What it means to be ‘safe’

I am beginning to be slightly wary of the word “safe.” What does it mean anyway? In times of crisis why do people fall back on clichés of the worst kind? Why are we at a loss of words that accurately reflect our feelings in times of disaster? Why do people who are on a public platform such as government spokespersons, medical experts and journalists keep repeating the same thing as if the set of words that they memorized have an inner meaning which we are supposed to decode in isolation?

I heard the word “security” repeated for decades until the sound of the word was enough to make me sick. Security interests, national security, security threats, political security, global security—there is no end to the proliferation of terms associated with security that were expected to translate into something profoundly real to the ordinary masses. Now, we see that, the threat was not from outer space or from those who are opposed to our way of life, but from a virus, whose existence was discovered at the end of the 19th century. If only governments spent less on producing and buying weapons that are supposed to keep us secure and invested more on research on viruses or on strengthening community healthcare, the lives of thousands of innocent victims exposed to immense pain and death could be averted!

These days we are told to be “safe.” How am I supposed to stay safe when I know pretty well what the truth is of how my government has utterly failed to protect me and has fed me lies for decades! My lack of safety is not coming from the virus, exactly! It is coming from certain people that I happen to have realistic fears about—such as the political parties in power, the police and the army who are supposed to maintain law and order, the fear that I might be ostracized in the event of a crisis, the fact that I cannot meet my friends, that I could lose my job and those relying on my support become helpless, that the future seems unpredictable—these are sources of concern for common people everywhere. The fact that there is no proper healthcare for the ones without basic means of livelihood is something that defies any pretension to either being safe or staying indoors.

I refuse to feel safe on grounds of principle and I have reasons for my refusal. There are hungry and homeless people whose lives are hanging by a thread. Interestingly, it has been that way long before coronavirus hit the streets of the world. If their lives are secure, there is an excellent possibility that it will add to my safety as well. There are people in danger of losing their dignity for lack of alternatives. Let their lives be secured and I have little doubt that it will contribute to the safety of everyone else. Powerful men occupy seats of authority and think that they own nations because the repressive apparatus is under their control; these are the people who make the world a more dangerous place than the virus.

The virus does not worry me. It will go away. I am certain. I don’t believe that nature is enemy. I won’t romanticize it either. Nature has its ways of reminding people not to forget it. With some humility we have to accept that whatever our accomplishments might be in the end nature can disrupt them without much notice. It is just that I don’t think nature shares the viciousness of men who devour members of their own species.

My lack of safety is not because of the virus. It is from greedy and power-hungry men who have taken almost all countries of the world under their control leaving no space for people to be individuals. My fear for my safety comes from the fact that these men will use the excuse of the virus to eventually do what suits their interests, through one thing they know best: repression. Their one-point agenda is to homogenize populations; not a very smart thing to do. In his essay, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde says: “The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development. The error of Louis XIV was that he thought human nature would always be the same. The result of his error was the French Revolution. It was an admirable result. All the results of the mistakes of governments are quite admirable.”

Political parties and men in positions of power need to be reminded that their security comes from not abusing privilege; they ought to know that the anger of the masses is many times more dreadful than the virus. I sincerely hope for their own well-being that they don’t fall into the error of imagining human nature “to always be the same.” Such errors come with a heavy price. The outbreak of the virus may not actually end with the virus; it might end with the ending of an unequal system which has not done enough to keep people safe either from injustice or the pandemic.

We cannot allow words like “security” and “safety” to dictate our lives. As Orwell says, “the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” We cannot surrender to words that are either looking at a distant past when we supposedly lived in perfect security or are promising a golden future where we thrive in complete safety. Neither of them exists. We need to struggle with the virus that is threatening to kill countless innocents. At the same time we must struggle against men who have decided to use power to do things that are unacceptable. We need to be careful when they tell us to be secure and safe. Our job is to understand what those words mean in the situation that each one of us is in. Again, Orwell: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”

Meaning has to choose the word because people are meaning-making creatures. Life, by definition, is uncertain and unpredictable. It only means, in ordinary terms, that we don’t have to look for one hundred percent or anything near, safety. Safety can at best mean being cautious which again has limits. Safety has to work along with abundant good-will, humor which is the backbone to a positive attitude, thoughtfulness and genuine caring. It means thinking about others when you are thinking about yourself and those close to you. That is the meaning of safety that needs to be systematically promoted. Safety doesn’t mean allowing the police to act as executors of medical knowledge on the streets while ensuring that common people comply with a state-imposed lockdown.

Is this the best interpretation of safety that an incompetent global leadership can come up with: imitating a totalitarian country like China whose death figures with regard to covid-19 are apparently doubtful since there is no objective means of verifying them? The rest of the world went on a lockdown only because Chinese propaganda managed to successfully convince them that isolating communities was the only way to stop the spread of the virus. I am still not convinced that enough thought has gone into this decision or if there isn’t a way to selectively implement isolationism without terrorizing and reducing the personal freedoms of the masses to almost nothing.

Orwell, encore: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The language surrounding safety and security are corrupting our thoughts and not allowing us to think clearly. Security from people we consider a threat to our interests and safety from the virus! How does that add up! People and viruses are not exactly the same thing. Human problems have to be worked out in a humane way and natural problems in a scientific way, albeit with a lot of common sense.

It is hard to disagree with Kant that a “paternal government” that treats its citizens as “immature children” is in fact, “the greatest conceivable despotism.” As long as I don’t come in the way of the freedom of others, Kant notes: “No-one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others…” People cannot be compelled to feel safe and secure because a few men at the helm of affairs believe that it is in their best interest. Let common people have the opportunity to decide what it is that makes them safe. Doctors and scientists are not always right. They make mistakes too. Likewise, with crooked politicians and so-called intellectuals!

There is no reason to believe that the poor and the weak don’t have any solutions on how to deal with the virus. Why don’t we ask the nurses, hospital attendants, domestic workers and employees from the unorganized sector for a perspective instead of constantly looking at politicians, bureaucrats and medical professionals who are groping in the dark trying to find the switch like everyone else? How do we know that common wisdom cannot be trusted in times of a crisis! It is pure arrogance to believe that those who inhabit slums and squatter settlements are incapable of giving us a perspective on what to do in times of a crisis like the COVID-19. Let us listen to what the masses have to say on how best we could be safe and secure from the virus!

Before he became a full-time public servant, almost always, Gandhi made it a point to listen carefully and follow what the poorest of the poor had to say. That’s how he gradually evolved to become a trusted leader of the masses. It’s time leaders across the world including my own country, where the common people have zero faith in their “elected” representatives, take the voices of ordinary folks seriously and come up with solutions only after going through that simple exercise. An eleventh commandment for those in positions of power: “Thou shalt listen to others before you claim to speak for everyone’s welfare and safety.” When you don’t, you can be certain that your own safety is in peril.

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.

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