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?


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