The Sickness Before the Infection, Part 1: Urgently Stopping the Sniffles.

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Some people will just get this.  Some will need to be persuaded. But all of you need to be willing to do three things: to think historically, to use your imaginations to envision a better world, and to follow an argument.  Being unwilling to do any of these three things relieves you of any obligation to read this, much less follow the implications and exhortation contained within. However, for those who are willing, we should be impressed with the significance of COVID-19.  If we are truly considering the reach of this pandemic, we scarcely can fathom the scope of its influence. Not only does it reach us in our jobs, in our homes, politically, socially and economically; it also reaches us emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  That is, not only does it affect every aspect of our lives in front of and around us, but it reaches above us, and within us, to our hopes and and aspirations, to our births and deaths, to, finally, our relationship to the eternal that beats within our hearts, the little piece of universality that we all share and are calling forth.  Camus, in The Plague (1947),  says: “Orders! When what’s needed is imagination!”  

The following is a work of the imagination.  It is not an imagination detached from the truth, whether that be 2 + 2 = 4, whether COVID-19 is passed socially or brought in from another place, whether the sky is blue, or whether there are some things like love and prosperity that gain their meaning only by mutual enjoyment.  It is an imagination for what is to come, the oak tree that lies in the potential of the acorn, in the clearing created by a winter’s cold and snow, preparing the way for a new season in this human world we both live in and build. I invite you to imagine together, emerging from what we really are, to be what we can really be.  For the virus brings death, but it also brings life into stark relief.

Part 1

By the time you finish reading this sentence, someone will have died from the coronavirus.  Ten more died while I was thinking of that sentence. More than 3000 died within the last 24 hours, since I wanted to write that sentence.  A 9/11 each day. The world responded in remarkable ways after that canary in the coal mine. How will we respond now that the whole coal mine is collapsing?  What structural features of thought and belief will serve us well to make our way through the seeming senselessness of the virus, and will help us respond at an appropriate scale, whether that be global and/or spiritual?

The scale of what is happening in front of our eyes is incredible.  And it is happening in front of our eyes, reported live. Will it sink in?  Will the scope and breadth of the tragedy unfolding in fact reach us at the depths and heights we may need?

I argued this morning with my other half, suggesting that the “novel” virus embodies a spiritual crisis on a global scale.  My other half was more empirical. According to that half, it shows that those who still rely on going to work to earn money, who rely on their labor to uniformly provide their income, will be caught reacting through the pandemic.  They will be controlled, it said. If one has invested their money wisely, creating multiple sources of income that can be relied upon, whether one can labour or not, will in fact be the one who can act through (rather than react to) the crisis. Individual planning and ingenuity is a key to thriving through crises. It is an uneasy relationship I have with my other half.  My other half prevents me from exploring my thoughts. Instead, my other half needed to be listened to… which I did. And I have heard. I have heard of this sickness before the infection. Because I too had it and have it. And so do you.

This virus stretches across all classes, all religions, all income levels, all genders, all sexual orientations, all political parties, southerners and northerners, easterners and westerners.  And it is most devastating in the most advanced (re: post-industrial) societies of the world.  It’s epicentre has moved (in no particular order) from China, to Seoul, to Tokyo, to Rome and Venice, to Paris and Frankfurt, to Madrid and London, to New York and New Orleans, and will likely devastate the densest populations in Jakarta, Bangkok, New Delhi, Mumbai, Rio and Johannesburg.

No Identifiable Enemy

In other words, there is no identifiable locus of the virus.  It doesn’t matter whether the virus is transmitted among the community, or brought in on a plane or train.  It doesn’t matter whether we have been globally exposed or locally situated, the virus is all around, and it could be transmitted by any of us.  And even though I might feel well, I have been infected and have transmitted it to others before I even knew I was sick. How terrifying is that?

After 9/11, we very quickly came up with a veritable “us and them” in the days after that canary died.  But this time we don’t have the “them” that served as a coping mechanism through other calamities. There is no use in calling it a Chinese / Wuhan virus, nor is vilifying Trump going to help us respond.  Paying attention to what he says does not stop New York, Seattle or New Orleans from being instantiations of “ground zero”. In this instance, the “them,” if there is one, is much closer to home.

More than a thousand people have died since I wrote the first paragraph 20 minutes ago.  Existence keeps getting stripped away in every moment. They have died alone, barred from their loved ones because the infection they have can spread so easily.  Let us not ever forget that death comes quietly, and many will die alone… while people are writing and speaking, while people are listening to music, while people are debating whether this is the right time to visit.

400 more infected since I began the last paragraph.  Do you feel the urgency?

This sickness is no metaphor, and how will we respond?  It is no canary in a coal mine. It is a collapsing coal mine.  Economies have stopped, education systems have been paused. Governments wish for the economic ground to be re-established again.  Every citizen has a secret wish that some type of normal will return. Yet, that normal looks different, depending with whom you Zoom.  To disregard the opinion of everyone, what is “normal” will be nothing if it is not a new normal. Everything from greeting each other without shaking hands, to shopping at a social distance, to whether we put our elderly in long-term care facilities, to how we educate ourselves will be radically different… even when COVID-19 no longer poses a widespread threat.

Refashioning the Normal 

The normal will not return, because it must be re-fashioned.  Do we want to run headlong into an economy that works against us? Not merely avoiding long commutes, do we want to economize exploitation?  Must we find other cures for domestic violence and addiction that do not facilitate the growth of such problems? Do we want to see the whole world and ignore what is in front of us?  Do we want to have our recycling sent back to us? Is it even desirable to continue headlong into increased urbanization when there are clear signs we could all enjoy a little more rural space? Do we see the others we encounter as competitors to our version of a good life, like consumers fighting over toilet paper in the supermarket aisle? When will we take actual responsibility for the state of the world, the land, our societies, our wars, our poor, our spirit(s)? Can we even afford to pass the buck?  Can we pass all the “making” and the “destroying” activities further and further down the supply chain, so far out of sight and out of mind that neither birth nor death of any human, any object, nor any joy is neither heard nor seen?  

We need to re-fashion normal. We need to cure the sickness we had before the infection.  1000 more infected. The problem is, like the virus, we have no antidote nor vaccine. We may ask, “When will a vaccine be developed for COVID-19?”  Our question should also be of the same spirit, “When will a preventative measure be developed which will make us resistant to the sickness that existed before the infection?” The sickness before the infection is, at least, an economic system that no longer serves us, but it also includes the alienation we all experience in mass society, which is also a mass market that no longer meets our needs. If that is true, then the sickness before the infection is also an illness of the soul, rooted deep within our perception of ourselves as individuals who see our own lives as both the centre of reality, and as insignificant to wider regional, global, and cosmic orders.  Perhaps these greater issues need to be reflected upon, re-imagined, and engaged. Perhaps now is our opportunity, and it requires imagination.

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