An Open Letter to Saskia Hubert on Hope Amidst COVID-19

Dear Saskia,

Thank you for suggesting me to write this blog post. I’ve been meaning to do this for a few weeks now, but the endless stream of urgencies provoked by the historic event we are currently experiencing left me despondent, restless, confused, angry, anxious, and mostly lost for words. Your kind challenge has forced me to channel my thoughts and find some kind of structure and outlet for them. So here they are. These thoughts are simply intended as a freely shared set of ideas on the pandemic that has befallen us all around the world since January. Here goes:

Firstly, let me try to find the right tone for this. For a million reasons, I always recoil in horror at people’s ability to voice quick opinions, beliefs, and views about what they know nothing about. I can’t do this because what I have to say seems irresponsible and undignified in relation to the vastness and complexity of the problem we are facing. So instead of “my views” on COVID-19, let me simply suggest a few random, but hopefully, comforting thoughts to somewhat ease a little our current predicament. What strikes me most with this pandemic is that it has exacerbated the uncertainty of the future. COVID-19 has brought the world to a stop—or at least has slowed down to a semblance of what it was—and has thrown all our views about the future up in the air as if they were irrelevant or inconsequential. So the tone of the thoughts that follow cannot resemble prophesies or predictions. Our times not only do not require it, but forbid it precisely because any prophecy or prediction now is bound to be debunked at an incredibly fast speed tomorrow. Instead, I would like to suggest opting for a tone of consolation in a time of great distress and sadness. So each of the following points will start with the following expression: “Let us find…” with the “us” in question here intended not as an assumption of homogeneity, but as a way of bringing you and I and all those strangers who happen to read this open letter, somehow a little closer together for the time being.

Inevitably, I can only start with the most banal of expressions: Let us find solace in being in common. Let us find solace in the fact that there is no real distinction between you and I, between those who are suffering on the other side of the world and those close to us who are well (and vice-versa). This is not intended as a banal “we are all in it together” or that we should “now all row together.” What this pandemic curiously reveals is that there can be no distinction between our own personal benefit and that of the world. What seeks my personal survival is also that of the whole world. This highlights a fundamental fact about what makes us human: our most egoistic drives, the ones that seek our survival first and foremost is what drives the world. In other words, the world seeks its own survival through billions of egoistic drives, even if these drives mostly express themselves today in the self-preservation of self-isolation. There is something comforting about this thought even though—and this turns my suggested solace inevitably bittersweet—many will surrender their “will to live” to this pandemic. Our stubborn perseverance in being as individuals and as community is precisely what fights this pandemic. Nothing is paradoxically more humbling and comforting than to recall this egoistic drive that always seeks a way to persevere in the face of utter devastation.

Let us find comfort in the power of reason and intuition. We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of information. Every day we are all swamped with a million opinions, views, speculations, theories, judgements, and beliefs. My various inboxes are full of tips, advices, and instructions, as well as many facts, data, and charts (OK, and a few ubiquitous cats). In the face of an extraordinary existential crisis, we curiously rely on a whole range of unfounded and inadequate opinions and ideas—all monetised by vampiric social media platforms—instead of finding composure with our own rational and intuitive outlooks. Why rely on opinions when reliance is so passive and opinions so easy? I think we should perhaps demand to be guided by our own reason and intuition even in situations of utter unpredictability. To do so, maybe we could follow the wisdom of the midwife who always navigates the treacherous waters of birth with both an acquired knowledge of how birth happens and an intuitive outlook on what defies expectations. Urgencies and emergencies have happened before and will, no doubt, happen again. There is something comforting in knowing that our reason and intuition will always be able to fight the tide of dangerous doxa drowning us all in useless, debilitating, and contradictory information. Those at the frontline today—doctors, nurses, retail workers, refugees, etc.—remind us enough of the importance of shedding doxa for the power of reason and intuition when facing the day’s many challenges, always moving forward with caution and without any guaranteed knowledge.

Let us find repose in the benefits of joy. There is currently a great urge to all come together online, on platforms such as WhatsApp Groups, Teams, Zoom, or Houseparty to share our communal fears, sorrows, distress, and anxieties. While these may offer some kind of temporary relief, comfort, and distraction, they often have a tendency to magnify our emotional response to the health crisis we are all currently experiencing. For example, if I take the emotion of anxiety, which I know well, sharing anxious thoughts with others only exacerbates my state of anxiety. If others feel the same, I am thus comforted in thinking that my anxiety is justified, thus triggering the merry-go-round of toxic anxious thoughts. Passive affects, especially those triggered by life-or-death situations, hinder our collective ability to think rationally and intuitively. For this reason, it is worth seeking active affects instead, such as joy, which always increases not only our ability to think clearly, but also boosts our immune systems as well as our hope. There is not only a collective need to foster this kind of emotion, there is also, most importantly, an imperative, now more than ever, to encourage what provokes an increase in our powers of being, and specifically, our egoistic drives, and joy is key in this. Joy fosters a perseverance in being that render us much more resilient to the current attack, physical as well as emotional, on our collective wellbeing.

Let us find serenity in the potential that this global crisis will finally foster alternatives to our previous ways of life. For a long time now, we have been living in a permanent state of crisis that justifies and explains everything. As is well known, our only mode of operation is a state of exception that legitimises surreal economic disparities, validates dodgy political ideologies, fosters unreal social inequalities, and prevents the creation of social policies that could benefit us all (environment, health, education, social welfare, for example). The worst aspect of this state of exception is that it naturally excludes its own resolution; it creates an exception to the overcoming of the exception itself. Unfortunately, COVID-19 only exacerbates this. It reinforces the powers of those in charge, disempowers us of our common ability to foster change—except at the front line in search for a vaccine—and excludes its own permanent resolution with the debilitating threat of mutation and endless recurrence. And yet, amidst this worsening of our state of exception, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. In the same way that the solution to COVID-19 is not in some miraculous once-only cure (AIDS was probably a forewarning), the light at the end of the tunnel of the state of exception will not appear suddenly. Possibilities for alternative futures are hidden in the diasporic granularities of the millions of confined lives, in the microscopic pullulation of exceptions to the hegemonic exception. What shapes these take are, of course, at the moment anyone’s guess, but for now, there is serenity to be had in thinking how change will slowly occur through the many back doors to this single planetary pandemic crisis. COVID-19 will probably not get rid of the state of exception, but all these discreet efforts will certainly gnaw at the idea of exceptionality.

Let us find contentment in knowing that solidarity and cooperation still prevails. A pandemic such as COVID-19 has its preferred targets: the elderly, the ill, the frail, those with weak immunities, those in precarious circumstances, those displaced or seeking refuge, and above all, those in extreme poverty—in a word, those who are never given the opportunity to speak out. Strangely, against COVID-19’s preferred targets, priority to health care is often given first to those who are visible, in power, in the news, those with many followers, admirers, or very large incomes, basically, all those who really do not need our attention right now. There is a horrible kind of eugenics secretly at play in this pandemic, one that says, “the lumpen, in all its guises, will be sacrificed.” And yet, amidst this extraordinary contradiction, there is lurking in the background of our isolated lives, a resurgence of mutual solidarity and cooperation. It is no longer entrepreneurship and competitiveness at all costs. We are now witnessing the spontaneous birth of a set of selfless mutual support within neighbourhoods, the free reciprocal exchange of information and expertise, and the creation of complex networks of cooperation and combined team-work. The extraordinary multiplicity of these individual and community efforts highlights that all people can come together against what affects all people. There is indeed contentment in knowing that a pandemic of little actions can fight a pandemic of one virus—after all, the etymology of the word “pandemic” is “all people.”

Let us find some reassurance to the fact that there is always a bigger necessity that rules our lives. I realise that the micro-management of a health crisis of unprecedented dimensions demands endless urgent attention that draws us away from the larger picture. Such a demand triggers in us the despondent cry of “what can be done to accelerate the passing of COVID-19.” The hackneyed phrase “what is to be done?” never had so much resonance than today. And yet, at each moment, there is also perhaps the need to realise that in hindsight, it is never possible to act differently than what urges us to act in the way that we do. Should I be writing this or should I volunteer at my local mutual self-help group? Is there more value in one or the other? Should I play to my own strengths or get out of my comfort zone? Whatever we do or don’t do, we must always remember that once all is done, we could never have done any differently given how we felt and what we knew then and there. Such realisation—a realisation that chains us to a set of causes and effects much bigger than us—liberates us a little from guilt, remorse, regret, and an overall bad conscience. It lifts the burden of imperatives and obligations from our shoulders—must, should, ought—and reinstate us within the great web of causes in the universe. Overall, however odd it is, there is reassurance in acting like the virus itself in the way it cannot not run its course.

Let us find some relief in the fact that there is never a good ethics. Never since World War One, have doctors around the world been forced to face such an unprecedented set of ethical dilemmas about life and death. In overwhelmed conditions, they must decide which patients gets oxygen, intensive care, both, or neither. No doctor can honestly know that their strategies to save lives under such extreme circumstances is the right one. And no end result can ever validate one course of action over another—time, always the upper hand, prohibits it. So is it right to protect the elderly and let the population at large develop a hypothetical immunity or is it right to impose complete lockdown to save everyone? Is it right to choose those with longer life potential or is it better to save everyone for the greater good? Whatever the strategies, there are no good course of action because in such an extreme context, there are never good options. As Kant says, “ought implies can,” but if there is no “can” then the ethical path hardly matters. The doctors and nurses we applaud from our windows here in the UK every Thursday evening at 8pm can only use the meagre resources they have to save as many lives as possible because there are simply no other options. Of course, the nuances of making each individual decision will be difficult and will probably haunt them for the rest of their lives, but there is perhaps some relief for them in the knowledge that an ethics can simply be found in whatever was possible in extreme circumstances. The necessity of life in this difficult situation invariably always takes an unshakable moral high ground.

Let us find strength in the fact that one can always rely on one’s own philosophy. In times of crisis, philosophy has either a bad rap for being made up of useless abstractions that are unable to address the ills of the day, or urgently called for in order to give pressing meaning to the many misfortunes that befall us. COVID-19 changes nothing to this unfortunate set of views; on the contrary, it reinforces them. In either case, it assumes that philosophy is some sort of donkey that is either useless and stubborn or brave and valiant in being able to stalwartly drag the cartload of humanity over dangerous mountain passes. Nothing is more stupid than these approaches to philosophy. Philosophy is simply the never-accomplished work of preparedness for whatever is to come. It consists in patiently developing personal rational and intuitive tools to help us face not only the worst, but above all, the unexpected. Developing such tools is what allows us to remain unperturbed by whatever happens, to be neither fearful nor confident, and above all, to blame no one, even if the culprit is clearly identified. Philosophy does not make us resistant to disease; it simply assuages the apprehensions that comes with it by simply acknowledging that all our actions necessarily flow from a complex interdependent web of causes that exceeds us all. In doing so, our own philosophy, whatever its origin, lineage, shape, or intended destination, can indeed increase our wellbeing and that of others, which are always intimately linked.

Finally, let us find some peace in the thought that the future is never good or bad. Some might say that, at last, the catastrophe is no longer “to come,” but here and now. For years, we have been living with an impending sense of gloom and doom, our way of life already killing life on earth. The apocalypse was always around the corner with the threats of nuclear annihilation, extreme nationalism, or environmental disaster. COVID-19 has precipitated this pessimism, sending us all into an ominous meltdown rhythmed only by the now ubiquitous daily death toll. Welcome to the end. But this need not be such a negative thing if and only if one alters the lens with which one looks at things. To willingly accept self-imprisonment might make us finally realise how long we have in fact been isolated from one another and how much we must now make the effort to cast aside everything that created such isolation—hiding behind algorithmic homogeneity, endlessly seeking meaningless addictive rewards, satisfying individualistic and competitive behaviours, etc (the list is long!). Covid-19 forces us to shift attention and refocus on more humane approaches to life. This does not mean relighting a long-lost ideal of humanism now thankfully left in the dustbin of history, but to rekindle with ourselves, that is, with how we invent ourselves together every second of time without the imperatives of productivity or purpose dogging every one of these seconds. Of course, if death takes us away, then it is just a question of realising that, beyond debilitating pain, agony, and sorrow, death in itself is neither good nor bad because like birth, it just happens. Similarly the future is neither good nor bad, it just happens. There will be life after COVID-19. While we fight it, it is our duty to make sure this future flourishes with a renewed sense of who we are and what we want.

I hope these thoughts are somehow useful. Take good care of yourself. I look forward to meeting up again soon, once this expression of nature has run its course.

All the very best,

Jean-Paul

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