Covid thoughts

The darkness of the Covid pandemic will have no control over our minds if we remain human and retain our capacity to love and hope

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WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

We are now hundreds of days into MCOs, EMCOs and other such restricted ‘movement control orders’, some of which are like a blur of vague, constantly changing rules.

The spirit can be heavy with anxiety, worry and boredom. Mental health experts worldwide do record increased incidences of depression, even suicide. This essay will not skirt around the darkness that threatens to engulf us, so you may not want to read on. But if you do, hopefully you may find a beacon of light that is, paradoxically, born from this ‘darkness’.

My first thoughts are always for the frontliners, medical and otherwise. I start with the hospital cleaners and valiant garbage disposal people. It does not matter if they are migrant workers or our own citizens; they are all human beings.

Why do I start at this so-called lowest rung of the hierarchy? Because these are the people who are commonly overlooked and whose essential, even life-saving acts, are rarely recognised. Imagine the best hospital with the best specialist doctors with no cleaners and you don’t need me to draw a graphic picture of horror for you.

Dirt, grime, microbes, viruses, bacteria are constantly around us, yet we prefer to shut them out of the mind’s eye in a kind of consumerist denial of things ugly. Consumerism works on delighting the senses: food, drinks, clothes, cosmetics (for women? No, men too, as we can see from ads targeting the male metrosexual) and so on. Caught in a whirl of glorious consumerism, we shall just leave the rubbish to the garbage guys and get on with our elegant lives.

A pandemic upends this complacency. It erodes our confident control of the joys of bourgeois or upper-class lives, mandating new reflections for the thinking person.

Returning to our frontliners, I refer to a gruesome, yet enlightening, report given in a newspaper interview by an assistant medical officer in the Forensics Department of a local hospital, a division of our hospitals which the lay person may know little about. This department deals with dead people, with bodies to be disposed of.

Tired and exhausted, this medical officer also speaks for his colleagues who are similarly burnt out. The public may not know that Covid-19 cremations take double the time of other cremations because the body bags have to be made out of two layers of high-density plastic! In that hospital, sometimes as many as 15 bodies a night have to be cremated. This figure must have surged since the interview because of the leap in the number of deaths, with some brought in dead or dying.

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There is something valiant in keeping to your posts when the ‘enemy’ is not only at the door but has entered the premises. I salute our medical and other frontliners who have stood their ground.

Allow me to quote from the novel The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus, where Dr Rieux, tending to patients afflicted with the plague in the horrific world imagined by Camus, says: “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need caring.”

Is it mere duty or is it fear of losing a job or is it a bonus that makes people keep doing their jobs in the midst of great risks? Or, is it something harder to name which resides in human beings? Realistic as Camus was – and the last person to be giving in to facile, shallow romanticism – he still says, “I know that Man is capable of great deeds.”

We have had many uplifting posts on social media encouraging us to believe that the darkness’ of the Covid pandemic has not blotted out all light. A nurse, pregnant and tired, still took on her shifts. Hospital administrative staff have kept at their posts.

In my last essay on Covid, I mentioned various kind acts by community groups, even by refugees who themselves have so little, to help others. For me, the compassion shown to those flying white flags reinvigorates our flagging energy and refreshes us from months of Covid fatigue.

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‘White’ in no way spells surrender; it symbolises a letting go of pride, not of dignity, in an acknowledgement of need. On the side of the donors, it denotes the purity of helping without need for returns. So putting one’s photo on food aid bags, as some did when they helped communities in need, is quite obscene. Looks like we can only be hopeful by looking at the actions of ordinary citizens rather than the strategies of the powerful.

Love, empathy, duty – these are what Camus still believes in, not sentimentally, but through a clear-eyed look at horrific darkness. I am encouraged by these memorable lines from the novel: “They knew now that if there is one thing you can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”

Yet to soldier on requires the kind of defiant strength that Camus portrays in his Sisyphus, a man condemned to push a big rock up a hill each day, an absurd form of punishment. The rock rolls down, and so begins the endless daily torment of gruelling labour. Many of our frontliners, medical and otherwise, must empathise fully with Sisyphus.

And yet Camus would have us believe that Sisyphus is ‘happy’. What an absurd conclusion! But if we read Camus carefully, we see that the form of happiness Camus proposes is not facile, certainly not surface joy. It is ‘joy’ born of a resilient acceptance of human struggles in a pandemic-ravaged world, a world far removed from the elegance, the eternal youthfulness, the perfection of the consumerist haven so overwhelmingly promoted in advertisements.

We now live in a world where doctors have to decide who merits a ventilator, who thus lives and who dies. The stuff of frightening Hollywood sci-fi movies has become our reality.

For the existentialist hero, Dr Rieux of Camus’s novel, Man can only call on himself, not a divine being, to live out such soul-wrenching moments. Camus in fact questions the faith of the priest in the plague-infested town.

But I prefer to read this novel not as a total denial of the Almighty. Yes, Camus calls on the strength he feels still resides in Man but he also shows the torment of Dr Rieux as he tries to dredge up this strength which perhaps the doctor can find no name for.

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For me, a Christian, the priest in the novel tries too hard to explain, to sermonise in order to have the strength to carry on. Perhaps there are moments in human existence where our words just cannot explain anything. We each have to find our own wordless sanctuary of faith, hope and strength. For many of us this would come from some source so much more infinite, omnipotent and vast than ourselves.

As I write this, Covid cases continue to rise in Malaysia. Hospitals are chockful of patients; frontliners are exhausted as we can see from social media posts.

Transparency, honesty and efficiency must be the key concern of those in charge and not the defiant ‘save face’ denial from some quarters. I urge the defensive, ‘save face’ types to heed this admonishment from Saidina Ali: “The wise man when proven wrong will improve himself; the ignorant will keep on arguing.” Do not punish those brave enough to speak out; be courageous enough to man up and face your own lack.

And the rakyat will not be complacent. We shall watch the actions of the powerful vigilantly even as we police our own SOP [standard operating procedure] because we care for ourselves, our families and communities. With Covid spreading rapidly worldwide, we pray vaccinations will be ramped up, prove effective and will not be politicised.

In joining in prayer with others all over the world, we join with them in hope too, for as Camus tells us, in speaking of the plague pandemic in his novel, “once the faintest stirrings of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.” 

The darkness of the Covid pandemic will have no control over our minds if we remain human and heed what Camus says – that “a loveless world is a dead world”.

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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
25 Jul 2021 12.48pm

Very good uplifting article. Congrats to you for this article.