3 April 2020

The time to "sober up" has arrived

Could COVID-19 provide the global wake-up call the world needs?

By Saba Karim Khan, NYU Abu Dhabi

Last week, my brother sent me a video from the China Global Television Network. The video opened with a warning, addressed to no one in particular but to the world in general: “Sober up. Covid-19 respects no national borders, no social bounds, no political systems and no cultural values. It hits us just as hard. It levels the world.” The anchor had a point; regardless of the color of your passport, the tone of your skin or the material net worth you possess, the pandemic is unleashing contagion in a format which is agnostic to our social constructions of borders, wealth and race.

It’s certainly true that the Covid-19 virus has on the one hand been a leveler, on the other it has peeled back the visible and latent inequalities that cut across our world. In privileged circles, online conversations are rife, discussing live gym training possibilities, synchronistic and asynchronistic pedagogical toolkits, cyber music playlists, and travel reimbursement negotiations. Yet at the same time, the threats are much more existential elsewhere; daily-wage earners, homeless individuals, migrant workers away from their families, staff laid off or sent on unpaid leave, and medical workers whose risk of contracting the virus is exponentially higher – these individuals are scrambling for pay-checks, meals and in some cases, basic survival.

As panic mounts, now, more than ever, the attention economy has got us in the grips of an epidemic of fear. The relentless cycle of news pounds us with a barrage of nerve-wracking information. Seemingly overnight, a coterie of experts and gurus on Covid-19 have miraculously emerged. In addition to the possibility of physical ailment, the volatile repercussions on our mental health are creating collective disorientation.

In dealing with this, some are resorting to memes and jokes to make the situation less menacing; many have turned to religious verses and scriptures to ward off the illness, and reduce the fear and anxiety it’s brought with it. For others, the spread of disinformation - marketing instant Covid-19 cures – help to throw life into temporary relief, however implausible the results. While others still have turned to conspiracy theories, speculating how America, Russia, or China are entangled in bio weaponization to outstrip each other.

Among these variations, a dominant reasoning for the pandemic revolves around the notion of “karma”; that payback time for the meddling of affairs and violations of rights in Kashmir, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere – places operating as open prisons with caged humans - has finally arrived. Posts such as “Dear world, how’s the lockdown? Kashmir”, and “Today, the entire world is experiencing forced empathy” are going viral. With attendance at mosques and other religious congregations temporarily cut off in many countries, the perception of the virus as a cosmic curse, of God being unhappy with mankind and of nature showcasing its prowess over human inventions and intelligence is quickly gaining traction.

There is no method to validate which of these vantage points holds most gravitas, but it hardly matters. What is difficult to deny however is that by crashing the financial markets, puncturing modern medical infrastructure, and isolating people from their families, work and friends, Covid-19 has disrupted modern life to an unprecedented degree for the present generation.

What does this then point us towards? As the world gets taken over by lockdowns, curfews and travel bans – it certainly signals extraordinary times - yet this is not a moment just for despair. It isn’t easy but we create, we express, we exchange, often most commendably during perplexing times. This black swan event, too, offers an invitation to slow down, reexamine the pace and restlessness of our lives, salvage perspective and move towards healing a civilization that has been bruised and bleeding for far too long. Despite the unnerving turmoil that the current uncertainty produces, it is a prime moment to consider how deeply disappointing certain aspects of modernity have been; to extract lessons from our hyper-consumerist lifestyles, negligence of looming climate catastrophes, and stigmatizing global politics, which we can sustain long after we get past this crisis. It is an opportunity to reflect upon whether closing borders by building walls, eradicating refugees or reducing nuclear threats, are truly the severest problems we face.

Whilst the threat to people’s lives and lifestyles is very real, it has started to transform the choices we make and how we live. Juggling homeschooling with online daywork is challenging, but the quality time parents are spending with their children has gone up. At a time when books were rapidly reaching extinction, requests for reading recommendations have suddenly surged. Despite the day-to-day mayhem, shout-outs by young people trying to protect the elderly and vulnerable from contagion are on offer. Consumerist impulses are on a decline, as people are devising alternative means of sourcing gratification. The environment benefits from lesser fuel consumption and minimal human interference. Families are drawing human connections within their homes, after what seems to be an unimaginably long time. Simplicity seems to be back in vogue. If nothing else, for many people, the pandemic has already made them more aware of so much that was taken-for-granted in their previous way of life.

Similar to failure, chaos and its accompanying ambiguity, fluidity and fragmentation, can be in some way generative, offering routes to sharper wisdom and grounded perspective. Irrespective of whether things will return to “normal” as we knew it or a new normal will emerge, this experience indicates that the time to start making mindful choices, no matter how small they may seem, which will impact our present and future, and futures beyond ours, beckons. Perhaps the time to “sober up” has finally arrived.

I think of the server making my sandwich at Subway, and the story he told me of his co-workers laid off due the lockdown without any notice. My thoughts wander to the cleaning ladies I met, telling me their company had sent them on indefinite unpaid leave. Visuals of my husband watching his father’s funeral, through a video call with an unstable internet connection because of the current travel ban, springs to my mind. A guest speaker warning us of how most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them, crops up and the memory lingers. Together, these pieces make me think that the world we inhabit right now bears an uncanny resemblance to a fictional dystopia and whilst the wounds injecting it must not be ignored, equally, we must not perish under their force either.

In the end, I am left with more questions than answers: if there is at least one thing each of us can choose to change practically in our lives post-Covid-19, what might that be? And as a planet and a species, when the dust eventually settles and this hysteria feels like history, will we rise to the opportunity or choose to descend into chaos once again?

Saba Karim Khan is an Instructor in the Social Science division at NYU Abu Dhabi.

A version of this article appeared in Verso.