19 Nov 2020 Actions, consequences, remembrances: Reflections on the coronavirus pandemic
By Chris Arthur
When I started to write this reflection on how – or whether – the coronavirus pandemic would change human behaviour, the first thing that came to mind was unexpected. I remembered war photographer Robert Capa’s famous comment: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”
I am not a frontline medic dealing with Covid-19 cases. I don’t look after the vulnerable elderly in a care home. I’m not involved in lab work studying the virus and looking for a vaccine. So far, the area in which I live has not been an infection hotspot. Only a few of my friends, family, and acquaintances have fallen ill to date; fewer have died as a result of this disease.
Of course I’m glad to have been so fortunate. But it also makes me wonder if anything I write about this topic may be invalidated because it fails to meet the literary equivalent of Capa’s criterion of quality. In other words, will my reflections lack focus, clarity, precision because I’ve not been close enough to the crisis for my writing to catch its significance properly?
In the circumstances, it seems best to start by making clear the perspective from which I’m writing – namely one that’s been relatively insulated in terms of experiencing at first hand the pain and devastation this virus has brought to so many millions of people. Though it may cast doubt on my competence as an expert witness, this is a perspective I very much wish to maintain.
Like everyone, I’ve been affected – lockdown, social distancing, new rules of interaction, new constraints, anxiety about falling ill myself or seeing those I love succumbing. Covid-19 has taken the life of one family member, leaving others to grieve in isolation, deprived of the physical contact that makes bereavement more bearable. The disease has disrupted the lives of those I care about and visited devastating economic consequences on all of us. Employment has been ruptured. Ordinary pleasures that we once took for granted have been suspended, changed, maybe lost forever. Carefully laid plans for education, travel, work have been derailed. Personal relationships have suffered as friends and colleagues shy away from contact. But I count myself incredibly fortunate nonetheless. Compared to many I’ve been lucky.
It would be reassuring to be able to state plainly what the main consequences of the coronavirus crisis are. Providing a systematic list of its outcomes in order of their seriousness, identifying the ways in which it has and will affect us, both as individuals and as members of larger groupings – family, neighbourhood, nation, species – would give a measure of comfort as to our ability to understand, control, and recover from this disease. But one of the most unsettling aspects of the pandemic has been the way in which it generates uncertainties, raising many hard-to-answer questions. What is it safe to do? Who is it safe to see, to touch? Where will the next cluster of infection fall? How will jobs, income, travel be affected in the long-term? How many lives will Covid-19 claim in the end? Why are some people so much more susceptible than others? Are we close to finding a vaccine? Will it be safe? What steps can be taken to slow transmission? In terms of things getting back to normal, is it more realistic to think of months, or years, or never? What will a post-coronavirus world look like?
As I write this essay, the pandemic is still raging. Much as I’d like to offer definite answers, clearly map its course and consequences, assess with certainty its impact on us, the nature of the phenomenon and the point in its unfolding that it’s reached means that any such efforts would be highly provisional, underlain by all the unpredictability of whatever’s going to happen next. It may be years before we can properly gauge effects. We’re faced with an enormous array of problems. How will mask-wearing affect the emotional development of young children? What mental health issues will lockdown’s confinement create? Can schools and universities successfully migrate their operations online, or will the learning of the Covid-19 generations be compromised? How will the arts recover? Will environmental concerns be listened to or side-lined as nations struggle to restore their economies? How will the constraints on close physical contact affect the making of new relationships? Will the increased virtual interaction that our digital technologies facilitate offer new avenues of closeness, even intimacy, or make us feel more isolated?
Rather than formulating necessarily speculative hypotheses that address the situation as a whole or any of its manifold specific issues, I want to pinpoint some of the ways in which the coronavirus crisis has so far affected me. I’ve felt its impact variously, but four areas stand out as being more than just idiosyncratic tropes that apply only to my situation. These four areas feel like straws in the wind that identify strong currents of influence and the direction in which they may take us. Far from introducing anything novel, they all concern things I was – or should have been – aware of already.
Through news, social media, and the informed imagination – anchored by direct observation of what’s happening around me in the streets and shops – it’s clear that people’s experience of the virus is enormously varied and that this variation is closely tied to existing inequalities. Individual circumstances make for exceptions to every rule, but, in the main, wealth cushions the impact of coronavirus, poverty makes it worse. A single parent in an inner city high-rise with no savings, no job, little if any social support, who’s reliant on benefits and public transport, will have a very different lockdown experience from that of a professional couple who can continue their highly paid jobs at home, where home is a large detached house with garden in a pleasant suburb. An Indian migrant worker in Kolkata who falls ill with Covid-19 as they try to get back to their home village will face hardships unknown to a Canadian banker in Vancouver afflicted with the same illness. Seen more clearly, as a day-to-day reality, the fact of inequality feels increasingly unfair and intolerable.
With employment suspended, social interaction limited, travel curtailed, and shopping made occasional and solitary, I’ve found myself – like many others – walking more, cycling more, doing more gardening. Being outside in the natural world has made me more appreciative both of its beauty and its potency as a source of refreshment and solace. But it’s also rekindled an awareness of how routinely we abuse it. The absence of traffic and ambient background noise has made the delight of birdsong more obvious. The slower pace of non-motorized locomotion means that I’ve taken more notice of the trees and flowers, the animals and insects that share my world. Noticing such things emphasizes the need to cherish and protect them.
The fact that everyone is susceptible to this disease, that anyone can become infected and that, for some, their infection will be serious if not life-threatening, has highlighted the fundamental vulnerabilities we all share. In the midst of ordinary health and wellbeing, it’s easy to forget that we are mortal creatures, our lives lived always alongside the threats of illness, accident, age, and death. Living in the shadow of Covid-19 brings daily into the spotlight of attention those uncomfortable aspects of life we often prefer not to dwell on. These aspects are nicely summed up in a Buddhist teaching that I’ve found coming back to mind repeatedly. The teaching is known as “The Five Remembrances”. The first four of these state that:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
4. Reliance on others
The pandemic has caused the rhythms of ordinary life to be suspended. People have been encouraged to stay at home. Whilst this has had the potential to foster a sense of isolation – or entrapment – it’s also led to a realization of the extent to which we’re reliant on others. How would we live without key workers in farming, transport, shops, banks, post offices? Postal and other deliveries and refuse collection have started to appear in a new light. Those in the caring professions – whether in hospitals, care homes, or in the community – now seem quietly heroic. It’s clear humans are a social species. Even as it isolates us the virus emphasizes the extent to which we’re interdependent. It fosters recognition of the value of relationships that were previously unnoticed or taken for granted.
Clearly these four areas of coronavirus’s impact don’t involve anything I’ve not encountered before. The unfairness of inequality, the beauty and fragility of the natural world, human vulnerabilities, and our reliance on other people – these are all things that were, or should have been, clearly evident already. What’s new is the way in which I’ve come to realize them so much more insistently over the course of the last few months. I suspect I’m by no means alone in this newfound realization of the obvious.
Will this heightened awareness of these basic features of our world change the way in which we live in it? That’s hard to say. The fact that they’re already part of our experience yet have often had little impact on our behaviour gives little ground for optimism; the fact that they’re so potently resurgent now suggests that maybe, just maybe, we’ll find them harder to ignore. If they remain in the foreground of the mind, perhaps it will make for a kinder, more equitable, environmentally responsible and reflective mode of living. If our consciousness returns to being dimmed and blurred by pre-coronavirus habits of living, this change in the tempo of the psyche will no doubt be forgotten and the metronome of materialism and consumption will make us its galley slaves again. Perhaps we are standing at a kind of crossroads of the spirit. Our choice of which direction to take will have momentous consequences.
Robert Capa’s advice may hold for taking war photographs. His equation of proximity and quality has a convincing ring to it. Being there, in the thick of the action, up close and personal seems like a guarantor of authenticity. But is this always the best perspective from which to view things? Sometimes we need to stand back to get a better picture, pause before reaching a conclusion, wait until the dust of the present settles. Not surprisingly, given its impact on the world, the coronavirus pandemic has generated a massive amount of commentary and analysis. There have been numerous think-pieces like this one, articles, scientific papers, TV and radio programmes, blogs, not to mention countless personal exchanges via social media and email. No doubt this will soon be joined by a raft of books.
Hopefully this torrent of communication will not only help us to see clearly the way the pandemic has affected us and how best to counter it, but also how it offers an opportunity to rethink and reform the way we’re living. Partly because Capa’s dictum has been in my mind, and partly because issues of closeness and distance are so central to controlling transmission of the virus, I hope that any reflective process will include a kind of philosophy of proximities. At what distance should we stand from each other, from nature, from the fundamental truths that define our existence, from the needy who are always with us?
The fifth of “The Five Remembrances” states that:
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
The actions of which coronavirus is a consequence are still a matter of debate. It’s hard to judge the extent to which it’s simply a natural phenomenon and the extent to which – in its spread if not its origin – it’s something caused, or exacerbated, by the way humans have acted. In terms of the control of its transmission, the actions of individuals are of paramount importance. All of us now have a duty to act in certain ways and not to act in others. Perhaps this newfound focus on individual responsibility will make us more mindful of the impact of our actions; perhaps the common ground on which all of us stand, and on which all of Earth’s creatures depend, will in future be treated with the respect it warrants.
Translation of the Five Remembrances by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Buddhist Teaching, Parallax, Berkeley: 1998, p.116.
Irish essayist Chris Arthur can be reached at chrisarthur784[at]gmail.com and discovered at www.chrisarthur.org
Photo: Nick Bolton/unsplash.com