Thoughts & Things

When the Earth is Closed

March 30, 2020

We are living at an extraordinary time. In fact, the future will be divided into two. Before Corona and After Corona. None living today has experienced something like this.  Never in the history of the world, not even during the worst times in the past, billions of human beings were forced into their homes to face their mortality and negotiate their fears. There was never a time, the earth was CLOSED like this.   

What it means to live with uncertainty and fear

Lucius Annaeus Seneca who lived between 4 BC and 65 AD was a prominent Stoic philosopher who left a vast collection of writings on a variety of subjects concerning man. He told once,

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”.

Perhaps for the first time in history,  the world is collectively experiencing what it is to live an uncertain life under the cloud of fears. It is as if we have all woken up to the mortality of a human being who has no desire except to “survive”. Since the days of hunter-gatherers, most of the humanity have not quite experienced what is fear and uncertainty all about and barring the poorest of the poor and a minority who live in strife-torn areas, rest of the humanity never lived under any threat to their lives. Large parts of the world have an abundance of everything.  The meaning of human progress has been the extent to which we can avoid uncertainties and fear and reduce pain and suffering.  Unlike all other species, mankind had an awareness of his own mortality and he became the most curious species endowed with a thinking mind, which kept on conquering the unknown, one by one and established himself on top of all in nature.  

Once man was able to reduce pain and suffering, the objective clearly shifted to the pursuit of happiness and an unlimited number of wants. Today when the earth closes itself and most of the humanity withdraw from its constant pursuit of happiness temporarily, we are once again face to face with our basic fears and also realise that the best tool available to survive is to hide.   As Seneca himself wrote elsewhere, we are haunted more not by death now but what comes before it, “the fear of it“. Being the first pandemic appearing during extreme social media, we are also watching the way such fears and uncertainties are circulated at a rate none can ever imagine.  

 As of now, there is no definite answer to the pandemic and each country is applying the limited solutions and wisdom at its disposal to fight the deadly virus. The journey of mankind has been one of adventure and innovation and this battle is no different.  Massive global efforts at an unprecedented scale are on to contain the virus.  Finally, it is also time for man to understand all kinds of uncertainties and fears which many of his brethren are subjected to on a daily basis.   

Sitting quietly in a room

Lockdowns declared in many countries across the world, forced people to their homes to spend some time alone or with their dear ones.  In fact, spending some time quietly alone or with family should ideally be a very normal thing to do. However, if a substantial number of people felt that life at home doing nothing is quite unusual, it is also due to the dizzying pace of modern life we have been used to for so many decades now.  Hence the feeling that all this is quite abnormal and we see a  lot of messages in social media exhorting people to make the best use of this time.  But the idea is not entirely new.  Blaise Pascal who was a famous French mathematician lived in the 17th century  told us long back,

 “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Quietness and  Solitude were not very popular with our most popular notions of development.  Our idea of progress remained heavily linked to the noise and abundance of everything. The barometer of our development was always speed and slow was an anathema. Now, this is a compulsory slow down and we hear many stories about parents spending time with children, reading books, cooking together, conversing with each other etc. The irony is that for a lot of people, it took a forced lockdown to realise that these are and should be natural activities for any human being even if there is no lockdown.  There are many ways to explore life and play with its possibilities when we slow down a bit and care for each other without hurry. There is more to life than increasing its speed.  This is something humanity has to carry forward to a post Covid world also.    

The human cost and the post Covid world

As  I write this, there is a grim realisation everywhere that as in the case of every tragedy, the poor and vulnerable are suffering heavily during this pandemic also. While it is easy to do a lockdown and meditate on solitude and peace for one section of people who are better protected, it creates an economic disaster for the less privileged. Even though the lockdown is economic ruin for all, it hits the poor very hard.  For governments everywhere, it is a tough choice between saving lives and the economy. As India is in lockdown,  heart-breaking stories of the suffering are emerging from many parts of the country. This is a time for a big government and its generous hand. At the same time, this is also an occasion for the privileged ones to open their hearts to the sobs of the most disadvantaged.   We should not be staring at a situation where the cure is dangerous than the disease.   

In all likelihood, in a few months from now, the vast majority of humanity will move over to a post Covid world.  This is also a very genuine human way of looking at any tragedy. We can never abandon hope. As the caption in the image at the beginning of this post says, we always close with the hope of a tomorrow.  All those who survive this crisis would never be the same again. They would definitely be carrying the memories of a period when they came face to face with uncertainty, death and a minimal life.  Now the question is,  will people forget all these and start as if nothing happened?  One hope that it does not happen.

 Though it is premature to think about a post Covid world at this moment,  our task is cut out. We need to fix our priorities to ensure a better world for all.  Health is and will be the most important concern now. As healthcare takes the centre stage, it is also time to assess the state of public health by every country.  In the last so many weeks we have been watching with admiration the sections of people who make the world under the grip of fear move. They include our dedicated health workers, cleaning staff, caregivers, people who supply essential commodities, ambulance drivers, etc. They are fighting the pandemic head-on with great risk to their lives.   It is fantastic to praise them,   but it is also equally important to ensure that they are paid well and they have a dignified life in the society. Pandemics like this may come visiting us again. The only way humanity can confront it is to remain prepared and the only way to remain prepared is to rely on the best of humanity which is in full display now.  Let’s bet on that.

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