed. Its government therefore needs to be more strict. It cannot trust the culture on the same level as it can be trusted in South Korea (and conversely, government is not as trusted in France as it is in Korea). One can still argue whether the French government is going too far with some of its measures, but you cannot argue that the French should have done it like the South Koreans did.

Even more fundamental than culture, when it comes to the way people behave and socialize, is climate. Climate and geography (the earthly elements) shapes culture. Colder countries have “colder” cultures, with people living more in their minds than in their bodies. Regulation comes more naturally for those who need to preserve a lot of energy. But there where the sun spreads its happiness more, there is more body and more play. You need to be more strict to keep such citizens at bay. There is actually a whole field of study regards the interplay between culture and geography. With my travels over the decades I made my own informal observations. There are geographic and ecological reasons for the East to live more densely with a high degree of social discipline, for Europeans to be more adventurous and individualist, for North Americans to be ultra individualist and horizontal in their relationships, for South Americans to be more jovial and physical with each other. These are all generalizations and should be treated as such. It is no ground for strict racial categorization and typification of individual human beings. Yet they are real tendencies and it would be a liberal fallacy to regard all of humanity as a monotone chorus to which the same abstract rules and mechanisms can universally be applied.

Which brings me to the question of Africa. Why is Africa so little affected by COVID? You may point at her past experience with pandemics and creative ways to deal with crises even while having little means. But the question of Africa introduces yet another factor in the way cultures react differently to this threat: general health. For instance, very broadly speaking, the East entertains healthier diets than the West and hence are more resistant to many of the illnesses that is plaguing the West. But Africa is humanity’s home ground. Our natural habitat. Also the place where we had our strongest natural enemies. Africans, as the direct descendants of the original human gene pool, are tough. Those of us whose forebears migrated out of Africa over tens of thousands of years ago have all become relatively weak for it. None of the other environments around the globe is as tough as Africa is for humans. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it is not tough to survive in the Arctic as the Eskimo’s are doing. Or rainy England for that matter. But human enemies in the form of disease, bacteria, insects and other mammals are supreme in Africa. At the same time, the nutrients, the food, the air and soils are the best. Africa did not only cradle humans, it is the life-richest continent on earth. Read accounts of early Europeans meeting Africans for the first time. How they marvel at their bodies, healthy skins, sensorial capacities, the strength of their teeth and the warmth of their hearts. In an essay by A. A. Gill he relates what nurses in the Sudan told him, nurses who treated malnourished African children of which typically only skin and bones were left. They told him that these kids, with the right treatment, can actually be brought back to normal within three months, while any European child would have died under the same conditions. Today many Africans’ health are severely compromised by conditions far removed from the abundant Africa of old, but still, the underlying genetic inheritance remains solid. So, apart from even more factors inhibiting the spread of the virus in Africa, like the absence of hard winters and a lot of open air activity, Africans in general are genetically most resilient in the face of biological enemies.

South Africa presents a unique case. It is the worst affected African country while having imposed some of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Did it fare badly because its lockdown was the wrong response? Or is it due to the typical response of a governing party that is bent on central control? No. Given its diverse climate (much of it not typically African) as well as diverse population groups, as well as a large part of its African population living deprived lives in huge and crowded numbers, and the country not being as warm as the more central parts of Africa, it would still have done even worse without having strict lockdowns. South Africa is also relatively highly developed with people moving around the country a lot, not to mention the Apartheid legacy of migrant labour. As far as one can speak of a South African culture, it is quite a complicated and messy affair with little uniformity. Often the behaviours of the Western end of the spectrum and that of the African differ sharply. There is no question that as a responsible South African leader responding to this crisis, you will have to come down hard and simple to get people to cooperate. Few will be happy in the process. But that is how it is. The white right will complain loudly that the economy should be moving again while the black left will call for even stronger measures to protect the most vulnerable – of which there are too many. And yet, there is something at work in this enigmatic South African dynamic which points to what I would regard as a more ideal condition of communality. And hence also an added layer to the meaning this pandemic might confer on us.

It is this. While there are strict rules from above, South Africans, being who they are, will often apply these rules creatively. And as leaders see this creativity at work – and listen to the loud voices and diverse that sometimes accompany them – they will adapt their strategy, they will learn from what’s going on on the ground – all the while as they confer with the experts and balance the interests of other sectors of the state. In other words, by hook or by crook, in South Africa one finds something of a true commonality at work, where individual freedom is balanced by central control in a way that effects common action.

What the pandemic calls for – and its sister, a much larger crisis, that of global warming – is a renewed search for and effort to achieve a dynamic social order on a global scale. We mostly have static orders which can more easily be categorized as being liberal or conservative, as democratic or autocratic, as “free” or repressive. A dynamic order contains aspects of all of these in a conscious and adaptable manner, bringing individual creativity to bear on the whole, and the whole to meaningfully relate and steer all individual contributions. This whole lies not only on the level of a nation, it builds from elementary wholes to larger ones, from the family to the neighbourhood, to the town, the district, the province, etc etc right through to the global level. At the root of our obsession with national governments, their powers and their failures, lies the fact that historically they carry too much of the communal weight. Their powers and responsibilities need to be diffused downwards as well as upwards. We need more power and initiative on local levels and at the same time more on multinational and global levels. We can handle this kind of pandemic much better if local communities have more freedom to apply and regulate for local conditions as well as if our global bodies have more power and effectiveness to lead our species as a whole on matters that cannot be addressed locally. For now we have the WHO. I do not plead for a more dominating body, but a more effective one, in dynamic interaction with all the other levels. This is how our bodies work. This is how Mira is healing right now. There is central control that calls up all cells to join in combat. But this control is not a super brain, a know-all little god who just speaks the word and all is following. It is a nerve centre for the voices of all 30 trillion cells, channelling them, coordinating, making each contribution count.

The meaning then of this pandemic, is that we are one body. That we can actually heal from threats like this. Even from the threat of global warming. But this does not ask for keeping government to “interfere” as little as possible on the one hand, or for dictatorship on the other, however benign that might be. Nor does it ask for mob rule, or democracy as the victory of the proletariat. It asks for something we have not quite yet grasped, nor manifested in human history. And yet, it is something we must get a grip on if we are to ride out the storms. It asks for us to see ourselves as an organic, living whole. Not a machine, nor an abstract concept. There IS something necessarily mysterious about this, something that defies a systematic order or a set of rules. At the same time it is not anarchy, a free for all. It is the mystery of the flow of water. Shapeless, yet shaping. Ungraspable, yet substantial. And that mystery only gets its “work done” in an environment of mutual trust.

We lack this trust right now. Trust makes participation and communication possible. What we now mostly have is opposition: oppositional politics, oppositional sports, oppositional economies, oppositional ideas, oppositional ways of debating and an oppositional view of reality: good versus evil.

The call for a more participatory dispensation is not a centrist call for finding the “middle ground.” This is a call for finding the dynamic spark that comes about when polarities comes close enough to each other to have a constructive effect on each other. The dynamo that starts turning as the negative and positive poles causes electricity. Electricity as mystery.

Trust is not the neutralization of polarities. It is the point where poles start to relate with each other, rather than simply exclude each other.

For now, however, this remains a more ideal notion that finds expression in our present day realities only in limited and often broken ways. And yet the seed of it is always there. Its presence is actually the reason why we are still around and have not fallen into total self-destruction. While we do not openly trust each other, at the end of each day, we let be. We know deep down that our destiny is common. That there is something of myself in each of the other two-legged baboons roaming this beautiful sphere we call earth.

That seed of trust even operates in the most fractured of societies. The more we realize it, the more we will relax on disregarding each other, misrepresenting each other and throwing mistrust around in however crude or sophisticated ways we may find.

During this pandemic, there are leaders who abuse this crisis to gain for themselves. But the majority are just imperfectly doing what they can to handle an unprecedented problem. Trying to stay clear-headed within a cacophony of opinions and ideas, even though much of which are worthy of listening to. If I say national governments carry too much weight, it also means that those in such power are overburdened with responsibility. Don’t be too hard on them while you air your necessary criticisms. Don’t go too far in sowing mistrust, hinting at nefarious things and motives you have no grounds for.

This is the meaning, this is the work: finding a more even spread of power as a more effective immunity against nasty little bugs like this one, starting with eating better food, living better lives – and demanding better food, breaking the hold big companies have on us with their constant propaganda to eat more sugar and addict ourselves with superficial everything. (Not to be too hard on CEO’s of big companies either. if they have too much power, it is party we that give it to them).

We are one living body. The strength of our immunity is on us. The meaning of this pandemic is that there is more to come, especially if we keep on raping habitats and forests around us. The meaning of this pandemic, and other collective threats, is that we simply need to find our proper place in the larger web of life on this planet. The time for being a free radical is over. The lessons we need to learn won’t only come in dramatic form from the heavens. it can also come from a tiny bug our eyes cannot even see.

We are not the same. Even with good leadership, the Land of the Free would still have done worse combating this virus than many more countries where socialism is not a dirty word, but a natural way of being. But we can learn from each other. Right now, the West can learn more from the East, like the way the East has eagerly been learning from the innovative West for a long time. And we all can learn from Africa. The simple cares of life. Sometimes it can feel like this virus is a mindless, meaningless disruptor that no one was asking for. But meaning does not just appear out of nowhere. It is also made. Gleaned. If we grow as a living body from this crisis, it would have been a meaningful bump in our short-lived history as an insanely gifted species on planet earth.

Let’s live it.

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