Navigating a Plague

Medical Staff at a Hanoi Hospital. Personal photo from H.P., photocredit forthcoming

In the span of weeks, the Corona virus has gone from an isolated problem “over there” to a global pandemic that is generating carnage on an unimaginable scale. Its reach is extending across countries and increasingly into our communities and homes. By 28 March at least 30,000 people had lost their lives to the virus. The worst is still to come.

Viewed on a global scale, from our screens and in our living rooms, we experience the spread of virus and death in an endless parade of charts and video footage, and news articles, clips, and broadcasts of the more or less confused statements and declarations and denials of public authorities whose job, we are now reminded, it is to keep us safe and promote public good.

In this context, one of the most troubling if ever-present aspects of this new plague is its disorienting effects. Simply put, the scale, scope, and complexity are simply too huge to comprehend from any given angle or standpoint. As individuals and as members of communities, countries, and nations, the challenges before us are indeed overwhelming.

And yet our capacity to deal with these depends on our resilience. We are now, all of us, in a life and death struggle in which our survival and that of our families and communities depends on our ability to direct our behaviors in constructive ways … all this while the sky and our sense of normalcy is falling around us.

New York Times photo

Three aspects of crisis

In these times it is essential if difficult for us to be able to stably navigate, to comprehend what is happening in our countries and in our lives in ways that can contribute to effective responses rather than panicked desperation. To do this, it seems, there is a need to attend to three aspects of our lives.

Most immediately there is the individual and family aspect. In the context of a global plague, the urgency of local action takes on a new meaning. Responsible personal behavior is a requirement for our survival and must be promoted and if necessary enforced to the best of our abilities.

A second and perhaps more challenging aspect is that of community, by which is meant our associations with those in and around our places of work and residence. For decades, we have been observing the loss of the sense and reality of community. Today our survival depends on recovering this sense, of nurturing it and putting it to good use, even if its expressions take on new forms and new modes of social coordination. Part of community is empathy and the ability to act in the public interest. In an age of hyper globalization and soulless anonymity, our wellbeing requires we work to recover our humanity as if our lives and those of our family and neighbors depend on it, because they do.

Perhaps the most daunting but nevertheless essential aspect of the pandemic is its political aspect. As a frontline medical worker in Spain has noted, “This is not only an epidemic of illness, it’s an epidemic of really bad government.” That may very well be the understatement of our times. We need to appreciate why China didn’t do it but why bad governance in China did. We need to recognize that the current global health calamity reflects and is exacerbated by a failure of public governance of historical proportions.

To be specific, the current pandemic began with the profound irresponsibility of China’s authoritarian rulers in tolerating conditions conducive to disease, suppressing information, and effectively if passively promoting its spread for two months, as infected travellers crisscrossed the planet. Across Europe, America, and soon the rest of the world, the crisis is being exacerbated by grossly under-equipped (and often profoundly irresponsible governments). It is ironic but not surprising that the leader of world’s wealthiest, most powerful, and most triumphantly capitalist country has been so lethally inept in his response.

Responsibility to self, community, and humanity

As the magnitude of the crisis increases, we are increasingly presented with the harrowing stories of those on the front lines and of those whose with loved ones whose lives are being swiftly cut short, with little in the way of goodbyes. From witness accounts, our hospitals are seeing intensities of death and disease terrifying to even the most seasoned health professionals. As individuals and members of families, we need to devote ourselves to caring for those we love and those who love us by maximizing our preventive measures one day at a time.

We also need to extend our unnaturally atrophied sense of community as best we can, by finding ways of supporting those who live and work around us with an eye to promoting collective wellbeing. Admittedly this is difficult. But we need to find ways recognizing the vulnerabilities of those around us linked to age, socioeconomics status, and other characteristics. Combing social distancing with community requires creativity. Across countries we are seeing experiments in mutual support, from red paper in windows to indicate support is needed to neighborhood chat groups and various forms of social gathering. While we need social distance, we also need to reach out. “Liking” and trolling won’t do.

Finally, responsible cooperation and (where warranted, non-cooperation) with public authorities is essential. We must always insist public controls remain transparent, not be put to abusive ends, and always promote public health inline with the best public health expertise. Yes, in some places life Columbia, death squads are using the current emergency to target political enemies. But clearly, there is no room for patience with libertarian or fascist-populist no-nothings.

Spreading virus is no one’s right. That includes government, however, and chambers of commerce suggesting lives be sacrificed to profits. Where necessary, informed resistance to public authority may be necessary. The basic standard of evaluating when this is warranted is simple enough: our must behavior must never compromise public health.

Who knows what the world will look like after this storm has passed. Who knows what our communities will look like. And even our families and us. Surely we will need to rebuild our economies and put them to the service of humanity.

In the mean time we need to develop new capacities and resiliencies. Part of this, I suspect, is the ability to link together these different aspects of our collective crisis, to take occasional breaks for emotional health and restoration, and to appreciate the finer things in life which, above all else, are our relations with those we love and, somewhat more hopefully, with the communities and collective efforts of humanity on which our lives now depend. Our future is now.

JL, Leiden

Jonathan D. London is Associate Professor of Political Economy at Leiden University’s Institute for Area Studies, in the Netherlands. His most recent books include Welfare and Inequality in Marketizing East Asia, published in 2018 and the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Vietnam, forthcoming in 2020. London has more than 20 years of experience living and working in Asia. He was born in Boston and raised in Cambridge Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.