More than COVID19, the real pandemic that has really taken us over is Fear. It set in from the moment people all over the world, rich or poor, male or female or other, black or white or brown or purple, engineer or beggar or doctor, heard that there was an unknown infectious virus spreading to all corners of the world.
At first, in January this year, we in Kenya thought it was a disease just localised to China, but then it started appearing in other Asian countries, then in the US and Europe and Australia1 – but it was still a vague niggle at the back of our minds. On 30th January 2020, the novel coronavirus was declared a global emergency by WHO. But it was only once Kenya’s first infection was announced, and countries started to close borders, that we really began to get scared. Soon it became the first and main item on the news each night – rising numbers, presidents floundering and declaring experimental measures to try contain everyone’s new unwanted, looming neighbour – the coronavirus.
So we shut ourselves in our houses. Boarded up as though preparing for a war, except there was no human enemy, just the fear of this microscopic thing we cannot see. The authorities ordered us to stay home, and we obeyed, like scared puppies. We were all conscious that this would ruin the economy, meaning wrecked livelihoods for many. We were all aware that any savings would start to dwindle, and that those without savings would be in dire straits unable to pay rent or feed themselves. Of course insecurity would rise, as a result. But we were too scared to care, all of us – from the politicians to the artists to the accountants. We stayed home and watched or listened to the news. When the official Kenyan numbers rose above 100 infections, we this population of 50 million shivered in our boots.
You see, we modern humans have come to love security, routine, and control. We aim to get stable jobs in the capitalist system. Every weekday morning, we get up and go to work, and every evening we come back. We go out for a drink on Friday evenings to release the stress of the week. Sundays are for relaxing, perhaps church if you are Christian, family time, and sorting the household chores that there is otherwise no time for. If we have a stable salary, that will come in monthly and we pay our bills. Once in a while we may save up for a special treat – a spending splurge or a holiday. We are safe and secure in our routines. We have control over our lives. At least, this is what we aim for.
When coronavirus hit, it hit all of us, even those uninfected. It disrupted the “normality” as we knew it, the world over. How weird is it to walk down the streets and see everyone wearing a mask? How absurd is it to meet close friends or family, and to refrain from hugging them, but rather to stand two metres away to converse? How awkward is it to rush for your hand sanitizer, and once you get home immediately bathe and wash clothes, because you may have brushed against an unknown carrier, or because someone coughed in your vicinity? Moreover, how does it feel to have constant vigilance, suspicion, nervousness, jitteriness, worry, anxiety, and OCD tendencies as your mind’s new best friends?
But is it really the invisible microbe that is making us go internally crazy? The virus itself has no control over our mind and actions, it is just doing what a virus does – infect, reproduce, and spread. It is us, and the virus we have created in our hearts and minds, that has taken over our lives. Whereas coronavirus has infected a few million so far, billions across the world are self-infected by fear.
Fear of the unknown. Fear of this thing we can’t see and don’t understand. Mostly, the fear of getting sick. We are shit-scared of inducing pain and suffering on ourselves. Fear of hospital bills. Fear of dying. Fear of not being able to pay rent, buy food, and survive in a crashing economy. Fear of not knowing when this will end. Fear of not knowing if this will end.
But uncertainty is not unnatural. Chaos and disorder is the natural order of things. Let’s take a look at basic physics. The second law of thermodynamics states that “as one goes forward in time, the net entropy of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or stay the same),” where entropy is the “degree of disorder2.” Further, it tends towards increasing disorder. “The level of disorder in the universe is steadily increasing. Systems tend to move from ordered behavior to more random behavior3.”
You see, we modern humans need to learn an ancient lesson that the mystics and sages knew. And that the physicists then discovered. A universal truth – everything is always changing, and is in fact tending towards disorder. Stability and control is an illusion. Much as we try to take command over where our lives take us next, we really can’t. We cannot control when love will appear or disappear; we cannot control how successful our business will be regardless of our education or effort or money; we cannot control when we will get sick or injured; we cannot control when we will die. I don’t mean this in a nihilistic sense, but rather in a positive sense in that it is liberating to let go of trying to control what cannot be controlled. It is freeing to learn to accept uncertainty, and just be.
Now, the fact is that unfortunately, this is a seriously infectious disease. Comparing it to the flu (influenza) that peaks seasonally every year, the flu affects 9% of the world’s population, infecting 1 billion people, of which 3-5 million are severe cases, and leading to 3-500,000 deaths yearly4. As for coronavirus, at the time of writing this we had recorded over 9 million global infections of coronavirus, and were already approaching 500,000 deaths. The coronavirus does have a higher likelihood of more severe symptoms and of death. That being said, over 93% of people who get it will survive (the mortality rate is disputed and differs worldwide), and WHO states that “most infected people will develop mild to moderate illness and recover without hospitalization.”
In the interest of self-preservation, it does not make sense to just go around life without a mask and pretend the virus does not exist – this is a risk to yourself and to people around. But do not be paralysed by the pandemics of “rona” and fear. In the interest of self-care, mental health, and inner peace, we must consciously disallow Fear from ruling our every action and thought. Let’s be sensible – do minimise social interactions, but allow yourself some sanity, while following social distancing. Do wear a mask and sanitize, for the sake of yourself and those around you. Continue with your work, or innovate new work, while adapting to new measures that must be put in place. Inform yourself of the important facts, but do not obsess over sensationalist media.
That’s the best you can do, the rest is beyond your control. Fear not – what will be, will be. Majority of the global population will come out unscathed. Some will have experienced mild symptoms, a few will have suffered serious illness. A small percentage will die. This is beyond our control. But you are probably going to be okay. So let’s work on our inner peace (whether you find that via meditation, running, cooking, sensible social interaction, reading, or whatever it may be – you know best). We don’t know how long this situation will be with us – it could be years – so we need to individually find ways to adapt and create new ways of being, of finding joy, of finding peace, of being able to accept uncertainty, of letting go of control. Most importantly, remember that happiness is found in the present moment. Find your smile right here, right now, and there is eternity in each moment. And unlike whatever will happen next, our current state of mind we do have control over.
As for the pandemics of Coronavirus and Mass Fear – just like others that have occurred in global history – as the Buddha said, “this too shall pass.”