Loneliness, Helping Hands, TRUTH

Between mid-May and the end of June 2020 linguist and author, Florian Coulmas, questioned people around the world about their personal experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘Loneliness, Helping Hands, TRUTH’ is the response he received.

The setting

As the first wave splashed toward every shore; as frontpage news knew no other topic for weeks on end; as people around the globe were asked to stay at home for their own safety; as fleets of aeroplanes were grounded and cruise ships left without a safe haven; as streets were deserted, cities turned quiet and skies blue; as child abuse and domestic violence escalated on an unknown scale; as all of my colleagues were allowed, or forced, to telework, while others lost their job; and as I watched ‘Virus’[1], a 1980 film by Kinji Fukasaku about a man-made virus, which, assisted by America’s nuclear arsenal, brings human civilization to an end, it occurred to me to ask people what they think about viral.

Younger individuals tend to comply with what today’s commanders of public opinion and thought control want them to say, that viral is great: selfies, video clips, memes, ads; if you have what it takes, become an influencer! Older contemporaries do not necessarily have positive associations with ‘viral’, remembering what was once the only and then the primary meaning of the Latin term, that is, ‘morbiferum’, ‘pathogenum’, ‘relating to viruses’. As they put it, when rumours, news, and gossip proliferated quickly, they were ‘spreading like wildfire’; not really something desirable.

However, few things are all bad or all good. Some people even hold that Twitter and Facebook, having been hailed early on as ‘technologies of freedom’[2], are basically good, preferring to close their eyes to the biggest and most disgusting rubbish dump the world has ever seen, aka ‘www’. Because they can exploit it for their own purposes.

Yet it would be improper to pass so general a judgement. I once lived through a natural catastrophe (the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011) and was more than glad to be able to ascertain my family’s safety by SMS (before the network broke down). That was a great relief. Also, on a wider level, the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, which must be understood as a corollary of the present pandemic, suggested that connectivity might actually help the public to escape its side-lining by the political class. Does this outweigh the undeniable harms of hate mail, cyber bullying, hacking, online sale of fake medicine, illegal gambling, crime chat networks, and child porn? Do the WhatsApp family and friends mutual aid groups people used to stay close during lockdown outweigh WhatsApp’s utility as the primary channel through which mass anxiety and conspiracy theories travelled (not for nothing does the UN speak of an ‘infodemic’[3])?

This is hard to decide. Critics of techno-determinism side-step the issue arguing that no technology is good or bad, but only what we do with it. The question is whether in view of weapons of mass destruction, man-made climate change, genetically modified organisms and similar achievements this is not an outdated persuasion. Should we really just step aside and let technological progress run its course?

About COVID-19 surely no one would say this. But does it make any sense at all to insinuate such a comparison? Just a hint: A review conference of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was scheduled to take place in April 2020 at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Coincidental, perhaps, but highly symbolic was the postponement of the conference to a later date in light of the pandemic. In the event, two potential threats to the survival of our species vied for attention.

IT is viral, and viruses are technical; at least in the sense that they are not natural organism that lurk in the wild to threaten our innocent village life. They depend on, and thrive in, the environment we have created oscillating between the naturally grown and the artificially created.

These issues are mentioned here to recollect that the COVID pandemic which to this author and all of his contemporaries was unprecedented in scope and depth, raised questions that concern us all on a personal level, as well as humanity at large. It took a while to realize this. Until December 2019, I was in Nanjing, some five hundred kilometres from Wuhan where the first cases of the new lung disease were then detected. When things unfolded in January, I initially felt a sense of having escaped a potentially fatal danger by a hair’s breadth; only to realize a bit later that this wasn’t so. That Duisburg, the city of my university, happens to be a partner city of Wuhan is just a coincidence. More important is the fact that both cities are on the same planet which also houses COVID-19. Taking up the thread spun by the Club of Rome a generation ago, Greta Thunberg and her supporters appealed to us to take responsibility for our planet. COVID-19 drove the message home more painfully.

What do we make of it? How does it affect us? Researchers around the world occupy themselves with COVID-19 which will be studied from the points of view of many different disciplines for years to come. However, you don’t have to be a virologist or a social scientist to be affected by the pandemic; we all are. To capture a facet of this experience, I questioned some one hundred people between mid-May and the end of June 2020. The sample is small but spread across many countries. Most respondents are academics or children of academics. At the time of the poll, the youngest participant was 12, the oldest 90 years old. They reside in various countries, most but not all of them in the northern hemisphere. For quite a few of them nationality and country of residence do not match. Europe and East Asia are most prominent, but there are also voices from the other continents.

I used the following text to solicit participants.

I hope these lines find you in good health and like spirits. You will no
doubt be surprised to receive this email. I am writing because I am
setting up a little Covid-19 documentation on a personal level. That is
to say, I’m trying to get people from 8 to 80+ of many countries on
every continent to answer three simple questions in just one sentence each:

What was the worst?
What was the best?
What is your hope for the future?

I don’t know whether anything worthwhile will come of it, but would you
participate anyway? If you agree, kindly answer the questions.

The response rate of this mini poll is as little representative and comparable to normal surveys as the sample. Three or four of the addressees did not respond, for reasons unknown to me. Another one responded to let me know that he would not participate. Whether his rejection had anything to do with the fact that he lives in Hong Kong was just a question that crossed my mind. In any event, the response rate was over 95 per cent, suggesting that the addressees did not consider my request disturbing or an inappropriate invasion of their privacy. In the contrary, some of them in addition to answering the questions explicitly welcomed the opportunity to contemplate the occurrence.

As can be seen from the above cover letter, when I started the project, I did not know if anything would come of it. To receive such an enthusiastic response in spite of this uncertainty was not only gratifying, but also enlightening. I learnt many things from all of the responses and am deeply grateful to each and every one of the participants for sharing with me and an unknown readership their impressions of and thoughts about this extraordinary, hopefully unique, event.

‘Loneliness, helping hands, TRUTH’ – succinct and pointed, this is how an erudite gentleman from New Delhi answered the three questions, grasping in extreme density the essence of what many respondents thought. I couldn’t imagine a better title for this essay. A review of all responses shows that the side effects of social contact restrictions, new forms of solidarity, and the want to know the facts stand out, but many other topics are also touched upon. Suffice some examples to illustrate.

What was the worst?

Loneliness. Social contact restrictions under lockdown had various consequences, affecting some people more severely than others and accordingly answers to the first question also varied. Conspicuously, however, loneliness – not always called that – is mentioned by respondents of all age groups. ‘Not being able to meet with friends spontaneously and thus getting lonely,’ says a PhD student of Oxford University, while a ninety-year old resident of an old age home in Essen complains about ‘ongoing social isolation by prohibiting or restricting contact under official supervision.’ Being cut off from (members of) their family is mentioned repeatedly, as is the oppressive feeling of confinement or ‘house arrest’. That international postal traffic was interrupted in some cases also contributed to loneliness. A particularly sad aspect of loneliness comes up several times in Italy: ‘The death of many people in the hospital without any possibility to say goodbye or hug them.’

Uncertainty. Being an unprecedented occurrence for everyone, COVID-19 evokes a feeling of uncertainty so acute that quite a few of the participants cited it as the worst part of the experience. It comprises a sense of vulnerability, the inability to plan the next step, and a peril whose gravity we cannot assess. As a veteran social scientist put it, ‘what was the worst? – That it may still be ahead of us.’ In individualistic societies, especially in the Western world, running your own affairs and being in control of your life is the norm. What is more, the structure of most people’s everyday life is fairly predictable. That this kind of predictability is suddenly restricted, if not completely suspended, is a very negative experience for many. Uncertainty also concerns worries about the safety of far-away family and friends and the inability to do anything about it. Fear of contagion and ‘the lottery of death’ exacerbated uncertainty, especially among people in high-risk groups.

Inequality. Most respondents enjoy a rather comfortable life, of which COVID-19 may have reminded them. Others are in a more precarious situation. These differences find expression in the results of the poll in that some of the latter mention loss of income as ‘the worst’, while some of the former point to inequality, both social and economic. ‘That the underprivileged were (once again) hit harder than the privileged’ is what one of them points out. This also holds internationally in that compensation for lack of physical contact by means of digital technology is more easily available in the Global North than in the South where ‘the large majority of our students do not have access to a working internet and, hence, are somehow being excluded’. Also, home schooling of children is easier for the highly educated, revealing the at least to some degree equalising effects of compulsory education. With regard to education on every level, then, negative effects of lockdown are distributed quite unequally.

Lack of preparedness. ‘As a country we were not prepared for a virus outbreak like this.’ This criticism, listed under ‘worst’, refers to the Netherlands, one of the most highly developed countries on any measure. It is echoed in several other advanced countries, such as Switzerland, the United States, and the United Kingdom. An altogether different kind of unpreparedness, but a very worrisome one is the ‘risk of bacteriological warfare’ that the pandemic made one of the respondents think about.

Distrust of scientific knowledge. Among the unwelcome side-effects of digital communication tools is the undermining of the authority of science. Several respondents bemoan and adduce as ‘the worst’ of the pandemic ‘the realization that scientific efforts for a differentiated picture and robust knowledge were inferior in public discourse’. On one hand, this stems from a lack of understanding what scientific knowledge is. That it is always contingent; that contradictory findings do not necessarily result from incompetence of the scientists involved; and that a phenomenon such as COVID-19 poses new questions continuously. On the other hand, some prominent people exploit their media salience to call doubt on the validity of scientific knowledge which thus falls victim to the fake news discourse that denies the existence of reliable data.

Politicisation. A related grievance is that ‘the pandemic was being trivialized by various political forces, most devastatingly in US and Brazil.’ In other countries, too, it is exploited for political purposes, as, for instance, in Italy by the far-right. Instead of looking for the best solution together, COVID-19 is placed at the service of political manoeuvres, nationally and internationally. A historian from Bologna stated that for her the worst was ‘to see that many governments have dealt with the pandemic in national, indeed in nationalistic terms.’ It is certainly disquieting that a global calamity, rather than making all concerned parties join forces, has the opposite effect of reinforcing selfishness and undermining international collaboration in ways that may not even be beneficial to the selfish themselves. ‘Us first!’ is the best recipe for pushing the notion that the pandemic is an existential threat to our earth and our species into the background, a policy aiming at hegemony rather than the common good.

Irresponsible behaviour. Having to deal with an exceptional situation reveals certain characteristics that have personal, national and cultural aspects. From the point of view of some of the participants, how people behaved in public was the worst of the pandemic. Japanese people and others who know Japan will not be surprised to learn that ‘getting nervous when I see some thoughtless people who do not respect the rules’ was an answer to the first question offered by a Japanese participant living in a western European country. In Japan a public appeal to behave in such and such a way – for example, not to speak on the phone in the subway – without any threat of sanctioning is usually sufficient to secure a high degree of compliance. In other parts of the world, substantial parts of the population consider the request or even the recommendation to wear face masks an undue violation of their civil rights. Thus, what looks like a common-sense sanitary precaution in some place becomes a highly controversial issue elsewhere. The old problem of balancing liberty and security comes into play here, which in one way or another is a challenge to decision makers and is even represented as undermining democracy. This relates to the discrediting of scientific knowledge in public discourse mentioned above; at the same time, it has an ideological dimension. Apostles of freedom want to be free also to decide for themselves whether they risk contagion. The obvious problem is that this kind of freedom implies risks for others. In other words, the worst for some – thoughtless or irresponsible behaviour in public – is the best for others – protecting their individual freedom.

What was the best?

Like with the first question, the spectrum of the answers to the second one is broad, but again the sage from Delhi hit the mark.

Solidarity. Indeed, ‘helping hands’ were what people most appreciated, terms such as ‘mutual regard’, ‘standing together’, ‘humanity’, ‘the willingness to help’, among others giving expression to a widely shared feeling. Admiration for the services provided by health workers by way of explicitly mentioning solidarity with them emerges from some of the answers.

Family ties. ‘To see what we can cope with together as a family,’ is a typical answer about another ‘best’, the family as a source of joy and satisfaction. Being locked down was a stress test from which not every family emerged unscathed, but from what the respondents of this poll reveal, many of them saw the positive side of spending more time with children, partner, and parents.

Time. In our pre-COVID-19 life, time was an ever scarcer resource for most of us. ‘The newfound time we could spend with the family’ was much appreciated as was ‘general deceleration’, something that just a few months ago didn’t seem possible before retirement, or even after. Under normal conditions, stepping out of the daily rat race was not an option. Free time, time to think, time to do some writing, time to spend with loved ones were mentioned as unexpected and valuable benefits of the crisis. A slower pace of life afforded by not having to use crowded means of public transport was emphasized, not surprisingly, by people living in London and Tokyo.

New forms of communication were welcomed rather than seen as an additional burden, be it for work or pleasure.

Values. Some respondents saw in the crisis an inspiring opportunity to reflect on essentials, human values, one’s own life, to stop and think and deepen one’s self-knowledge. Given the origin of the crisis, it is perhaps a bit surprising that health is cited as ‘the best’ just once. However, worries about one’s own health or that of others figure prominently, which is also indicative of values. Another value worth mentioning is adaptability or resilience, a most useful capacity when it comes to confronting unexpected or threatening situations.

Hope for the future

COVID-19, as we have seen, made and continues to make us think; it couldn’t be otherwise. You would have to be monomaniacal to shield your attention from the subject. For this reason, as some of them commented, the participants in this poll appreciated the opportunity to contemplate planning for the future after the crisis. The list of hoped-for effects and future changes is long. It ranges from the instant and personal – a teenager from Paris longs for ‘the seaside in the summer rather than a second wave’ – to the long-term and global – an economist from California hopes ‘that America can remain as world power and counter weight to Russia and China’. These two examples are somewhat idiosyncratic, however, they both refer to COVID-19 and thus illustrate as how comprehensive its effects are perceived. Some more typical hopes are as follows.

Lessons. ‘To be better prepared medically and organisationally’ and ‘that the lessons we collectively draw from this pandemic help make this small world a better place’ are two variations of many on the theme of lessons to be learned.

Vaccine. Several participants hope that scientists will point the way out of the crisis by providing an effective vaccine and treatment drug.

Better prepared. ‘Next time’ national health services and other institutions should be better prepared for emergencies, which some see as a motivation to rethink, if not abandon, the efficiency-oriented economic system that dominates the world in which we live, for this system is based on probability calculations, rather than (inefficient) precautions. How do we calculate the likelihood of a global catastrophe to happen? Since this remains an open question, an Italian economist in her answer about hope for the future feels compelled to say that ‘there is none, unless we learn to redistribute wealth differently and think differently about the economy.’

Climate. Many participants hope for better environmental protection and ‘a more sustainable lifestyle’ emphasizing the opportunity ‘to confront climate change’. A political scientist from Bonn points out that the educational elite can contribute to this aim by reducing flights, many of which, the crisis has shown, are unnecessary. Climate change is also the prompt for some to express their hope that the future will be understood more as a global future.

Innovations. The pandemic has caused and/or promoted many innovations in various fields, especially technology and organization. By and large, it is hoped that these will be maintained after the crisis, although a caveat is also being expressed: ‘I can only hope that the new emerging ‘normal’ of working and contacting via an array of online devices will not impose on us a dystopia of constant government control.’

Normal life. Yet, a quick return to ‘normal life’ is hoped for by some and dreaded by others who wish ‘that we do not return to pre-Corona times (economically, politically, psychologically, and rhetorically)’.

TRUTH. One hope that resonates in many answers, though it is not always made explicit, concerns the truth. This has to do with the willingness on the part of governments honestly to communicate with the public, but also with the fact that in this age of uncertainty there is a strong desire for truth as a guideline to act. ‘I hope that there will be no more cover up,’ is the most explicit expression of this hope regarding the former aspect. As regards the latter, especially when we are among scientists, since, unlike the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century in Europe, we cannot attribute COVID-19 to the wrath of God, we have to live with trust in and hunger for truth as well as the insight that at best we can satiate it temporarily. Yet truth gives us hope.


A complete list of responses can be found here:  https://www.uni-due.de/in-east/101voices_covid19

[1] Original title: 復活の日fukatsu no hi, ‘day of resurrection’. One of the film’s posters woos the viewers by revealing: ‘The entire world is a graveyard.’

[2] The title of a 1983 book by political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool.

[3] https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/un-tackling-%E2%80%98infodemic%E2%80%99-misinformation-and-cybercrime-covid-19

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