Imagine if able-bodied people routinely honoured habits taught in kindergarten – like closing the tap while lathering up or brushing, or washing hands after using the bathroom (many have commented on how long the queues at sinks in men’s bathrooms are right now, which tells you…). Imagine if these remarkably simple habits weren’t regarded as crisis-only measures. In fact, we’re already in crisis, all the time. Climate change has long been scheduled to kill us and many of Earth’s other populations, but that’s never taken seriously. Wash your hands, yes, but remember: even if you survive the coronavirus epidemic, the planet is running out of water and summer is around the corner.
Meanwhile, some European airlines, legally required to perform 80% of their allocated routes or lose them to competitors, have been burning fuel on empty planes. This is the kind of excess that misses the point: human life is at stake because of how humans have chosen to live.
This epidemic has begun to show that many of the structures that undergird modern civilisation are deeply flawed. The capitalist model in which few profit while many struggle is profoundly unsustainable. So is any system which deprioritises the environment. Or any way of life that strips us of our humanity, turning us into cogs in wheels, Other-ing peoples, measuring our worth by our productivity (or by any measure of validation that erodes our integrity or joy).
In this state of emergency, universities have switched to online classes, jetsetting meetings have become conference calls and telecommutes have been encouraged for various white collar jobs. People with disabilities, often excluded from opportunities because “there’s no substitute for presence”, have rightly shown indignation at how the world has been quickly reordered now whereas lobbying was ignored. The truth is that more of us could operate like this all the time: saving money, fuel and personal energy while cutting environmental risks and improving our quality of life.
International travel bans reveal starkly how illusory the lure of hashtag wanderlust always was. Just because we can have something doesn’t mean we need it. Especially when, like hand sanitisers today and maybe hospital beds tomorrow, there isn’t enough to go around. We’re also realising how free universal healthcare and paid sick leave are fundamental rights, which too many are deprived of.
We didn’t arrive at pandemic panic without there being long-term decisions at high authoritative levels. Our anger must be used to perform our own civic duties better, demanding greater accountability from those in power who can make structural differences, and activating change on the individual level too.
Experts currently say that most who contract coronavirus will recover, but to maintain high caution to protect the vulnerable (the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.) who may be infected through them. What is a flu to one is death to another. If this doesn’t lend itself to a pithy teaching on responsibility and interconnectivity, what will? If this epidemic doesn’t galvanise those who survive it to insist on radically changing bureaucratic and ethical norms so that they support rather than define what society is, then humanity truly is doomed – and not because of a virus.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 12th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.