Man and the COVID-19 virus
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Philippine government has eased restrictions on people’s movement and allowed the operation of some businesses in metro Manila, Cebu City and Laguna by putting these areas under what it calls a modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ). Some provinces that used to be under ECQ have been placed under General Community Quarantine (GCQ).

Both, so say government officials, are meant to address the crisis in unemployment and to restart the economy. The decision to begin the transition to something approaching “business as usual” in the capital and other regions was based on the assumption — about which some experts are skeptical — that the rate of transmission of COVID-19 has fallen, and that, although social scientists are saying that things will not be the same as they used to be and that the country must be ready for a “new normal,” the disease will eventually disappear once a vaccine is found.

The aberration that’s the “new normal” scenario rather than the latter possibility seems more likely of realization, however, and that the disease will not be a mere memory soon, or even later

The newspaper The Guardian, Cable News Network (CNN), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and other media groups reported last May 14 that the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 “may never go away” — that the disease is likely to remain in circulation as part of the many threats to human health and lives like SARS, HIV-AIDS, measles and polio.

“This virus,” said WHO Emergencies Director Michael Ryan, “may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away….this disease may settle into a long problem.”

He added that “No one can predict when this disease will disappear” and that even if a vaccine is found, it will require “a massive effort” to control its spread. About a hundred vaccines are currently in development.

The WHO Mental Health Department also warned during the same May 13 virtual press conference in Geneva, Switzerland that COVID-19 is also leading to a global mental health crisis that “has to be addressed urgently.”

Debora Kestel, the Director of the Department, said that “the isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil” — the consequences of the efforts by the countries affected to control the spread of the infection — “all cause psychological stress.” Kestel said the world should expect a spike in mental illness among children, young people and healthcare workers.

She’s not entirely right. It is not only the latter who are in danger of mental illness during, in the aftermath of, and long after the pandemic. Everyone else is, quite simply because the world and living in it are no longer what people once knew — and what’s more, if Ryan is right, are also unlikely to ever be what they used to be.

Every disease that can be transmitted from one individual to another makes human interaction — whether working together, living in the same community, or enjoying the company of others — a threat to one’s health and life. They make being apart rather than together the primary value, despite the fact that it is the one enduring characteristic of humans, their being social creatures, that has enabled them to physically survive and prevail as the dominant species on the planet. Despite the capitalist cult of competition dominant in many countries, human beings are at their best and at their sanest when they’re together.

HIV-AIDS made sex and even love dangerous. Despite the absurdities the culture industry has made them out to be, both are nevertheless what assure the continuity of the human race. But the AIDS challenge to human relationships eventually passed. It might well be asked if the same will not happen to that of COVID-19, and human beings will once again regard each other with trust and affection rather than with fear and suspicion.

Unfortunately, a number of factors suggest that it may be otherwise. If indeed the disease is likely to be among those others the human race has learned to live with, its mode of transmission seems likely to reinforce the resort to isolation, and hence the fear and the uncertainty that are its consequences that the WHO has warned are likely to afflict the mental health of large numbers of people globally.

Unlike AIDS, measles, polio or tuberculosis, COVID-19 can be transmitted to anyone regardless of age, sex and sexual preference, the country where one lives, and economic and social status. Even if a vaccine were found, the same modes of transmission will remain, and how effective it will be will be determined by whether everyone — meaning all 105 million or so Filipinos — are inoculated with it.

Because of the economic and social inequalities in Philippine feudal society, and the quite possibly prohibitive cost of an anti-novel coronavirus vaccine, that seems unlikely. That possibility means that the isolation and quarantine of those infected will continue to be among the preferred approaches, as problematic as they may be, to controlling the contagion.

Because of the way it is transmitted, the COVID-19 public health crisis is forcing on people across the globe, including Filipinos, vast changes in lifestyles and culture. Such aspects of Philippine culture as touching and hugging each other, gathering during birthdays and other occasions, drinking at the corner store with friends, and even the middle and upper class habit of “beso beso” will have to yield to the imperative of controlling the contagion. In addition to the social impact of these changes are also political implications, among them the acceptance and approval by the majority of continuing the ban on the mass protests, demonstrations and political gatherings that are vital to democratic governance, and even the implementation of restrictive protocols when campaigning and voting for one’s preferred candidate for an elective post.

These changes will not only harden individualism and isolationism but also social and political disengagement and conformity. The “new normal” isn’t just about washing one’s hands, wearing face masks or social distancing as part of daily existence. It is also about ideological and intellectual isolation, obedience to authority, and inevitably, silence even in the face of the most egregious abuses. Used as an excuse by demagogues and political charlatans to broaden their powers and suppress free expression, the COVID-19 contagion is turning into another handmaiden of tyranny and an instrument of the anti-human forces that have made this country and much of the rest of the world poor, ignorant and divided.

Some conspiracy theorists — not all of them are crackpots; they include at least one Nobel Prize laureate — allege that the virus that causes COVID-19 was created in the biological warfare laboratories of a power intent on replacing its US rival as the global hegemon. If true, which is unlikely, those responsible would be undermining the social foundations of human existence. But as problematic as the claim that the virus is man-made rather than the result of natural evolution may be, the fact is that the disease has been added to the possibility of nuclear annihilation, the realities of war and pollution, and the threat of global warming that have made the future of humankind even more uncertain than it used to be in the last century. That, unfortunately, is also part of “the new normal” — which is just another name for the global anomaly spawned by big power contention, greed, environmental destruction, and COVID-19.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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