20210126 covid-19 variant
A man wearing a face mask and face shield is silhouetted in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, Philippines, January 25, 2021 Image Credit: Reuters

The human community woke up on March 11, 2020, almost exactly a year ago, to be told by the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the macabre reality that the coronavirus was now a global pandemic, joining the register of devastating outbreaks of contagious diseases that humans had had to endure over the millennia.

As infections began to spread and bodies to mount, the virus, christened Covid-19, went on not only to shatter international trade, one of the core sustaining pillars of the modern world, but to tear away at the dynamics of our quotidian lives.

We know all that. We know of the pitiless toll that Covid-19 took on us in blood and treasure, but what of the toll on our human psyche?

At what inner cost to us?

What archetypal resources have we drawn on — and at what inner cost to us — in order to cope with a virus intent on not only killing us with the precision and regularity of metronome, but intent also on severing us from our hitherto comfortable conjectures on objective reality?

It is no secret, after all, that pandemics always leave humans with a void, with all their sheltering mythologies of hope crushed at the core.

Psychologists who have studied the phenomenon tell us of how people caught in the grip of a pandemic often find themselves experiencing a maelstrom of emotions, such as fear, suspicion, anxiety, anger and frustration, which finally coalesce into a collective mass of dark passions, buried deep in our subconscious mind under that exterior veneer of rationality binding the individual to his or her communal sense of social reference in normal times.

In the 14th century, for example, during the Black Death in Europe, the Church, we are told, lost its monopoly on the salvation of souls as people, traumatised by the unspeakable, the inexplicable around them, turned to mysticism, superstition and the paranormal, as well as to scapegoating ‘the other’.

Cost of human psyche

The cost that our human psyche has been made to pay over the last year, as we struggled against Covid-19, has been high, and all of us, all over the world, have had to pay it in equal measure, for as Karl Jung reminded us in his study of “the universal archetype”, the constitution of our human emotions is identical, whether we come from Outer Mongolia or Central America.

Consider then, as a case in point, how in these calamitous times, we are enjoined against physical contact with our fellow-human beings as well as with inanimate objects around us: There’s the fear that we might catch the virus if we touch the checkout operator at a supermarket handing us a receipt; if we kiss a friend, Arab-fashion, on both cheeks; if we pick up an Amazon package at the desk in our high-rise building; or, darn it, if we just turn a doorknob somewhere.

Being suspicious of our sense of touch does more than undermine our trust in other human beings, or distance us from inanimate objects surrounding us — it dilutes the essence of lived experience, of felt reality itself.

Touching other humans

The sensation we get from touching other humans and from objects that supplement our human needs is an ineluctable part of human life, especially in touch-oriented cultures like our own. Denied access to his tactile sensations, man loses much of what is in him of man.

But this is just part of the havoc that Covid-19 has wrought on humankind, ushering in a time of, well, terror.

Scholars who have studied the impact of pandemics on the human psyche, such as French psycho-historian Rene Baebrel, point out that from a psychological viewpoint, the period during which a pandemic prevails is characterised by uncertainty, fear and loss of control that may be compared to revolutionary terror.

Professor Baebrel found that the psychological attitudes developed in earlier epidemics in human history mirrored those evinced during the terror of the French Revolution, and that in such psychological climates, class antagonisms, religious animosities, racial strife and the development of hostile sentiments toward “the other” emerge with facile ease.

At the bottom of it all, really, lies our primeval fear of death — and during a pandemic, that fear is king — against which we are in constant rebellion and, at the end of the day, the cause of the mutinous relations that at times we have with God.

This issue was a preoccupation of French surrealist poets in the first half of the 20th century, among them Paul Eluard (d. 1952) who wrote of “le dur desir de durer”, often translated literally as “the harsh desire to endure”, but can be paraphrased liberally as “the unrelenting fight of the human spirit against death”, death being an injustice both wanton and absurd.

The good news is that, as the virus has continued recently to loosens its stranglehold on us, the world began to move steadily, if haltingly, toward normality, albeit a new one. How new? Search me.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile