2020 Q3 Cityscapes Features

Exploring the Parameters of the Pandemic

There are many catchwords that this pandemic has given birth to, which in turn describes our present lot. Some of the words are quarantine, lockdown and new normal. However, I would like to propose another word: re-imagination. This is not in any way longing for a future utopia after this pandemic passes, but a sort of a stance as we face the very onslaught of this virus that has changed the way we exist and coexist, that includes, of course, the way we think, feel and make sense of the world.

Ethnography is primarily employed in social and cultural anthropology. However, it is also a method of research employed in the social sciences and humanities among other fields so as to explore social relations. In essence, it seems apparent that ethnography can be viable in promoting interdisciplinarity. As we are facing a threat that challenges the way we look at the world and our role in it, ethnography offers a starting point, for one of its tenets is field observation. Although it is obvious that one cannot go out to the actual field, the discourse is shifted in a radical sense to yet another area, the social media platforms, and the World Wide Web. Thus, a sort of a re-imagined ethnography is possible, wherein the observer engages in discourse within himself, with his nation and with the global community, even in a quarantined state, plunging into the frontlines of discourse is possible.

This piece strives to explore the phenomenon of the pandemic. Information will be gathered from social media and the news. The first section describes the origins of the pandemic on a global scale, focusing on the initial reactions and policies made by countries and their leaders. It then tries to make sense of the Filipino experience of Covid-19, exploring the crusade of the government and the reaction of the masses. It then reserves the third part as a conclusion arguing the Covid-19 as proof that we are living in the Age of the Anthropocene.

Origins from a Global Scale

Covid-19 is a catastrophe of global significance. A virus that rocked our complacent little words and has left the planet in a state of panic. Reactions, speculations coming from all sectors flood the World Wide Web, particularly the social media platforms. It is interesting to narrate some of the reactions of leaders around the world for they will be a reflection of the reaction of their respective constituents.

One of the most controversial remarks from a world leader came from no other than the President of the United States, Donald Trump when he referred to the CoronaVirus as the ‘Chinese Virus’. The contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek, referred to this tendency as “perceiving the threat as originating from the oriental other”. Trump’s comment was made when the pandemic was still in its early stages, CNN even dubbed him as the “pandemic president”. In a visit to India, Pres. Trump even remarked that this virus will recede quickly, accordingly we just need to wait for it to spike up, and then it will be a return to normal.

Another remark that reached global significance was that of Iraj Harirchi. Harirchi was the deputy Minister for Health of Iran. He appeared at a press conference and in a sense downplay the onslaught of the virus. The deputy minister even downplayed the need for mass quarantines. In a stroke of cruel irony, he contracted the disease and made a short statement that he himself was in isolation. He is quoted saying: “This virus is democratic, and it doesn’t distinguish between poor and rich or between the statesman and an ordinary citizen.”

Wuhan was the epicenter of the virus. A reporter from Hong Kong named, Verna Yu has this to say about the country said to be the origin of the virus:

“If China valued free speech, there would be no coronavirus crisis. Unless Chinese citizens’ freedom of speech and other basic rights are respected, such crises will only happen again . . . Human rights in China may appear to have little to do with the rest of the world but as we have seen in this crisis, disaster could occur when China thwarts the freedoms of its citizens. Surely it is time the international community takes this issue more seriously.”

While on the western side of the hemisphere, in the European Continent one of the voices that really echoed was that of Giorgio Agamben, an Italian Philosopher. He refers to the present, albeit early stages of the world reaction to Covid-19 as an “Invention of the Pandemic”. He has this to say:

If this is the real situation, why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to spread a state of panic, thus provoking an authentic state of exception with serious limitations on movement and a suspension of daily life in entire regions? [1](Agamben, 2020)

The virus is as serious as it can get. It has not rested. In fact, its onslaught is felt by different countries in varying degrees, the problem is medical in origin yet it has touched the political, the economic, even the psychological. Affecting us from without in as much as from within.

The Philippines in the Pandemonium of the Pandemic

The Diplomat, an online news platform based in the Asia Pacific described the response of our country to the pandemic as a “tragedy of errors”. The one who penned the article is a Filipino free-lance journalist, named Michael Beltran. The article has this strikingly true yet fearsome remark:

The whole world is looking forward to a return to some semblance of normalcy. But what makes the Philippine government one of the worst examples of handling the pandemic is its incompetence married with militarism threaded throughout its responses. The backlash facing Filipinos now and after the quarantine is quite a distressing picture. It is a bleak one marred by a totalitarian streak and the people’s increased realization that the state is more intent on filling jails and the pockets of Chinese businesses than starving stomachs. (Beltran, 2020)

However, one need not look far, so as to know what is really happening. One just needs to look at one’s social media site or turn on the television for daily news. Contradictions here and there. It seems apparent that Michael Beltran was correct in saying that what we have is “tragedy of errors”, indeed a pandemonium of sorts. Military men are sent as front liners, manning the line or the boundary of barangays, municipalities, and provinces so as to maintain the order of the ECQ. Enhanced Community Quarantine, which changed for some to General Community Quarantine, and now introducing yet another term, and that is MECQ or Modified Enhance Community Quarantine.

The pandemic seemed to expose the problems that are already lurking within Filipino society. One of which is poverty and inequality. The poor, already marginalized pre-COVID, are now being marginalized in yet another form. Not only that they lost their jobs and therefore their source of food and drink, among other basic necessities, they also happen to be one of the most vulnerable to contracting diseases. For it is close to impossible that they will be practicing social distancing for most of the poorest members of the society living in slums, they hardly have a decent place to sleep.

The democratic nature of this virus as per Iraj Harirchi does not exclude anyone, rich or poor, young or old, the virus can affect us all. Not only in the medical sense.  It has changed how we live our lives. It is interesting to note that in the Philippines, the term for work, or labor, is “hanap-buhay”. Work is very much related to life in the Filipino consciousness. Labor is one of the sectors that is deeply affected and will definitely affect the dynamics not only of the Filipino worker but the Filipino family, who happens to be the inspiration and the beneficiary of its result. There are labor issues in the country then, it has just worsened during these times. Work from home is another term introduced under the so-called, “new normal”. Apparently, it will be a safer form of work. It will be, for those who can avail of it, but how about those who are hard laborers. The construction worker, the vendor, the drivers, who happens to have a job situated outside the comforts of one’s own abode? Slavoj Zizek, in his most recent work, reflecting on the implication of the pandemic to labor has this to say,

Such class divisions have acquired a new dimension in the coronavirus panic. We are bombarded by calls to work from home, in safe isolation. But which groups can do this? Precarious intellectual workers and managers who are able to cooperate through email and teleconferencing, so that even when they are quarantined their work goes on more or less smoothly. But what about those whose work has to take place outside, in factories and fields, in stores, hospitals and public transport? Many things have to take place in the unsafe outside so that others can survive in their private quarantine. (Zizek, 2020)

Poverty, inequality, and issues on labor are only some of the problems that our country is facing as it gasps for life during these unprecedented times. Yet, it is apparent that all of this is influenced by the realm of the political. Politics in the Philippines has always been problematic, to say the least, how much more during a crisis? Calls to simply adhere and abide by the law are highly enjoined by those who are tasked to lead us. There are also camps that we ought to simply forget politics in these trying times and just focus on national solidarity. Yet, Prof. Jovito Carino, in his article, reminds the Filipino to be thoughtful, in contrast to being thoughtless [2], to demand critical discourse from those who are tasked to formulate and implement rules and regulations that will affect the nation at large. Prof. Carino, further posits,

In the same fashion, a thoughtless government official, even the highest, would never find himself in the wrong even if he commits a chain of blunders; in his reckoning, there is never an error when one does what he has to do. (Carino, 2020)

As one can observe, countries of the world respond to the pandemic in different ways even the way they react is peculiarly their own. The pandemic has called humanity to revisit itself, not only the realm of the political and the economic, which pre-COVID-19 had been humanity’s primary focus. It is good to be reminded by the admonition, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” by the great social activist Martin Luther King. The boat happens to be this planet we call earth.

Covid-19 in the Age of the Anthropocene

One of the most prominent ‘prophets’ of this pandemic is the philanthropist and billionaire Bill Gates. He said in 2015, in his blog, Gates Notes: “The world is simply not prepared to deal with a disease — an especially virulent flu, for example — that infects large numbers of people very quickly. He could not have been more right, for fast forward five years, even the supposed rich and powerful nations are not spared from the cluelessness that Covid-19 brought.

Global solidarity among nations is the call of these times. People of all races ought to unite in this battle with the unseen foe, with the viral enemy. Yet, there is discourse saying that this is not only a human struggle but a struggle of the whole of creation. For we are forgetful that we are one species in a million inhabiting this struggling planet. Zizek, aptly reminds:

Maybe this is the most disturbing thing we can learn from the ongoing viral epidemics: when nature is attacking us with viruses, it is in a way returning us our own message. The message is: what you did to me, I am now doing to you. (Zizek, 2020)

Humans are mere inhabitants of the earth, not its owner. Yet we behave as if the whole earth is our lot, our land title is our humanity, for aren’t our birthright given us the right to be in the so-called pinnacle of creation? Yet, this has been proven wrong since then, we have experienced earth’s wrath in one form or another, storms, tsunamis, earthquakes to name a few. Far from being subjugators of the earth, this pandemic has reminded us that we are at the mercy of the elements.

Thinkers and scholars called our age as the age of the Anthropocene, most prominent of which and to whom the origin of the term is attributed are the French Philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. The Anthropocene [3]is defined as, “the geological age in which human impact on earth systems has become irreversible and will be detectable far into the future. It is, therefore, the greatest challenge currently facing life on earth” (Saldanha, et.al, 2016)

The coronavirus has shattered humanity and its values that it holds on to with dear life. Rules and norms that govern the many facets of our existence were challenged in such a way that they have been debunked, and if we are to survive this world even in its post-pandemic state we need to re-imagine not only our relationship with the human but also with the non-human as well. Insights from the age of the Anthropocene challenges our anthropocentric world views. In a strike of stark irony, the species which prides itself as the ‘crowning’ of creation, ever standing at its pinnacle is now made to bow at the ‘Corona’, at the ‘sovereignty’ of a molecular virus.                                                                                                                              

[1]The European Journal of Psychoanalysis was able to gather the full debate, ‘initiated’ by thinkers, offering a response to what Agamben said about the Covid-19 initial reaction as an “invention of the pandemic”.

[2] Prof. Carino is coming from Hannah Arendt, a social and political theorist.  Arendt argues coming from her very own reflection on the exterminator of the Jews, Adolf Eichmann who she deemed thoughtless. Since during a trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem (attended by Arendt herself), he defended himself that he was only following orders.

[3] As used by Saldhana, et.al in their article, “A New Earth: Deleuze and Guattari in the Anthropocene”, there are contentions about the beginning of the age of Anthropocene.   Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer (2000) argues that it came during the Industrial Revolution that dates to 1784. More recently, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (2015), dates the start of the age in 1610, tracing it back to the European colonization of the Americas, of which there is a supposed dip in atmospheric carbon.

References:

Beltran, M. (2020, May 12). The Philippines’ Pandemic Response: A Tragedy of Errors. Retrieved from The Diplomat : https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/the-philippines-pandemic-response-a-tragedy-of-errors/

Carino, J. V. (2020, March 30). Rappler . Retrieved from Rappler : https://www.rappler.com/views/imho/256381-opinion-philosophy-community-quarantine-coronavirus

Giorgio Agamben, J. N. (2020). Coronavirus and Philosophers . European Journal of Psychoanalysis , 1-37.

Stark, A. S. (2016). A New Earth: Deleuze and Guattari. Deleuze Studies , 427-439.

Zizek, S. (2020). Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World . New York and London: OR Books.

Paul Espino
A former Dominican Brother who now considers teaching as a vocation. "Fray Paul" is currently a Senior High School teacher at Marcelo H. del Pilar National High School, where he also attended and was assigned to be the adviser of the Supreme Student Government and the Debate Society. Currently, he is taking his M.A. in Philosophy at the Christ the King Mission Seminary.

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