Gerard Howlin: Coronavirus is, I think, a slight, and I hope a passing taste, of what we routinely visit on others

Concern says 13m are struggling due to the plague of locusts affecting Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, but our focus is on the perceived threat from coronavirus, writes Gerard Howlin

Gerard Howlin: Coronavirus is, I think, a slight, and I hope a passing taste, of what we routinely visit on others

Concern says 13m are struggling due to the plague of locusts affecting Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, but our focus is on the perceived threat from coronavirus, writes Gerard Howlin

THERE is imminent danger of an epidemic of fear. The good news is that it is an antidote to hubris, of which we have a global surplus.

For anyone interested in the phenomenon of power, to see the strident snivelling in face of a virus they have a better chance of winning the lottery than dying from is a fundamental lesson in human nature.

Humanity has not conquered nature and, in other news, we all have to die of something.

The purpose of constant handwashing is twofold. Firstly it is practical protection against spread of the virus. Secondly it gives the ‘worried well’ something to do.

The threat of coronavirus is not primarily physical, it is psychological. The dislocation of a generation which imagines they are lords of the universe is intense. This is not new. Sars, ebola and Aids all had a similar effect. Fear of the unknown and terror of the uncontrollable hits the human nexus at its most vulnerable point.

Contagion sabotages the myth of progress. Religion and magic have been set side. Science, with its ultimate goals of perfection and immortality, again demonstrates that, however, useful as a means, it is never the end. Supposedly the new truth, it ends up as a means of reimaging the aims of magic.

On its website, Concern reminds us that more than 13m people, who are already struggling to cope with an acute lack of food, are now under threat from a rapidly growing locust infestation that is affecting countries including Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. This is the worst outbreak to strike Ethiopia and Somalia for 25 years and the worst infestation experiences in Kenya in 70 years. The reminder, however, is a misnomer. Most of us don’t know and don’t care. Best to worry about ourselves.

As I write, a friend sent me a picture of an empty departure lounge in Dublin Airport. The advances of science notwithstanding, it is now impossible to get a proper pot of tea in any of the overpriced emporia there. All serve variations on a bag of undefined content floating in water, whose boiling point was long ago. Was it the time of day, or an outbreak of flight shaming? It was hardly a protest against abuse of that great Irish staple, the pot of tea?

Great cathedrals of glass, modern replicas of the medieval, and built for the same purpose of assuring the habitants of agency over their own fate, are empty.

It is astonishing how an introverted society in a globalised world, indifferent to others but obsessed with self, so suddenly reverts to the instincts of the cave dweller. Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days said: “Sometimes it is all over for the day, all done, all said, all ready for the night, and the day not over, far from over, the night not ready, far from ready.”

The affliction is the uncertainty, the demoralising, emasculating sense of a lack of control. Our genetic make-up since plague began is first to recoil and then to hit back. Minorities, witches, foreigners were all ripe for sacrifice. The decline in the Chinese takeaway business which predated empty airports is such a recoil.

Our world is out of sync with nature. The scientific revolution of the 17th century, the beginning of the Age of Reason and accompanying colonialism, believed that man could master the earth. Or at least white men could. And the proofs were apparently there. Empires existed on which the sun never set.

Their construct of some races and religions lording it over others mirrored the natural world, supposedly.

What was never understood is the delicate interdependence that exists naturally. What was rejected as impossible is the sense that human society is only a crude imitation of what exists more splendidly naturally.

From bubonic plague to Sars, ebola, and Aids, these mutations from nature remind us of our vulnerability to, and our dependency on, what ultimately we can never control.

We have paid a high price for the myth of progress. We have disenchanted the world. We are permanently disempowered because we lack the wisdom of the ages.

Human beings are not intended to be 10th-rate robots. But increasingly that is what we are. Stockpiling food ordered on an app as safety against primeval fear has something especially pathetic about it. The comedy is clear.

Those vast new Chinese cites housing tens of millions in concrete jungles were built as the foundries and the sweatshops to manufacture our lifestyle. Until very recently, the residue of our lifestyle returned to them from Ireland as waste to bury in landfill, and leach into their soil. It’s an Irish legacy that will last forever.

What are the health effects of fumes in the air, pollution in the water and poison in the land for our comfort and convenience in countries far away?

An occasional virus to teach us a lesson we will almost instantly forget seems a small price to pay in return.

Human life is increasingly replaced by the prosthetic of technology. That technology requires a superabundance of energy that depletes the earth which then heightens the worry of the well and the well-off.

In a common place that is now unnoticed, this or that facility here is off-handedly compared with third-world conditions. Only someone who is a stranger to squalor could do so. It is almost always outrageously untrue.

The real squalor is the selfishness that unthinkingly bases our lifestyle on their misery.

Coronavirus is, I think, a slight, and I hope a passing taste, of what we routinely visit on others. Our economic colonialism is the new plantation.

I find myself gawking in disbelief at the faux panic, and the orchestrated urgency of some. And I am reassured by what, for now, seems attentive diffidence from the majority.

OF course we should do what we are told. But the parading of corporate virtue in an abundance of care is simply too much to take seriously. If public events must be cancelled eventually, so be it. But somebody’s wages are down. So let’s be hesitant. Deciding what to do is not an exact science. But the decision-makers are public-spirited people who will act from the best of motives.

Political showboating should be avoided. Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, is to be complimented. We should be calm, wash our hands and remember.

Remember this did not come from nowhere. It came from somewhere. There are specific conditions that certainly accelerated the outbreak of coronavirus.

Over decades, our insatiable appetite for comfort and convenience, our willful blindness to the squalor of its provision, and the hypocrisy of our indifference, has created an alternative universe for hundreds of millions.

Out of the crevices of their lives had arrived this passing inconvenience to ours. And yes, there is a raging contagion that is out of control. It is the plague of locusts.

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