Lessons from the Pandemic

I did not know that wild violets grow in Alabama fields. Turns out they do, right in my neighborhood. I did not know that in the back of my yard grows a dogwood tree with tender blossoms, flowers that serve as a symbol of rebirth and revival. Granted I have not been living in this house long, but the three years of never-ending busy-ness, endless to-do lists, deadlines always looming larger than life, worries about the future, parenting obligations, and health issues choked out my ability to see life around me. Now, I stop to pay attention even if for a brief moment to marvel at the beauty that has been so elusive before.

This pandemic taught me many lessons already. For one, it has cracked open the fragility of human life. In the West, but particularly in the U.S., there is an implicit assumption of invincibility. And it is contagious. “Best healthcare system in the world!” “We will win this war!” “We will not let this enemy prevail!” It is so easy to believe that tragedy and horror will pass by. But friends from New York write about the constant sound of howling ambulances; news stories describe the stench from unrefrigerated trucks full of decomposing bodies; nurses and doctors share stories of trauma and desperation from seeing dozens of patients die daily. Assumptions of invincibility are pretentious and dangerous. They take us down a much darker path.

That is the major lesson of the pandemic so far – “unforeseeable circumstances” and “unchartered waters” bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Ultimately, these events become a true mirror of who we are as a society. Or rather, what we have become. Years of ragged individualism and aggressive propagation of libertarian ideas left us stranded on the island on which homo hominin lupus est – “a man is a wolf to another man.” The widespread disregard for the vulnerable, for the community, for the well-being of others is astonishing. Of all the tragic twists and turns that I could anticipate, the scale of the protests against shelter-in-place policies and the aggressiveness against basic means of protecting public health, such as masks, have been devastating to observe. I have been wrestling with the question of how a society gets to this place.

A part of the crisis is a broken economic system that puts profits over the well-being of people. The meritocratic narrative of rewards only for “hard work” supported the decimation of safety nets. With incomes lost, millions of Americans have nothing to fall back on in the time of crisis. When decisions were being made, they either actively supported or silently observed how social protections were eliminated believing that “those people” should work harder to earn their piece of the pie. Now, instead of realizing that they themselves were shortchanged by this ideology, they demand a return “to normal,” with a complete disregard for the loss of life this will incur. It does not help that in some states, there have been clear connections between groups that are organizing the protests and the billionaire class. A classic case from old philosophical texts – those with limited economic resources are working against their own interests as individuals or members of the working class to serve the needs and interests of their masters.

But there are also deeper issues at hand. Much of the American society has learned to live for pleasure – instant gratification to consumerist desires. Isolation cuts off opportunities to engage in rampant consumerism of goods, services, images, and pleasures. Being alone reveals the holes in one’s humanity created both by consumerism and fast-paced lives in pursuit of profit or sustenance. The space for leisure to cultivate hobbies that allow people to create, produce, observe, marvel, or contemplate has been erased by the rat race of non-stop running between work, meetings, activities, get-togethers, shopping, TV shows, and errands. As a cultural outsider, I am continually amazed at how consumerism is even taught to toddlers, both through garages full of trinkets and through busy schedules of soccer games, swimming lessons, and play-dates. When do they ever get to be children, I wonder. To just be.

In a recent interview, Chris Hedges – a Pulitzer-winning journalist and writer – described the current social crisis as a result of long-standing policies and practices, which in the long run have produced a society of spectators. He makes a point in his other works that 24-hour entertainment through every imaginable medium – streaming, TVs, ads, podcasts, phone apps, sporting events, and social media – cultivates a lack of critical thinking. On some level, this point resonated with me because I have spent a lot of my time thinking about schools and educational institutions producing spectators both in the U.S. and in other countries. I wrote extensively that certain educational goals run the danger of producing masses that do not question and do not engage in a social critique. Spectators.

Applied to the current crisis, however, this perspective helped it all make sense – spectators come together to derive pleasure from an act of entertainment. They are present to get their emotional high – not to be somebody, not to act decisively, not to make a difference, not to show care for the well-being of others, but to see and be seen. Their goal is to be satisfied by the show. A spectator has no moral or ethical obligation to a spectator right next to him or her. As Guy Debord – a late French philosopher  – explained it, all spectators are united  through a divided, fragmented, and disconnected act of being connected to a spectacle. We might all tune in to watch the spectacle of daily coronavirus briefings from the White House but that does not makes us connected or united to each other. We remain separated by our social classes, cultural groups, values, and beliefs. And after seeing the staggering numbers of infections and deaths, we remain on different social planes about our concerns for our neighbors and our community. Some will care, many others will not. And since the show is getting more and more dissatisfying, the edginess will grow and the acts of violence will increase. Homo hominem lupus est.

Spectators are also not expected to question the show. Theater goers repeat lines from the plays they enjoyed. They do not test them for truthfulness, internal logic, or factual support. Remember Hamilton – I am not throwing away my shot? What a catchy line to repeat and live by. In the same way, this pandemic has been a breeding ground for dangerous ideas that fly in the face of reason but spectators pick them up, write them on poster boards, and march into the streets to chant them back. In the era of widespread misinformation, catchy slogans become lethal weapons.

Some empires decline gradually, some fall apart abruptly. I was born in the Soviet Union – an empire that fell when no one expected it to fall. And I say to you, my friends, welcome to the end of the empire. We are about to witness something really spectacular, but not in an entertaining kind of way.

If practiced right, quarantine has given us the best gift we could ever ask for as a society – solitude (I know it might not feel that way when you are locked up with relatives and children, but still). Solitude is an amazing opportunity for introspection. For centuries, people across the world sought solitude to gain wisdom. Even though neither solitude, nor wisdom, is held up in much regard in this society, quarantine lessons suggest that we need to rethink our lives and our priorities. And perhaps that, which was not highly regarded before, could be considered as an opportunity to reimagine the world and build a better society. I don’t think the fall of the empire can be averted, but at least a better vision for us as a people and as a society can be created for those who will emerge from the rubble.

Dogwood flower