To our knowledge, at no time has the history of mankind been put to the test on such a global scale. Never have we faced an uncontrollable pandemic of such planetary proportions, reaching into all spheres of human activity, creating a sense of deep-seated anxiety among nations, overwhelming hospitals, shutting down and bankrupting businesses, sending stock markets plummeting, and compelling some politicians to further indulge in reckless lies.
The prospect of “death by virus” supersedes all the man-made wars and conflicts that have punctuated our past since time immemorial. Today’s enemy is invisible, and it can kill randomly. Covid-19 is potentially the most powerful weapon of mass destruction the world has ever known, perhaps mightier than the Spanish Flu. And all we need do is carry out our most natural body function, breathing, in the hope that these tiny viral droplets don’t make their way to our vulnerable lungs.
Granted, the symptoms are not always perceptible, as the virus affects us differently. Many of us may not even notice we’re infected. But until we develop a natural immune response or conceive of an anti-viral treatment to reverse its worsening effects, the pandemic could rage on. In developing countries with weak or non-existent healthcare systems, we could expect the contagion to be rife, potentially sending mortality rates spiralling.
But on the positive side, with over a third of the world’s population now in lockdown, our planet has suddenly become a quieter place. Passenger aircraft no longer streak the skies (of Europe anyway), cars no longer clog our roads, and pedestrians and cyclists have been making their presence scarce. We are becoming more accustomed to life indoors, following public directives.
While we spend this time in our homes with our loved ones, should we be so fortunate, we start to (re-)discover a quality dimension to our lives. This “time out” we are experiencing is having the effect of changing the nature of our relationships to one another and to society at large. This opportunity was always there, but our frantic lifestyles crowded out our ability to appreciate life’s more simple pleasures.
Without falling into the temptation of reductionism, perhaps we could view this virus as a messenger in disguise, urging us to pause for a moment, and reflect on all the ails of our social and economic systems today? In response to the outbreak, the mass mobilisation of peoples around the world to protect our health and collectively save lives is evidence that we can make sweeping and positive changes to our world within just weeks.
With every respect for the cost in human lives, perhaps this pandemic offers a blueprint for a new social order, casting a lifeline to our distressed value system, and impelling us to open our hearts and minds to the opportunity of better, greater, more beautiful, more just world?