The psychological fallout

The psychological fallout from the pandemic

Yakoob Ahmed

Will society be forced to alter its current course?

The modern period was supposed to provide a world that would not repeat the mistakes of the past, a secular world that delimited the violence of so-called religion, a world of scientific progress and discovery that would minimise sickness and pandemic, a world of antibiotics and hygiene, a world that was better connected, more technologically advanced, a world with modern democratic governments that would be able to better deal with the crises that humankind struggled with in the past. There was something supercilious about the mythology of modernity that had us believing that we were at the pinnacle of human existence, and yet now more than ever, I ask after the coronavirus: why do we feel as fragile as at any time before?

In the last decade or two, we have witnessed 9/11, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, tsunamis, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster, we had the so-called Arab spring and the violence and wars that ensued. We have states exercising violence against its own people and extreme bush fires in Australia; and calls to halt climate change, we have witnessed an uncertain Europe and we are now witnessing a post-Brexit world.

Outbreaks like SARS, Ebola, and now the Covid-19 pandemic have emerged creating hysteria where the threats are both imagined and real. A pre-modern world had its own forms of violence and destruction, but a post-modern world hasn’t been the solution many had been sold, begging the question: after much myth-making, is the current world order failing humanity? Are these unique times?

The intellectual ZiauddinSardar explained in The Postnormal Times Reader that we live in a “post-truth” world. He rationalised that in a post-truth world facts were less influential in shaping public opinion, rather emotions and personal beliefs were far more persuasive. He made the case that these were “surreal” times, of which he stressed better to be understood as “post-normal” times. 

In a world of post-truth, it seems belief and emotion, once subscribed to religion continue to be important than that which we call fact. It seems as the sociologist Jose Casanova in his Public Religions in the Modern World had pointed out that religion continues to and will continue to play an important role in the modern world, but one may now ask the question, what actually do we mean by religion? Can orthodox religions still have a role to play here? Or shall we seek ritual and comfort via other means?

Interconnectedness and speed of movement: The consternation surrounding the pandemic is not relegated to just the spread of the disease, but of equal measure and concern is the spread of information surrounding it. So, which is worse? One attacks the body and the other the psychology. The first to some degree is measurable, and immunity can be built against it, the second harder to portion, in fact leaving mental scars, but both will leave a lingering imprint. The question is what type of impression, and can one be separated from the other?

No doubt, people have the right to be informed, that is a given. But in post 9/11 framework where the terrorism card facilitated mass anxiety deepening the gulf of mistrust between societies and governing authorities, with the world ever more hypersensitive, what measures are being taken to safeguard the physiological well being of people? Some may argue that this is less important; however, on closer inspection the coronavirus has created a situation where the current interconnected world will experience fissures that can no longer be isolated to one area. So-called Islamic terrorism may now be replaced by widescale fear of disease, and we can expect foreign policy shifts that would be far more sweeping.

It may be possible that governments use this not to simply regulate movement but also freedom of information and speech. This has not yet happened but we have seen it being discussed in several parliaments whether it happens depends on what measures will be required to ensure ‘public safety’. The “medical gaze” as Michel Foucault suggested in his The Birth of the Clinic separated the patient from the person, which can be seen during this pandemic in how people are spoken about both by experts and the media.

In fact, the official language tends to present peoples as numbers and statistics, as observable data in the human form. Catching the coronavirus feels simply like a global game of Russian roulette. Currently, it seems that capitalist governments are more interested in the economic impact on state resources, choosing infrastructure over human well-being.

The immediate impact on the economy, aviation industry, sports; entertainment as well as panic shopping will create short-term hits on the economies of various nations. But as this situation endures, and if this is just the beginning, while some will be looking at the stock exchange, my interest is how will we as people act towards one another?

The West has now become the centre: As of yet, if the signs in Europe are anything to go by, there is a resigned inevitability of many catching the coronavirus in the West. But the fear of the virus has become as large a concern as the virus itself, suggesting that states may be able to legitimise extreme action with popular public acceptance. It may be that the instinct to survive and find a common interest may force communities to pull together. This is hopefully but this an apt time to ask ourselves what drives us as a human race? Not as individuals, but as communities and societies, and our place in the world.

Are we satisfied with the morals and values that we carry? If the answer is yes, then can we continue to live like this? If the answer is no then what alternatives do we have to offer? Shall they be minor adjustments or something more radical?

It is in stark conditions that democratic governments take autocratic measures, bypassing principles for more practical concerns by implementing the closing of borders, introducing draconian laws, employing fines, and making arrests.

On the one hand, there is the need to control the movement of people, but long-term restrictions will spur agitation. Will this crisis assist nationalist sentiment to upsurge as mistrust increases between nations and peoples? George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were not as far-fetched in the way they envisioned a dystopian future, suggesting that fiction at times can speak better truth than we realise.

Fiction has a sense of facilitating narratives that become internalised, and Hollywood has been the best proponent of apocalyptic narratives, as the authors Rick Edwards and Dr Michael Brooks have pointed out in their book, Is Hollywood Trying to Kill Us. They suggest that narratives of killer viruses have already infected the minds of cinemagoers to a sense of doomsday that now resembles reality presented in the mainstream press today.

In particular, regarding the coronavirus, there is something ingrained in the European mind that stems from the historical memory of the great plagues in which a pandemic paranoia has been built into the fabric of European societies of plagues coming from the Far-East that often wipe out European peoples. We are witnessing global fragility in the human emotion, which used to be addressed by interlocutors of religion, now in the hands of secular psychologists. Governments are not trusted, with many around the world being perceived as underprepared or outright incompetent. Different nations are taking disparate measures to deal with the crisis. There is a feeling of confusion.

The problem lies in the notion that in a world where we are supposed to be more informed than at any time in the past, we simply cannot distinguish what information to trust. These may be exaggerations of course, but this is what people are seeing in a world where information is democratised and spread out over 280 characters.

We want simple explanations, simple answers, and yet if we are to learn anything it is that the world is indeed complicated, and that complicated situations require detailed explanations and responses, something neither the bulk of media nor governments are providing. This leads us to the question: how do we envisage for our future? Do we expect business as usual, or will there be lasting effects? Currently, much of the analyses is based on global markets and health services – which is understandable.

What is not being examined is whether this can create a global wake-up call to re-examine core values and introspect. It’s probable that the states will continue to facilitate a hypersensitive world that continues to see itself under threat. There is still a heavy dependency on the status quo even if there is very little trust. This may be as Sardar explained post-normal times, or maybe, just maybe, this will become the new normal.

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