Covid-19 Obliges us to think: What is Essential?

As the renowned German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, affirmed in an interview about Covid-19:  “We have never known so much about ignorance as we do now.”  Science is indispensable for survival and for explaining the complexity of modern societies, but it cannot be arrogant and pretend, as certain pseudo-scientists postulate, that it can resolve all problems.  To tell the truth, what we do not know is infinitely greater than what we know.  All knowledge is finite and imperfect.  That is now being proven in our frantic search for an effective vaccine against Covid-19.  We do not know when a vaccine will be available, nor when the epidemic will be over.

The virus leaves us with a sunset feeling on the horizon of life and of hope, and occasions that which is well described in the twitter message of the judge and author Andréa Pachá (“Life is not Just”):  :The pandemic has wrought much havoc.  Some is physical, concrete and definitive.  Other damage is subtle, but devastating.  It steals from us the desire to go, to play, to have plans, including those that are utopian and chimeric, that will never come to fruition, but which feed the soul.”

We sense that there is a profound collective depression and melancholy that even makes us furious against the virus about which we know and can do so little.  We all feel surrounded by the ghost of contamination, of confinement and of death.

The reality is that we live under an extraordinary emergency such as the tsunami in Japan that affected nuclear sites, one of which continues to emit radioactivity, affecting the coasts of India, of Thailand and even the coasts of California, playing a part in the horrendous fires of the Amazon, of the Pantanal and of the forests of California.  With Covid-19 we are faced with an extreme emergency, which affects the whole planet.  It is a consequence of a profound ecological erosion caused by the voraciousness of big business which wants only material gain from the destruction and extraction of the forests, the expansion of monocultural crops such as soy beans or the cattle grazing and the excessive urbanization of the whole world.

That intrusion of humans into nature, without any sense of respect for its intrinsic value, held as a mere means of production and not as something alive, of which we are a part and not lords and masters denies in us the respect of nature’s limits of sustainability.  It has produced the destruction of the habitats of thousands of viruses in animals and plants which have been transferred to other animals and even to humans.

We must incorporate new concepts:  zoonosis (the illness that comes from the animal world: birds, swine and cattle) and zoonotic transfer (an animal affliction transmissible to humans.  As of now these will enter our vocabulary not only as scientific terms.

One of the greatest specialists in virus, David Quammen (Montana, USA), alerts us to this in his video Spillover:  the Next Human Pandemic (2015).  “It is inevitable that a great pandemic is coming.  It can kill tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people depending on the circumstances and the forms of our reactions, but some of these things will occur.  There will certainly be a zoonotic event.  It will originate in animals, not humans.  There will certainly be a virus.”  Let us pay attention to this warning of a noted scientist.

Faced with this extreme emergency tied to the lack of national and international mobility, social isolation, distancing and the use of masks, it is appropriate that we ask the most fundamental questions of our lives.  In the final analysis what counts most in the end?  What is really essential?  What are reasons that have brought us to such an extreme emergency?  What must we do and what can we do after the pandemic passes?  These are unavoidable questions.

We will then discover that there is no greater value than life and the entire community of life.  Life arose some 3.8 thousands of million years ago and the human race around 8 to 10 million years ago.  Life passed through various devastating moments but always survived.  And with life comes the means of life without which it cannot defend itself, namely water, soil, the atmosphere, the biosphere, the climates, the labor and nature which offers us all that we need to live and survive.  There is the human community that takes us in and offers us the bases of the social and spiritual order that holds us in cohesion as humans.  The accumulation of material goods, individual wealth and unabated competition are of no value.  What saves us as living and social beings is solidarity, cooperation, generosity and the care for one another and the environment.

These are the human-spiritual values, contrary to those of the material capital, for which Covid-19 represents a thunder bolt that is breaking it to bits.  We cannot return to what was, so as not to provoke Mother Earth and nature.  If we do not change our relationship to one of respect and care, we will be sent another virus, perhaps a more lethal and final one (The Big One) which could decimate the human species.

This time of forced seclusion is a time for reflection and ecological conversion, a time to decide what type of Common Home we want for the future.  We must grow in solidarity and in love for all creation, especially for our fellow human brothers and sisters.  

We will be “solidarity men and women”, the beginning of a new era, in which life and its diversity will be central and all else will be subservient to it.  Together we will rejoice in the happy celebration of life.

Leonardo Boff is an ecotheologian and philosopher and has written Covid-19: the Counterattack of the Earth against Humanity which will be published soon by the Vozes publishers.

Translation from Portuguese by Maria José Govito Milano.

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