How did men and women of ancient Greece lead their lives is clearly a question from Ancient History. But how did men and women in the first two decades of 21st century, before Covid struck, negotiate their lives is a throwback on our own lives just a couple of weeks ago. In true Biblical style, the virus rose out of nothing and within weeks, divided human history to pre and post Covid epochs.
Entire people are living under the global siege laid by the invisible microbes, that are not ISIS or Al Qaeda. To counter the microorganisms, governments have put restrictions on people’s ‘movement’, a basic characteristic of the state of being alive. Jobs are vanishing, trade is out and global economy is on ventilator. Few weeks ago, we gave free reign to our aspirations and austerity was a dirty word.
But a tease of a microorganism has created a deep chasm separating the cocksureness of our past from the utter helplessness of our present. We stay hands-and-legs-tied within our four-walled homes with no escape, pondering whether we need a rethink on our conventions and belief systems which we had sworn by.
Our own personal lives now stretch over two distinct eras and caught up like a bunch of rats, we try to figure out an escape from our dirty, dark, damp sacks.
Just a few weeks ago, we spent super-productive workdays in office and visited clubs, beauty salons and gyms in the evenings in order to remain physically and mentally alert and agile for boardroom battles and to groom our corporate looks and etiquette. We habitually dined out, effed out and had many creative ways to escape our domesticity. Home, to us, had become a changing room of sorts to prepare ourselves for the next day’s rigour.
No one’s fault, but life in the fast lane fetishized fragmentation within families where each member sought meaningful interactions from among the diverse gene pool that lay outside home, who appreciated them better, listened better and who shared their taste in art and lifestyle. It was in times of negotiating ourselves through nerve-wracking thrills outside of home or on the Net, that Covid 19 has thrown to us a unique predicament - of a never-ending family get-together.
On account of newly emergent corona mutations, most governments worldwide are extending lockdowns by another fortnight. Time crawls, economy is in tatters, fresh food and resources are scarce as farmers are also couped indoors. Concerted good cheer within households is fast depleting as we harbour uneasy thoughts of how life will shape up on the other side. Husbands and wives, who used to catch flights to different international cities, slept in hotel beds at different world capitals are locked up together for time periods that extend beyond endurance, children, long incarcerated with academic projects, competitive sports and reality TV shows, break free of routine and time-tables, teenagers are getting distressingly ill-manneredand boomerang adult children, who are back to the roost, tryto run a parallel government.Withdramatis personae picked from different generations, with their own social, religious, moral, and economic contexts, homes become the limited space and stage, where family members vent their frustrations of having had to either leave ambitious projects midway or being unable to savour the fruits oflabour/objects of desire.
These may be office promotions, owning an SUV or getting a great outfit from a boutique, a grand wedding party at a posh address, a music concert by a favourite band you awaited all your life, all of which publicized your market worth. They all had seemed within reach just hours before the lockdown.
John Osborne’s iconic 1956 play Look Back in Anger, the first realistic “kitchen and sink drama” on British stage that bears the heightened passions and oppressive silences when family members try to negotiate their individual space while making uncharitable demands on each other within the restrictive space of home, rings more true now during our Covid lockdown; perhaps with one of the titles that Osborne had contemplated but had rejected at the time, which is Close the Cage Behind You.
With the hike in lockdown-related domestic abuse and divorce rates around the globe, humanity will do well to use this civilizational recess we have been put into, to reconceptualize life and as Yanis Varoufakis puts it, “our dangerous fantasy of apolitical money” based on which we had built an entire architecture of mindless habits and institutions. It’s time to rebuild our fundamentals using seminal treatises such as for example John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and On Subjection of Women tore-emerge post-Covid. Yes, all the wiser for having experienced the pinnacle of mirthless consumer capitalism.
The horrific ecological footprint we left behind made the planet ripe for a viral retribution; this time it is not a mere technological disruption but a civilizational lockdown, a time to recognise the social tyranny, “which had left us with fewer means of escape, penetrating much more into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself”– the mindless tyranny of our economics, education system, morality, even our age-old conventions such as marriage and family. A tease of a micro-organism has categorically questioned our neo-liberal lifestyle of limitless options and unaccounted wastage.
British economist John Meynard Keynes in his essay The Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren, published almost a century ago,prophetically said, “The love of money as a possession…will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”
The pandemic has laid bare the futility of protecting just our own class and kind and more than any other event – no, not international trade, not international beauty pageants,not the World Economic Forum at Davos - has showed up the entire world as an interconnected global village, where the virus can be transmitted while partaking in a Church service or a mere embrace of grandparents by grandchildren. In a sense, the virus may have come to cure humankind from its endless “experiential and exchange value” boasts that might lead to the ultimate destruction of our only home, our planet Earth.
We need to get back to the humaneness and kindness, freedom and creativity of a certain wilderness living, a certain unregimented life. Let us behold the seamless beauty of the bountiful flora and fauna flowing into our civilized spaces of shopping malls, public parks and elevators. Let us peer at them through our laptop screens like caged animals and learn our valuable lesson.
(Leena Mariam Koshy is a freelance writer living in Abu Dhabi.)