MAY 31 — IN 1918 – just over a 100 years ago – an influenza virus ravaged the world, infecting a third of the world’s population and officially killing tens of millions, although the actual number of deaths from the virus is estimated to be over 100 million.
It was called the Spanish flu. It did not originate from Spain and should have never been named as such.
As we collectively face a pandemic that has the capacity to match the Spanish Flu’s rate of infection, in terms of scale at least, we have started to imagine a society that will look drastically different than the one we left behind when we entered our respective home confinements several months ago.
Depending on who you ask, this is a society that (ideally) would be more wary of its own harmony with nature, would have reduced its obsession with economic growth, and will actively design social safety nets to prevent another pandemic or plague from ravaging humans.
The people who lived through the flu of 1918 would have had similar musings, questioning their existential purposes and the actions of humans that led to the tragedy. In 1918, World War I was about to end. The Second Industrial Revolution, during which we started using gas, electricity, telephones and planes, had just come to an end. The global population was 1.8 billion. Maybe we were burdening the planet back then itself.
It would have been a good time to pivot. But we didn’t. Less than three decades later, another world war broke out. Colonisation continued for several decades, and very few nations built social safety nets to prevent another pandemic from ravaging their society. We started questioning the sustainability of our direction since the onset of the third industrial revolution and were becoming wary of the toll and impact it is having on the planet.
So as much as I would like to believe that the pandemic will finally serve as a reminder or an eye-opener that will prompt us to change our ways, we are more likely to fall into old habits once the pandemic and the virus is out of the sight of our immediate memories.
Norms have been changing since the onset of humanity. Ten years ago, when I first started working, I couldn’t complete every aspect of my work on my phone alone. Today, I can. It might seem like a banal example to use in the scheme of things, but behavioural change is a needle that has always been moving.
It’s just that, right now, the moment seems right for all of us to move the needle at the same time, in the same direction.
It is highly unlikely that we would leave behind capitalism as the primary driver of all our economic activities and embrace socialism (or any other system) overnight to guarantee equal protection to the vulnerable among us.
And, more importantly, we lack empathy for each other. While we have learned different languages and technologies to communicate with each other better, we do not understand each other’s behaviour. How, then, will there ever be collective behaviour change?
We agree that we should co-exist better with nature. But we don’t agree with each other on the methods that should be implemented to reach this goal.
That disagreement is not going to resolve itself, because it points to the biggest elephant in the room — all the industrial revolutions and the lip-service paid to our co-existence has not taught us to be empathetic to each other, let alone nature.
When I say each other, I include the extremes, the poor among us, the mentally vulnerable among us, the elderly.
We still expect the next person to see the world the same way we do. We take pride in our intelligence but are never bothered to develop the emotional intelligence needed to connect with others and achieve collective success.
Our racism is the greatest display of our hubris.
Even the best-intentioned among us constantly talks about ‘defeating’ the virus. No one defeated the Spanish flu. It went away on its own accord. We don’t know when or how the coronavirus will cease being fatal for us.
The virus is a part of nature. We are constantly trying to master and tame elements of nature- and any change in behaviour can’t happen without the fundamental admission that nature, sometimes, has the power to humble our human minds.
We also have conspiracy theorists who are convinced that the virus was man-made. We are so paralysed by the fear of the unknown that we attach man-made labels to events that cannot be explained by plain evidence.
How we learn lessons and recover from this pandemic will be very subjective and it will differ from one individual to another. Our behaviours will change but it won’t be collective. There will be those who will be so angry at the virus for impacting their life, they might merely try to compensate for all the time lost.
There will be families that will come out of this destroyed, traumatised, and wounded. There will be movements who will use the pandemic as a device to further their messages, each one convinced that they are living the ‘right’ way and they know how to save humanity or the earth.
Earth has existed long before us. It will continue to do so after we are annihilated. Viruses, too, have existed longer than us. We are overestimating our importance in regards to both of these elements.
If we do overstay our welcome, nature will do the needful.
I have no doubt many of us will do what we need to do ensure sustainable living and the survival of humanity. But our needs aren’t all the same. The threshold of survival isn’t the same for all of us. We don’t know when or how this health crisis will end. We don’t know why this crisis started in the first place. We don’t need to be right.
We are a speck of dust, and we need to be okay with that.
*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.