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Eleven months now and there is a new spectre haunting Europe; a plague that has taken hold of our lives and altered our lifestyles. Lockdowns, the r rate, viral transmission, mutations are new terms that common people use as if we are experienced epidemiologists. Masks, made of cloth or the surgical ones, gloves and little bottles of antiseptic have become new fashion accessories. Many people report mental fatigue and others a state of confinement inside their own homes. Some people have started complaining that there is no light in this long tunnel, in country after country face with overwhelmed medical staff and system.
The optimist in me is unequivocal. We can make it through. Life is far more powerful than a disease and it always finds a way to continue, even in the most hostile of conditions. In my view however this is not going to be a feat of a great person; this is not going to be resolved by one solution. The answer is in us as a collective. Humanity thrived when it gets together and the ability to form meaningful bonds that is the backbone of our success to survival.
Imagine our ancestors making their first communities; people that had no speed like the felines, no strength like the great apes and no defensive shell to protect them. Coming out of Africa thousands of years ago, this blood creature had no offensive nor defensive structures to prevail. Our ancestors’ survival must have been on the brink. Who could imagine that some thousands of years ago, we were the endangered species? Our endurance lies on the ability to form a group that worked together and understood each other, carried logic, used tools and communicated with each other.
The current situation is a great reminder of the importance of society and its true purpose. People form societies to protect each other and advance their opportunity for success. We may have forgotten that and understandably so, since we have had people who claimed that there is no such thing as a society, only the individual. The prevailing economic system focuses on individual success, values individual recognition and prioritises individual issues. In short, why worry about others, miles away, feet away, steps away from us if we are doing well.
It is interesting to try to imagine a society as a random collection of indifferent individuals, but more people begin to value the importance of the other. After years of austerity and the promotion of individualism, more people live alone, make relationships through social networking and mostly continue to live a solitary life even when they live with others. Communities, as an ex-prime minister claimed as broken and so people waste no time with them. We take from our communities, the things we need, and we discard the rest. Since the start of the pandemic, deliveries, and online companies have been thriving. Whilst physical shops are facing closure, online ones can hardly cope with the demand. As a system, capitalism is flexible enough to retune the way wealth is made. Of course, when you live alone, there are things you cannot have delivered; intimacy, closeness, intercourse. People can fulfil their basic needs apart from the one that makes them people; their socialisation. We will have to address it and perhaps talk about the need to be a community again.
In the meantime, what happens at the top? In the Bible there was the story of the pool of Siloam. This miraculous pond blessed by an angel offered the opportunity for clemency for those who swam in the waters. Wipe the slate clean and start again. So, what do governments do? Interestingly not as much. Right now, as people try to come to terms with loss, isolation and pain, different governments try to address other political issues. One country is rocked by the revelations that its head of state has created a palace to live in. Another one, has finished construction of his summer palace. In another country they are bringing legislation to end abortions, in another they propose the introduction of police on campuses. Others are restricting the right to protest, and in a country famed for its civil rights, legislation is being introduced not to take pictures of police officers in public, even if they may be regarded in violation of duties. It seems that it is open season for the curtail of civil liberties through the back door. In an island kingdom the system has ordered and moves forward with the construction of more and bigger prisons. A sign that they anticipate public upheaval. Maybe; whatever the reason this opportunity to supress the masses may be tantalising, but it is wrong. When ever we come out of this we need to reconnect as a community. If this becomes an opportunity for some, under the suppression of civic rights, things will become problematic. For starters, people will want to see their patience and perseverance rewarded. My advice to those who rule, listen to your base.
Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities. Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities. We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less.
One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers. One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”. Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice. Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional.
Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands. Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters. People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence. People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected. Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.
I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it. Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”. When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis.
As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel. Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson. In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch. The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific. An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh. It was the embodiment of true evil. In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin. The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives. This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories.
This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies. The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic. In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames.
Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.
The reality of course is slightly different. The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means. They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them. The victories are not complete, but gradual and small. If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity. It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.
Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?