A few weeks before the start of the year 2020, when the world had not fully grasped the enormity of the novel coronavirus, most cultural theorists and political scientists were obsessed with technology-driven disruptions and power of social media.
The narrative of a post-truth had entered, and was dominating, the global political discourse.
Now four months into the pandemic, when half of the world’s population is under some form of social distancing restrain, the only narrative that makes sense is how to survive COVID-19.
Of course, history stands witness to a number of epidemics and pandemics in which millions perished, but the technological advances, scientific discoveries and social awareness we boast of today were part of fiction only a few decades ago.
Never did we imagine, even in the wildest of our dreams, that a sub-microscopic piece of virus (apparently from a bat — but we can’t be too sure at this point in time) shall render all these meta-narratives redundant, and make the invincible system highly vulnerable
Fast forward to 2020. Here we are with no vaccines and no proper understanding of why and how COVID-19 spreads. This, despite the fact that mankind has developed mind-boggling technologies, systems and narratives to claim our dominance over wisdom and knowledge.
In spite of the quantum jump made in the application of technology in our daily lives, we, our systems and the institutions that govern us remain defenceless and exposed to vagaries of nature and our greed.
A tiny virus has made us realise how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.
The history of epidemics
The world has seen scores of epidemics and pandemics including the Spanish Flu: 1918-1920; Asian Flu: 1957-1958; Aids epidemic: 1981; H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic: 2009-2010; West African Ebola epidemic: 2014-2016; West African Ebola epidemic: 2014-2016; but an infection, in recent past, has not reached such proportions as COVID-19. It is forcing us all to stay indoors while there are lockdowns and curfews worldwide to save lives.
In retrospect, reams of op-ed pages, eclectic handles of social media and giga bites of podcasts were convincing us that we are entering into high tech post-postmodernism or trans-modernism, depending on who could convince us more.
We were getting complacent though the colossal challenges of the knowledge gap and the disparity between rich and poor persisted.
We were writing off many institutions including the conventional media like newspapers, television and radio as spontaneity and perverseness of social media blinded our reason and rationale.
Some even went on to suggest that soon the conventional media will be found only in the footnotes of history.
There was overwhelming evidence to support this hypothesis as politicians, proletarians, preachers and public figures aka celebrities took to social media to reach directly to the smartphones of the people. Audiences became fans and the public became followers.
On the other hand, we were made to believe in the invincibility of capitalism and the indispensability of globalisation.
The resilience of the economy after the 2008 crisis and the interdependency of world states, despite US President Donald Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, made the world system impregnable, at least theoretically.
We did trust the power of money, its flow and the people behind it. This all was so well till the coronavirus was identified as COVID-19 and when it attained the global pandemic status from being a distant issue of ‘Chinese infection’.
For a while we assumed that the virus was confined to the exotic animal markets of Wuhan district. Soon it spread at a dizzying speed. Initially when it kept spreading, the world did not take much note.
It was business as usual. We flew to more destinations, we remained open for more hours, we consumed more and we wasted more.
We kept on putting unbearable pressure on the depleting natural resources while theorising our unsustainable lifestyles and justifying our desire to have more.
Meta-narratives and mega systems
Today all the meta-narratives and mega-systems about society, politics and economy sound like nursery rhymes; good to soothe, but too good to stand the test of the time.
While we self-isolate, we worry about our jobs. We look for a reason while trying to sieve out fact from fiction, real from fake and news from views.
As we witness millions losing jobs in the developed world and the seas of people trying to reach home to have some dignity in the developing world, we see the edifice of capitalism shaking.
Never did we imagine, even in the wildest of our dreams, that a sub-microscopic piece of virus (apparently from a bat — but we can’t be too sure at this point in time) hanging out with exotic animals in the backstreets of Wuhan District in China shall render all these metanarratives redundant, and make the invincible system highly vulnerable.
Whether it was that or something else (which we don’t know of) only time will tell. As reality too looks obfuscated these days, the only thing that remains real is our survival.
While it needs no re-telling, must we just say: Stay safe, stay home!
— Dr Fazal Malik is dean of Humanities, Arts and Applied Sciences at Amity University Dubai.