At the beginning of this year, it was difficult to imagine a situation in which social and economic activity would be globally curtailed. Yet, here we are. The coronavirus pandemic has forced people around the world to implement social distancing and work from home. With, one-third of the world’s populationin lockdown, the world economy is paralysed.
Forced to live in a confined space with limited social contact, we are starting to appreciate the isolation of our parents and grandparents, who often live lonely, sedentary lives in family or old-age homes. Dispossessed of the range of activities we have crafted for ourselves, we are beginning to imagine the existential plight of 71 million refugees torn from their homes by war, persecution and human-rights violations. Feeling deprived in the comfort of our homes, we are gaining greater empathy for the 3 billion people who live on less than $2.50 a day. Thrilled at the sight of birds flying across clear blue skies, we are evolving regret for the 2,000 species we drive to extinction each year on a planet we are suffocating with our heat, pollution and filth.
As we reflect deeper, we begin to realise that social distance is not a new phenomenon. The six feet of distance we are now observing is but a fraction of the social distance we have established between us and others more vulnerable than us in age or health, or those seeking refuge from our bigotry and violence, the thronging masses of the poor, and the natural world into which we are born. It was only our self- absorbed ignorance that cloaked us from the fathomless depths of this social distance.
Perhaps in this light we can begin to view the coronavirus pandemic as a sign from the Almighty.
In the first quarter of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic claimed an average of about 90 lives a day. In the same period, an average of about 8,000 children died each day from malnutrition. Our social ignorance masks for us this preexisting social distance.
Perhaps in this light, we can see that the deeper difference between the coronavirus pandemic and the global pandemic of self-absorption, violence, greed and environmental illiteracy is that the coronavirus pandemic can penetrate our defenses. We regarded coronavirus as a problem for China and then for Southeast Asia. We no longer do. Are we willing to take the next step and regard our human condition today as a global pandemic?
One place to start will be to see how our response to coronavirus is tailored for the elite. It is feasible to implement lockdowns in the wealthy communities around the world, where less than 10,000 people live on a square kilometer. But how do you manage lockdowns in shanty towns across the world where more than 100,000 people live on a square kilometer? The law of our present condition is “survival of the richest.”
The elite have but one battle to fight: to avoid the coronavirus by self-isolation within the walls of their palatial residences. If they can manage this, they can write off 2020 as a bad economic year and redouble their efforts to prosper from the fallout of the pandemic. The struggle for the poor is not between life and death but between health and hunger. What will kill them first: the effects of coronavirus or of destitution?
The coronavirus pandemic is a sign from the Almighty, a call to stir us from a slumber of social ignorance.
We have been living our lives to make sure that we are on the right side of the fence. In relation to the fence that divides the young and healthy from the aged and infirm. The fence that divides the rich from the poor. The fence that divides oppressors from refugees. The fence that divides the pristine from the polluted.
The time has come to break down fences and to defeat the global pandemic. Yes, we can and should compete – for power, wealth and fame. But we should compete in a fenceless world. We need to put aside our national and political differences and our narrow self-interest. The time has come to move from social distance to social integration.