29 April 2020
Our Common Humanity
By: Pablo Esteves

By Pablo Esteves (@pabesteves), Aspen España Fellow.

And even while the virus proliferates, who could not be thrilled by the swell of birdsong in cities, peacocks dancing at traffic crossings and the silence in the skies?” – Arundhati Roy

As we were finishing the second week of our mandatory confinement in Madrid, I had the privilege to moderate the first-ever remote session for the Aspen Insitute Spain Fellows. Naturally, the theme of the conversation would be the current pandemic. Trying to stay on the margins of the hard cold facts of daily counts, market crashes, policymaking, and medical science, I chose three more philosophical texts for the conversation. First, a short essay by the philosopher Alain de Botton, then the very last page of Maria Popova’s book Figuring, and lastly, a poem by Brad Aaron Modlin, “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Fourth Grade.

Five months ago, many of us from that group were in sun-soaked Ronda, Spain. Five months ago feels like an eternity ago. Five months ago, we were debating, chatting, singing, eating, and drinking. A different world? Perhaps. A different reality, yes.

Four months ago, no one knew that COVID-19 existed. Today, as we crossed the 100 days mark, we have cases in every continent but Antarctica. More infectious, deadlier, and stealthier than seasonal flu, it spreads unnoticed for several days. It has infected over 1.5 million people whom we know about, and many, many, more whom we do not. It will undoubtedly kill hundreds of thousands, and we certainly will never know the final number.

We knew this was coming. It was inevitable. Three months ago, the “What if’s?” of health experts, books, white papers, op-eds, and ‘fabulous’ TED talks became “Now what’s?” And two months ago, the “Now what’s?” became “Oh! insert expletive of choice.”

We feel the world has changed, and it has. We hope this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. The pandemic shattered our fragile illusion of control. Our shared belief that science and technology can overcome nature. The illusion that we are the dominant species and we live in a modern world as modern people because we are somehow special.

This virus, the size of an invisible speck, has crashed the global economies and broken state-of-the-art healthcare systems, filled hospitals, and morgues. It has emptied plazas and squares, parks and streets, restaurants, and shops. It has separated millions of people from their families and friends, their workplaces, and schools. It has disrupted how we live and work on a scale that very few people alive have ever seen.

In the original Greek, apokaluptein (or apocalypse) means ‘uncover, reveal.’ These days are, literally, apocalyptic. The resulting pandemic has exposed the gravity of the leadership crisis all over the world. It has highlighted the incompetence, recklessness, and stupidity of many in positions of apparent leadership. It has exposed our fragility in the face of nature —if you think this is bad, wait for a harsher climate in a decade or two. It is dismantling the smoke and mirrors of our modern life. The virus pulled the little red lever of the emergency breaks and brought the engine of capitalism to a halt. At least long enough for us to review it.

We are experiencing how capitalism has misallocated capital on a genuinely abhorring scale and the magnitude of inequality in our societies. Every night we should question when, as a society, we agreed to have essential workers be underpaid and overworked. We read about shortages in materials, about states and nations outbidding for vital supplies, and we learn about the inefficiency of free-market capitalism and our overdependence of just-in-time or made-to-order supply chains.

In any crisis, leaders have two equally essential responsibilities: solve the immediate problem and learn from it for the long-term. We should be doing both, right now.

ABOUT CHANGE AND GRIEF

It will take months and years to transition out of this period. No one knows how long the recovery will take, but it won’t be quick. Right now, around the world, we have two groups of people. The first group includes everyone that is in the front lines of the medical emergency, in the hospitals, the laboratories, and manufacturing supplies. The second group includes everyone else. And the job of the second group is to buy time for the first group –to slow the rate of infection, reduce the demand for health services, and wait for a vaccine. That addresses the first responsibility of leaders, to attend to the immediate problem.

I see three possible scenarios. The first one is that every nation manages to contain the virus simultaneously and it stop its transmission. I give it close to zero possibility. Assuming, then, the virus is here for the long run, the second scenario is one that we should all dread. It involves letting the infection run its course, finally developing herd immunity, and in the process leaving a trail of millions of corpses, broken health systems, and societies in tatters.

The third and final scenario will take time, and is probably our best option. We manage to keep the pandemic under control but at an acceptable economic and social cost. It involves a complex process of opening and closing our economies and societies as the outbreaks flare here and there. Until a viable vaccine is produced, testing is widely available, and – I want to stress this –we carry out the large scale vaccination of the population. We can prevent the resurgence of the pandemic only when at least half the world’s population has become immune to the virus; either after enough people have been infected and recovered, or have been inoculated with a vaccine.

This scenario, with cycles during which restrictions are applied and relaxed for at least a year or more, requires to reshape how we work and live and to shift how societies attend and respond to this new normal. The cycles and containment measures will vary from country to country, depending on its possibilities, its tolerance for disruption, and its people’s collective will. Each community must determine the real-time infection rate it can accept given its circumstances. One word of advice, we all need to remember that in our globalized and hyperconnected world, we are as weak as the weak link.

This third scenario brings us to the second responsibility of leaders: learn from it. We will feel the effects of the pandemic for years to come. And we must acknowledge what we are going through –it would be disgraceful to squander the opportunity to learn from this experience.

And that’s the message we read from Brad Aaron Modlin’s poem. What are the lessons we missed that day we were absent from school? Who was our Mrs. Nelson, the teacher in the poem, that prepared us for a situation like this pandemic? When was that lesson on finding comfort in routines or pleasure in cooking? Who explained to us that social distancing was an act of love towards others? Or told us how to find meaning in grief? Who prepared us to die alone?

Things will change, and this is the inflexion point from where all starts again. The loss of our routines and ‘normalcy;’ the fear of economic destruction and loss of our livelihoods; the fear of our loved ones dying. All of the above is hitting us as a collective experience that reveals our shared humanity lived through personal realities. We’re grieving collectively. Science tells us that through emotional granularity, the ability to narrow and detail our emotions, we can manage this grief.

We need to start by acknowledging the pain we feel. Palliative care experts and grief counsellors call this anticipatory grief, the feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. In essence, it breaks our sense of safety. And we feel that loss. Unhealthy anticipatory grief produces anxiety. Our minds are desperately running back and forth, trying to achieve control over the uncontrollable. We race to the future, imagine the worst outcomes, and wish, in the present, for the beautiful and perfect past we recall.

Indian Author Arundhati Roy put it beautifully in a piece for the Financial Times: “…coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

Pandemics, throughout history, have forced humans to break with the past and reimagine their world. We are in no way exceptional. We live on a timescale that is hard for our brains to grasp or imagine –we are small and fleeting. The earth is billions of years old. Ninety-nine percent of the species that ever existed are extinct.

In her last page of Figuring, Maria Popova writes these beautiful lines: “Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known –an entropic spectacle insentient to questions of blame and mercy, devoid of why.

On a cosmic scale, the importance of each of us, no matter what we have done or fail to do in our lives, is trivial. When we stop thinking of our death as a tragedy, then we can comprehend the dimension of a cosmic scale. In her writing, Maria Popova gives us some consolation: “In four billion years, our own star will follow its fate, collapsing into a white dwarf. We exist only by chance, after all.

In his text, Alain de Botton explains what draws Albert Camus to this theme in his novel The Plague. “… (Camus) believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident, or the actions of our fellow man.

Alain de Botton continues “For Camus, when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history, there is no escape from our frailty. Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable ‘underlying condition.’ Plague or no plague, there is always, as it were, the plague, if what we mean by that is susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless (…) Life is a hospice, never a hospital.”

Camus thought that we need to focus on simple pleasures. The act of seeing, thinking, feeling, fearing, and hoping, taking pleasure in the little comforts, and lingering with small things that are pretty big.

ABOUT MEANING

I choose to believe we will find meaning in these trials. We have the opportunity to contemplate the motivations and intentions that guide our behaviour. Some of us already are. And some of us eventually will. In the meantime, we need to practice our compassion and our patience –towards ourselves and others. We will have time for reflection and renewal; a time to celebrate the goodness in our friends, families, communities, and the world.

What can we learn from this period? What wisdom would Mrs. Nelson share with us?

We are living through a multidisciplinary experiment. And it is a rehearsal for the next crisis. Climate change is still here and, eventually, the next crisis will force us to reorient our living conditions. For starters, we have proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system, previously thought impossible to slow down or redirect, on hold everywhere in the world.

In a matter of weeks, hundreds of millions of humans around the world learned how to ‘social distance.’ Many of them overnight. Albeit painfully, we understood that stopping was an act of solidarity. And we have discovered the power of transformation that these new protective measures have against bringing back business as usual. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Perhaps nations will now remember the importance of investing in our commons. In healthcare, research, education, meaningful work, in nature, in life on earth. Perhaps we will come out knowing that that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests. It is also about access to education, fair labour policies, and a robust healthcare system. We should invest in doctors, scientists, teachers, caretakers, and the people that keep our structures working. Our window is very, very short. If we don’t invest in our commons now, on a massive scale over the next decade, then our path is inevitable: civilization itself winks out.

The pandemic is reminding us about our interdependence and how connected we are to one another. We are a social creature. Already, even as communities must stay apart, they are finding new ways to come together. Ironically, social distancing causes people to turn outward, to neighbours both foreign and domestic.

Herein lies a paradox: social distancing is an act of generosity and compassion toward others by eliminating our interactions that act as viral spreaders. We don’t isolate because we see the other as a threat to us; we isolate because it is me that is a threat to others. When we get through this, it will be because we came together for the collective good by staying away from each other.

We are learning to act out of a sense of shared purpose. That thought gives me hope. Arundhati Roy puts it more eloquently; “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.

Finally, I would like to think that Mrs. Nelson would teach us that when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, hopelessness and tragedy, we have to cling to the beautiful small things that are pretty big. Home-made cookies, the yellowed pages of an old book, the new drawing of a 3-year old and her smile, the reassurance in a familiar voice over the phone, singing from balconies, the daily hum of the vacuum cleaner next door, the random acts of kindness and words of encouragement. All these small big things that usually are the backdrop of our routines serve a much nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. They are what make our lives worth living.

Madrid, April 2020.

More information