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Reflections on the coronavirus and modern human beings

April 08, 2020 - Wednesday 4:04 AM by Atty. Jamil Matalam

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One global health journalist says the current coronavirus is not the last outbreak we are going to face. We will most likely face other new outbreaks the more we push to the last remaining wild spaces. Wild spaces are few spaces left fully unexploited by modern human beings; spaces where there are wildlifes that humans have not fully interacted with. These wildlifes may contain pathogens our body is not familiar with, as with the family of coronaviruses. Perhaps, the current coronavirus we are now facing may be rather mild compared to what we will face in the future if we do not respect other forms of life on the planet.

Ironically, we see different animals going out around the world as human beings are locked in their spaces. The silver lining in this lockdown around the world is that we see a sort of reset in the environment and wildlife. Lock down human beings in their own houses and the environment and wildlife flourish. Bluer skies, fresher air, deer running around in the streets, dolphins going out near the coastlines, otters frolicking outside as human beings stay in their homes. It is as if the coronavirus is the way the natural environment and wildlife push back after a long time of being pushed to destruction and extinction by human beings.

There are several reflection points in this so-called silver lining of the pandemic. One, modern human beings have truly made this planet their own. For whatever it is — on the one hand, the useful technologies and innovation, on the other hand, the man-made devastation in the natural environment — earth is the planet of human beings. This planet is ours and we can do whatever we want with it. Modern man is quite different with how indigenous peoples think about this planet. Most indigenous peoples think they belong to the natural environment and have to find their place in it. Hence, most of them can live side by side with wildlife in the natural environment. Modern human beings, on the other hand, think they own this planet, and it is for them to change it. Hence, modern man seeks to transform this planet in accordance with its own image, it makes this planet a human planet.

Yet a question lingers if indeed this planet is for human beings to claim as their own. It would seem that the coronavirus pandemic says otherwise. It has forced us to fall back in our houses, and have revealed the limitations of our scientific knowledge. The most science and technology can tell us now, with all its glory, is to stay at home. They cannot find anything to eliminate this novel coronavirus. It is as if something is telling us that we do not control this planet, and hence it is not our own.

But modern human beings are creatures of high confidence; I think it is our nature to be so. We think we can overcome problems if we put our minds to it. We see this in our attitude of trying to look at this pandemic as sort of war or a fight. We are fighting an unseen enemy as most would say, as if the virus has mobility and aggression. It has not even challenged or invaded us, and as a virus, we were the ones who brought it out in the open. In fact, it has done nothing to us until we picked them up. But our attitude is, “we will find a vaccine to defeat this enemy, we shall overcome it.”

Another attitude that reveals this high confidence in modern human beings is their emphasis on preparedness. Bill Gates have been pointing this out and have been warning us about our lack of preparedness to face an outbreak. It was our lack of preparedness that brought us to this point in the pandemic, they would say; had we been prepared, this would not have happened. We lauded Singapore early on because it came prepared for the outbreak, it was able to control the spread of the virus in the country without locking down. This preparedness attitude, it would seem, is nothing more than over-confidence in ourselves, in our being man. How can we truly be prepared for something we do not really know? Singapore early on refused to lock down despite the pandemic, but eventually did. Our preparedness, I think, is not so much the issue here, just that they are times that we are left helpless, and that’s how it is. No matter how much science we have, we still have limitations.

I do not want to promote an attitude of despair and surrender here; rather what I am trying to suggest is an admission, an acceptance that no matter how glorious a creature we think we are, we still are at the mercy of nature, and that there are things that are simply out of our control. No matter what our achievements are, we are still feeble in the face of the unknown. The Nobel laureate for literature, Albert Camus, was saying something similar when, after studying the history of plagues, he said in a novel: “everyone has inside it himself this plague, because no one in the world, no one, can ever be immune.” Nevertheless, the best we can do is go on living.