The departing German envoy in Singapore, Ambassador Ulrich Sante, in a recent published article in the Straits Times shared some of his thoughts with the readership including on the impact on the community of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Among other things he has noted that it has implanted in us what in German is called Lebensangst, literally meaning 'fear of life' but in a broader sense, the loss of trust in resilience, and coldness. He has impassionedly argued: "We need to regain trust in each other again, to show warmth and affection and not treat everyone as potential messengers of death. Social distancing serves its purpose, but it cannot be a recipe for all time. It has the power to lead to social division, perhaps the most serious danger our societies face these days". He is right. There is nothing to replace a light touch or a gentle caress to bring humans closer together. The handshake and the embrace were tools devised as humanity progressed towards civilized conduct, as these acts were performed to demonstrate that those hands carried no weapons.
This essay wishes to make three points with relevance to how pandemics have shaped human and societal behaviour in their wake. The first is that these have tended to strain love and friendship throughout ages. In Classical Greece, the historian Thucydides has recorded an account of a plague that ravaged Athens around the time of the Peloponnesian War. He noted the resultant breaks in friendships and observed "the dejection of mind" that accompanied it. To visit the sick at that time was to invite death on yourself; not to visit was to allow the stricken to die lonely and forlorn. It was truly placing yourself between Scylla and Charybdis. The Philosopher Aristotle described man, above all, as a social animal. The Greeks believed that social gatherings, theatres, the Olympic games and the like energized the human spirit and lifted the mind and intellect, enabling the pursuit of higher ideals.
Closer to our times, during the Asian Influenza of 1957-58, the pandemic spread from the Far East, through South East Asia to the South Asian sub-continent. But in a few weeks the severity of the virus gradually declined. That brought about a rapid change in human behaviour. The carrier of the germ was not seen as an angel of death, but a victim to be cared for. Friends and families rallied together. In this island, Singapore, communities such as the Chinese, Malays and Indians held hands and provided relief and succour to one another.
A second point is the proclivity for finger- pointing blame at aliens or foreigners. The Black death in Europe in the fourteenth century, that decimated the continent's population, was attributed to the Mongol hordes from the Central Asian steppes that had been besieging and attacking the cities of Mediaeval Europe relentlessly. The cholera epidemic in Britain in the nineteenth century was said to have emanated from Calcutta, in Bengal, British India. In turn, when the outbreak occurred in East Coast America later in the century, it was the Irish community from the British isles, who constituted the indigent segment of the immigrant population was blamed. The most recent example of this is a current one ,that of President Donald Trump's insistence on calling the COVID-19 "Wuhan virus" , even alleging that it was manmade in a laboratory rather than involving 'zoonatic' animal to human contagion ,to the great chagrin of the Chinese. Indeed, this accusation has not only sharpened the divide between US and China considerably, to the extent of bringing the world closer to the onset of a new Cold War, or even a full-blown war.
A third point would be the resultant empowerment of the State. Because other elements within the civic system , such as the civil society , the private sector and the non-governmental institutions do not possess the wherewithal to counter a threat of the proportions a pandemic of the current kind pose , the State , by default , has to step in. This is often with the consensus of the community. Since States would concern themselves with their own population, this can come at the expense of globalist sentiments. Since supply chains can become affected, there would be a consequent preference for self-reliance. This would militate against the notion of globalization and free trade based on the principles of comparative advantages. Global bodies that have been created to uphold and encourage free trade are adversely affected. We see an example of this in the growing ineffectiveness today of the World Trade Organization, leading to the resignation of its Director General. Burgeoning nationalism would prioritize State self-interest, as is evidenced in the US pushback against the World Health Organization, alleging its bias for China. As States, as individuals, self-isolate, multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, suffer. The absence of a global watchman as the UN could sharpen inter-state issues and disputes. Increasing self-reliant isolationism, weakening of multilateral institutions, and growing nationalism can feed inter-State conflicts as we see in the current spats between the US and China and China and India. Massive numbers of Pandemic deaths erode the fear of large number of fatalities that can result from war, which is always a deterrence to inter -State conflict. A combined result of all this is that Wars are rendered more likely. As a result, even the thresh-hold of a Nuclear war could be lowered.
So, what happens to the individual as all these phenomena unfold. It is, not surprising, therefore, that in most recent times there is a perceptible rise of a sense of helplessness that a person might feel. Hence, there would be, as there perhaps is, a propensity to a resort to seeking contentment from the circumstances in the best way possible. This explains the growing popularity all across the world of the ideas proffered by Stoicism, a philosophy that originated in Classical Greece. It evolved at points in time when human beings were confronting situations that they felt they were unable to control, including epidemics and war. Note the similarity to our own current times. Stoicism taught that eudaimonia or happiness (in Greek) can be found by accepting the moment as it presents itself. The famous Stoic teacher Epictetus once displayed the supreme serenity of reason by calmly observing : "If I am to die now , I shall die; If I am to die later , then I shall have my lunch, for the hour of lunch has come, and I shall tend to dying later!"
Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh.
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