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The meaning of life (rediscovering humanity)

“But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.” – Albert Camus

Being human is incredibly difficult and cannot be mastered in one lifetime, author Terry Pratchett once said. Last week the States of Europe crawled into the slow realisation that lessons should, after all, be learnt.

The Italian model, built on a series of fits and false starts, was given a five-star certification by a visiting team of medical experts from the Chinese Red Cross. That model, when perfected, had resulted in a nation in lockdown: deserted streets, industries shut down, no school, no work.

This was just the beginning though. At least three weeks of a frozen society are required before the benefits begin to be reaped. China and South Korea showed us the way. Italy had indeed followed suit, but the other nations of the Western World were still to be convinced.

Following the parallel words of Luxembourg and Malta was a frustrating and nerve-racking exercise. The governments of the respective nations hesitated to shift to drastic measures of containment and seemed to be working in denial.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that Luxembourg had seen nothing like the Lidl raids in Malta. Scratch that. The raids came and went here too. There was a build up of anxiety among the population, but this was at first not reflected by the measures taken by the authorities.

That sense of denial was heightened as the first measures seemed to be superficial. Both Malta and Luxembourg toyed with the limiting of crowds coming up with the random number of 1,000 as a limit. Cinemas, theatres, concert halls, restaurants, bars – all open.

Worst of all, while international transportation remained open, people could go to their workplace, children to their schools and creches and local transport (with the added free transport touch in Luxembourg – a world first) would go on. Madness. At least seen from our tiny household that had already by this time become completely obsessed with the Italian experience.

Worse still, the underlying reason behind this slow reluctance to adopt the necessary draconian measures was an inhuman fear of disrupting the wheels of the economy. There – at the heart of this crisis – was the motor of 21st century society unmasked.

I expect more and more nations to fall in line. At the time of writing, Spain was the last major nation to impose a full lockdown and, as time passes, economic considerations are finally taking second place to the more important priority of human lives.

In times like these, the question of what society can “afford” to do gets an added, deeper meaning. The value of human lives is weighed on society’s scales. The pandemic has brought out the pustules and buboes of a confused society that was rushing headlong into a path of hedonistic and materialistic self-destruction.

The pressure put upon our society’s structures and functionalities has exposed its major weaknesses. Choosing to halt commerce does indeed have an impact on the working of our society. It also opens our eyes to the huge gaps in the way we manage ourselves daily.

On a wider scale we have begun to understand the shortfalls of investment in proper health care. We have exposed the soft underbelly of a society that allows for a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Our inhumane attitudes towards the less fortunate are laid bare for all to see. One thing I admire in Chinese society is the massive respect for their elders. Virus or no virus, Chinese community is built around ensuring that the elders are taken care of, visited and protected. It was inevitable therefore that with a virus that is deadliest with people of a median age of 80 the Chinese reaction would be swift and effective.

Is Western society still capable of empathy and understanding? Are we prepared to make great sacrifices in order to protect the weakest? The early signs of rampant egoism seemed to point elsewhere.

It took our European cities from Bergamo to Turin to Milan a huge reality shock before pulling their act together and working together for the greater good. Acts of humanity on a large and small scale begin to be recorded at the point when the bitter truth of the danger is finally understood.

Humanity is the masses of persons understanding what isolation for a couple of weeks can do for themselves and for others. It is the chorus that rises from the high buildings singing in unison from their balconies that they are together in solidarity.

It is the thousands of volunteers offering to take food to people in isolation, as The Shift team is doing. It is the essential workers who struggle to deliver goods to hard-hit places. It is the health workers fighting a war against an obstinate virus.

It is this humanity that might see a new beginning where we are more conscious about our resources, our priorities and about ourselves. As you sit in your self-isolation dreaming of a night out at the restaurant, of a walk in the countryside, of a swim at the beach – as you do all that – remember that the first step to fighting this virus comes from you.

Today, it is about self-discipline and control. Tomorrow, when it is over, we begin to build that brave new world.

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