Notes & Essays

How the Modern World Mishandles the Coronavirus Pandemic and Civilization Itself

Why 'normal' is the cause of all this chaos.
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From the way we raise our families to the highest decision-making bodies, humanity seems to be in agreement that we are far better and wiser than our ancestors. With our cars, technology, sciences, electricity, and other conveniences previously unavailable to us for hundreds of years, we expect to move in a level of progression that will have little interruption. Thus, the 21st century was greeted with much optimism and glee.

In a span of several years, the dreams of harmony and peace were to be destroyed by a series of occurrences that came unexpectedly. The September 11 attacks, the War On Terror, the 2008 crash, the Arab Spring, the European crisis of immigration, the wave of radical ideologies against liberal democracy and globalization, and ecological devastation are some of the many disruptions that have shattered the ideations of a better world.

It is no longer a controversial statement to point out that the planet is heading for the worse, though many are reluctant to admit it. We still pretend that these mishaps will not happen. How can we, such reasonable and intelligent beings, have abandoned hope to the embers of widespread disillusion with the status quo?

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Perhaps we have been wrong to even assign to us the moniker of civilized societies. Contrary to how we perceive ourselves and how the game of reality plays out, we have been detached from harshness. Our complacency and our penchant for escapism are essential mechanisms to get us away from the concerns of existential dread and nightmares. The ongoing pandemic has just proven that we are not as insightful and organized as we claim to be.

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This points to a failure of appreciating the complexities of the reality that we have furnished. The accelerating pace of technological advancements has not kept up with human limitations in terms of its societies and institutions. For many decades, we have chosen to pursue the mantra of progress at all costs, even if this means the destruction of our own common home.

The failure of appreciating complexities has also led us to underestimate the irks and uncertainties in our systems. This underestimation is tied to a hollowed Stoicism that wants us to detach from the horrors of everyday life and the excesses of our consumer society.

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We tell to ourselves that bigger is better, the world is our oyster, and so many words to assure a security in the midst of indecision.

This lack of nuance toward risk and uncertainty is what the former trader turned philosophical essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb has focused in the first half of the 21st century. In his numerous books such as his widely acclaimed work The Black Swan, Taleb claims that the world of ours may call itself modern, but it does not necessarily imply that it is better. A skeptic of progress and what we call common sense, Taleb asserts that the modern world is more fragile and more prone to breakages. His work is considered to have predicted the 2007 financial crash.

The multitude of risks that humanity faces are immense. As such, it is far easier for the world to have more black swans than the previous generations. In this case, the term black swan is defined as a highly improbable event that has radical consequences in a wide area or margin. The black swan is able to change perspectives overnight, and our society will tend to produce more black swans due to the intricate but faulty nature of the systems we have in place.

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For us, after the black swan happens, we tend to rationalize it as part of a large jigsaw puzzle. We try to fit it with our current approaches and models of reality, instead of looking at reality more or less either as fragments or a void. Taleb also opined that this tendency to rely excessively on models of reality is what pushes the world into the abyss, for it is easier for us to model reality in a vacuum than to face uncertainties in a manner that we can appreciate its multi-dimensionality.

This also extends to how we deal with black swans and how we conceive an exit plan. In our secular heads, the first thing that always comes to our head is to make things come back to normal or make it appear normal. We tend to ascribe the term resilience to define this form of coping. Resilience is the ability to proceed in spite of adversity.

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But even resilience is not enough.

Resilience, like the notion of utopia, which we do possess today, is an expectation that things will go on indefinitely. We also say that the status quo, which in our case that of liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism, is the only reality with no other alternatives. For philosophers Slavoj Zizek and Mark Fisher, this notion of finding the light at the end of the tunnel is a disaster. It recognizes our failure to face the brutal consequences of our world and seeks to provide easy answers to difficult questions.

So how must we face the black swan and uncertainty if we throw away resilience and the hope that things will go to normal? One approach may be anti-fragility, which is the opposite of fragility. Anti-fragility, if it is to be implemented in systems of thought and praxis, will enable societies to not only resist the shocks of disorder, but to even thrive within it. Anti-fragility presumes that a crisis of disaster can be opportunities for growth and rebirth. An anti-fragile society is robust and will be able to weather the storm while also becoming more receptive to complexities in systems and assertive of its future.

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However, there are obstacles to anti-fragility. First of all, there is the growing polarization and mistrust of the people in their governments. The HBO show Chernobyl highlights this growing mistrust and cynicism because of the Soviet leadership’s attempts to cover it up, which is considered as one of the many reasons why the USSR collapsed, akin to how ordinary Americans have become distrustful of their state after the propaganda in the Vietnam War and the reasons for the intervention have been proven to be outright lies.

Second is the lack of accountability. Mistrust arises often in societies where accountability is widely violated. It prevents the people’s voices to be heard, and the governments that are often unaccountable are sensitive to criticisms. This has its roots from the increasing inaccessibility that the people are feeling when it comes to state and private entities, which have become untouchable. Transnational companies are known to receive political favors to do what they wish.

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Third and final is our over-emphasis on institutions as the forbears of societal transformation. This is also a problem of some emancipatory movements that have focused their efforts to gain control of the offices and corridors of power. By relying too much on structures to foster societal change, we have in fact denied the agency of people for self-organization. The people in these three cases are then confronted with problems that will inevitably lead someone to despair.

These three problems are only scratching at the surface of our problems, but they are important if we are to challenge the way things are. This author is in a position that things can never go back to normal.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once lamented that we cannot cross at the same river twice.

For the pandemic has revealed that it is easier to imagine the end of all human life, than the end of capitalism itself. For capitalism has become inseparable from the way we see civilization, and this is the hallmark of a lingering decay of our impulses, and our lack of the will to accept the impermanence of the world.

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This is the sign that we are exhausted from our own creative urges to forge a new course.

For the old world is dying, and the new one struggles to be born.

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Allen Severino
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