Fragments against the Ruins

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on April 4 2020

Herd Immunity and Herd Stupidity

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote in this column about the dangers of isolation stemming from an addiction to smart phones and social media. Now social isolation is morally essential. Now people are being condemned for moral turpitude if they do gather together. The UK prime minister has pleaded with people to avoid social gatherings but significant numbers have defied him and flocked to pubs, national parks and beaches. Dozens of visitors to Barry Island in Wales were seen standing in close proximity as they queued to buy chips. According to the satellite navigation company Tom Tom, rush-hour traffic in London has dropped by far less than in other big cities.  Rich people are interpreting the injunction to stay at home to be permission to rush off to the second home in the country thereby placing extra strain on services in rural communities. “A national emergency shutdown of businesses and schools is not an excuse for a holiday,” said Andrew Slattery, assistant chief constable of Cumbria, whose fiefdom covers the Lake District.

Will Not Be Dictated To

The bulldog spirit means the Brits will not be dictated to just for the sake of avoiding a few thousand deaths. Analysis published by University College London found that 20 per cent of the population are in at-risk groups.  On current efforts to limit infections to 10 per cent of the UK population, 35,000 to 70,000 are likely to die.

Some are blaming the victims. Donald Trump insists on calling Covid 19 “the Chinese virus” giving permission to his supporters to assault innocent Chinese people. This brings to mind Susan Sontag’s 1978 essay “The Political Language of Disease” in which she writes: “Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.”

Better in Sri Lanka

I sense that the crisis is being better managed in Sri Lanka than in the UK. There are many examples of individual cases of potentially lethal irresponsibility but not so much of the herd madness exhibited in the UK. There have been mini-riots outside liquor outlets as hundreds of men scramble to stockpile their fix. It is undoubtedly wearisome to have to stock up with essentials in the small window of opportunity provided by the lifting of the curfew. When the curfew was lifted, we ventured to the local shops and I was surprised to find very long but very orderly queues. All the people were wearing masks, standing two metres apart and quietly, patiently waiting. There have been fears that lifting the curfew for short periods will lead to panic. It does not seem to have done so far but resentment and frustration could develop.

People seem to be stoically accepting the cancelling of sporting events and other occasions for people to gather and spread the virus.  I doubt if many will be mourning the closure of one particular assembly. Parliament was dissolved and a general election announced to choose another set of pestilential rogues. The election has now been postponed indefinitely. Oh dear; how sad; never mind.

Take Stock, Don’t Stockpile

There has been a great deal of anger on social media against what some people see as smugness. Those who advocate mindfulness and mediation as a way of coping with the crisis have been roundly excoriated as being boastful about their privilege. There are heart-rending stories of people fearful of losing their livelihood and possibly homes because the virus has made employment impossible. They should not be blaming meditators for this. The virus is an “Act of God” or whatever but blame can be laid at the feet governments which over many decades cut public services to such an extent that they are too fragile to deal with such an emergency.

I recognise my own extreme good fortune in that I do not have to work for a living. I am not boasting when I just say how the crisis is affecting me. I am quite happy to impose self-quarantine without the compulsion of a curfew. The lack of opportunity to venture out leaves more space for mindfulness. I am finding that I am thinking about my actions within a concentrated and concentrating scope rather than flailing around all over the place and fooling myself that I am ‘multi-tasking’. A lot of jobs around the house are getting done after being postponed for a long time. Washing up gets done and put away in case An Inspector Calls. That pile of clothes has been ironed and put away even though I will not be going anywhere for a long time. Thoreau warned: “Beware of any enterprise that requires the purchase of new clothes”. I might adapt that and say “beware of any enterprise that requires ironed clothes”.

Make Do with What You’ve Got

There was a wartime propaganda poster that asked: “Is your journey really necessary?” One might ask today: “Is your purchase really necessary?” Before the situation became as scary as it now is, I contemplated a trip to Colombo. Then I realised that there was no real purpose to my journey. What I usually do is buy some DVDs (last time I ventured out, I noticed that my dealer was enterprising enough to have large stocks of the Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion) buy some books, have lunch. Why not stay home? I have enough books and DVDs and CDs to keep me going for several lifetimes. The curfew is giving me the opportunity to attack this backlog.

This can be transposed to a larger canvas. The god of growth has plagued the world for decades. People have worked long hours to borrow money to pay for things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like and who don’t care anyway. The dominion of the neocons brought deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing which enabled casino capitalism to bring the global economy to the edge of ruin only to be saved by renationalization and pumping in of taxpayers’ money.

Testing Positive

Anastasia Edel, writing to the New York Review of Books from Oakland: “The one thing that’s worth stockpiling is decency… Decency won’t save us, but it will make our altered lives more tolerable, come what may.” It is heartbreaking to think that as if the arbitrary suffering of a pandemic is not punishment enough there are some people who act with unreasoning malice. One English paramedic said: “Just when you thought this country couldn’t get any worse, someone comes along and drills holes in our ambulance tires. So, we’re now all off the road.” Supermarket delivery vans have been set on fire. A friend was loudly abused in a supermarket when she politely asked a man to keep the recommended distance from her. Crooks are calling on elderly people offering ‘virus testing’ so that they can steal from them. People in England are being imprisoned for spitting in the faces of police and care workers.

Against this must be balanced many acts of kindness all over the world. These are bringing the good people together in spite of the social distancing imposed by the pandemic.

Here are some inspiring and practical words by an American Buddhist priest Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.–8cQovOc  “By taking care of ourselves we are performing an act of compassion and protecting others”. Maintain tranquility through sorrow and performing good deeds.

Shored against the Ruins

Time for reflection has spurred me to consider all those poems and books I have gestating within. I should have the time and space to contemplate how to leave something of permanent value. However, this may be a further futility. I am sobered by the prospect of the wine running out and by the thought that there is no future. Humans have driven the world to physical destruction. Global capitalism is struggling to cope with a globalized disease. We are all very frail against powerful forces but we must do our humble best even if it just means being careful and being kind to each other.

A prose poem by Kitty O’Meara has given hope to many.

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”