A likely scenario that is to follow the ending of the COVID-19 is the incredible stress that people in large numbers might go through on a global scale, symptoms of which can already be seen in the lockdowns being observed in most parts of the world.
In the medieval world there were violent and power-obsessed men in great numbers followed by mystics and prophets. The mystics and the prophets, often viewed as social deviants, were part of the community doing whatever they could to humanize the world in the face of man-made destruction.
That is not the case with the modern world where we have something called a “normal” person, a mythical creature invented by the discipline of psychology and one which suits the needs of a functional social order. Normal people don’t exist; Shakespeare and Dostoevsky dedicated their work to promote the argument that people are anything but normal, except in a very stereotypical sense of the term. People are vulnerable; that’s what makes them deserving of empathy. That is why a sinister character like Richard the Third moves us deeply at the point when the ghosts of his victims come back to haunt him. That is the reason we understand the saintly Alyosha’s detached affection for his cruel and cynical father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who can casually recount to the son without any trace of guilt, of how he raped his mad mother. The saintly son who has internalized the mother’s suffering in a Christ-like way is drenched in cold sweat while making a superhuman effort to forgive his unforgivable father.
Vulnerability is the word that defines almost every character in Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. People are vulnerable and affected by what happens around them. Sometimes they act in kind ways and some other times they do the most terrible things imaginable. The South Asian writer Sadat Hasan Manto, whose stories offer a vivid picture of India’s partition, describes the evils that “normal” people are capable of in a time of crisis. The temptation to submit to emotion is one of the most natural things about a so-called normal human being. It is hard to ignore Freud’s point that men will turn to wolves with other men given certain circumstances.
History, unfortunately, has so far been on Freud’s side as far as his pessimistic view of human nature is concerned. This does not alter the fact that people are vulnerable whether in good or in evil. They will more easily submit to the wildest of speculations despite evidence being to the contrary rather than be guided by reason. That might be the danger we are heading to with the coronavirus pandemic. It needs to be seen as a disease like any other disease, except that it is happening on a bigger scale than usual. Unfortunately that is not the case. Those who are accustomed to escaping boredom and anxiety through some form of entertainment or the other are looking at the pandemic as a reality show that causes adrenaline rush; a reality show in which you are a participant.
With news channels bombarding viewers and with nothing else to think or talk about, the COVID-19 seems to occupy the imagination of millions across the planet. I only dread to think what would happen to these millions once the crisis is over and they have nothing else to think or talk about. A dangerous vacuum is bound to be created whose consequences are going to be felt in a very big way by the social order.
I understand that human beings are resilient; but with the media badgering the masses with images and with medical professionals and politicians doing everything possible to scare common people, even the most “normal” person is bound to turn abnormal after a point in time. The previous stress disorders were usually associated with soldiers who returned from the battlefield or with a country that has suffered a civil war, a flood or a famine.
For the first time, now, we are seeing an entire planet experiencing symptoms of trauma which is supposed to be specific to one or two places. The post-corona syndrome is a dangerous condition and one can only imagine the tremendous burden it puts on individuals, families and communities across the world. Fear serves some purpose in keeping a person forearmed. Irrational fear is something else altogether and has consequences that range from psychopathic to self-destructive and homicidal behavior, in its more aggressive forms. It can make large groups of people incapable of living normal emotional and social lives.
More and more people for lack of any meaning in their lives end up clinging to the fear because strangely it gives them a morbid sense of security and belonging. Living in abnormal fear gives them a sense of being more prepared than the others for an eventual attack by aliens from other parts of the galaxy. In other words, we are going to have to deal with a lot more crazy people filling the workplaces and neighborhoods of the world.
Disease is a practical problem that needs to be resolved in the best possible way while empowering the person’s faith in him or herself to fight back the illness without losing hope or courage. There is no metaphysics to disease however large might be the number of people who are infected with it. That is the right attitude which is the antidote to the fear psychosis gripping the masses with regard to the COVID-19.
There is no great purpose achieved in thinking and talking about the virus all the time. People’s emotional and spiritual lives are more important than any disease could ever be. As Viktor Frankl is at efforts to point out, there has to be some larger meaning as to why we are here on earth; this is what each one has to figure out for him or herself. How can people sit before a television or the internet and dedicate their time to being afraid simply because they have nothing else to think or talk about! It is not the virus that kills; it is stupidity and boredom that have always been more effective in leading people to their deaths than any disease could ever do.
At the end of the day, disease is a reminder of our vulnerability in the face of nature. The virus too shares both our vulnerability and our nature. We don’t have to hate it or look at it as an enemy that needs to be wiped out. This is the Hollywood attitude to nature and to disease; fight it, defeat it, conquer it, decimate it. There are no villains in real life. There are only people who need to be pitied, as Socrates and the Buddha taught and preached. We are a part of the same life principle that brought the virus into existence. Wisdom is in understanding a problem and dealing with it practically without having to exhaust our inner resources that we desperately need to give ourselves a sense of purpose and being.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.