Humans always create new safety zones

Passengers wearing protective facemasks to help
Passengers wearing protective facemasks to help stop the spread of a deadly SARS-like virus arrive at Beijing railway station in on January 24, 2020. China has shut down public transport in 13 cities in an unprecedented quarantine effort. PHOTO | AFP 

A lot of people have said that coronavirus is going to change the world and clearly it is. How many of our airlines will survive? What will government finances look like afterwards? A list can go on and on about how we will all be, after everything.

However, there is a disruption underway that is far deeper than whether we travel less in future or end up with a better health system, and that has to do with the ways in which this plague is pushing us all out of our comfort zones.

For the point about going out to work, engaging with tasks, doing them as part of a team, is that it takes us outside of ourselves.

Few of us get time for much internal reflection when deadlines are looming. We have to be at an 8:30am breakfast meeting and then speak to three people or work will stop on a workstream: every day we are busy.

Similarly, we may be a farmer and life isn’t that great, our crops are suboptimal, maybe we’re owed a lot of back payments by one of the more afflicted parastatals, but we need to get fertiliser down today.


And then along comes the virus.

Now when a vehicle is moving, even if bumpily, badly, with breakdowns, or way too slowly, a lot of people will stay on that transport, hanging onto it as the ‘known’ to get where they want to go, or, as some philosophers would posit, where they think they want to go having been infused with wants and desires by surrounding ideas.

But take away all the wheels, or the entire vehicle, and everything changes. The beginning point is shock and horror. No way forward now that old way. It’s gone. And then comes a new moment, the: so what now? We start reviewing what we want (and need) and how best to get it.

Thus, this virus is suddenly pushing huge numbers of people into a rethink that never would have happened so long as they were scraping through or settled into a humdrum routine.

heady sunsets

Even for those with financial security, it has pushed them back into their homes, sometimes with their nearest and dearest, not just for some holidays of heady sunsets, but into their bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, day after day, where they are inevitably reviewing the sum, and their choices.

Indeed, personal relationships are going to go through an overhaul: for those with ‘bumpy’ partners who lived in bars now have those partners in the home, and it may not be so great after all.

Moreover, for everyone, this sudden pushback to the basics of our lives is being accompanied by shock, fear and the looming spectre of illness and death.

The sum is a profound destabilisation of each of us and thus of the structure of our society.

Indeed, from the perspective of the philosopher Noam Chomsky, all the ideas, statements and habits that dictate our conformity and good behaviour are now being disrupted. We are being pushed into feeling very unsafe. Not that feeling safe was much on our menu in Kenya beforehand. But now we feel far more insecure and we are looking at things with the previous frame removed.

soaring discontent

Back to Chomsky, who observes that economic growth stills discontent.

Taking away the growth and even underlying incomes will now lead to soaring discontent. But discontent can play out in extraordinary ways.

Some of our most vigorous and successful societies have been the very ones that were most wrecked, be it Japan after the nuclear bombs of World War Two or Vietnam after its long and painful war.

When everything around us is shaken up, human beings always create new ways and different zones of safety and control.

The broken bus has ceased all movement. But that will deliver new ways of doing things, and many of us will look back and wonder why we stayed on that bus as long as we did. Just watch. Change isn’t always as bad as we think.

And maybe we needed a moment to review the breakdowns and find better ways: sitting in our homes, as we are.