Zizek: There will be no return to normality after Covid. We are entering a post-human era & will have to invent a new way of life

By: Slavoj Zizek

It’s time to accept that the pandemic has changed the way we exist forever. Now the human race has to embark on the profoundly difficult and painful process of deciding what form the ‘new normality’ is going to take.

The world has lived with the pandemic for most of 2020, but what is our situation with regard to it now, in early December, in the middle of what the European media is terming ‘the second wave’? Firstly, we should not forget that the distinction between the first and second wave is centred on Europe: in Latin America the virus followed a different path. The peak was reached in between the two European waves, and now, as Europe suffers the second of these, the situation in Latin America has marginally improved.

We should also bear in mind the variations in how the pandemic affects different classes (the poor have been hit more badly), different races (in the US, the blacks and Latinos suffer much more) and the different sexes.

And we should be especially mindful of countries where the situation is so bad – because of war, poverty, hunger and violence – that the pandemic is considered one of the minor evils. Consider, for example, Yemen. As the Guardian reported, “In a country stalked by disease, Covid barely registers. War, hunger and devastating aid cuts have made the plight of Yemenis almost unbearable.” Similarly, when the short war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Covid clearly became less of a priority. However, in spite of these complications, there are some generalisations we can make when comparing the second wave with the peak of the first wave.

What we have discovered about the virus

For a start, some hopes have been dashed. Herd immunity doesn’t appear to work. And deaths are at a record level in Europe, so the hope that we have a milder variation of the virus even though it is spreading more than ever doesn’t hold.

We are also dealing with many unknowns, especially about how the virus is spreading. In some countries, this impenetrability has given birth to a desperate search for guilty parties, such as private home gatherings and work places. The oft-heard phrase that we have to ‘learn to live with the virus’ just expresses our capitulation to it.

While vaccines bring hope, we should not expect they will magically bring an end to all our troubles and the old normality will return. Distribution of the vaccines will be our biggest ethical test: will the principle of universal distribution that covers all of humanity survive, or will it be diluted through opportunist compromises?

It’s also obvious that the limitations of the model which many countries are following – that of striking a balance between fighting the pandemic and keeping the economy alive – are increasingly being demonstrated. The only thing that appears to really work is radical lockdown. Take, for example, the state of Victoria in Australia: in August it had 700 new cases per day, but in late November, Bloomberg reported that it “has gone 28 days with no new cases of the virus, an enviable record as the US and many European countries grapple with surging infections or renewed lockdowns.”

And with regard to mental health, we can now say, in retrospect, that the reaction of people at the peak of the first wave was a normal and healthy response when faced with a threat: their focus was on avoiding infection. It was as if most of them simply didn’t have time for mental problems. Although there is much talk today about mental problems, the predominant way people relate to the epidemic is a strange mix of disparate elements. In spite of the rising number of infections, in most countries the pandemic is still not taken too seriously. In some strange sense, ‘life goes on’. In Western Europe, many people are more concerned if they will be able to celebrate Christmas and do the shopping, or if they will be able to take their usual winter holidays.

Transitioning from fear to depression

However, this ‘life goes on’ stance – indications that we have somehow learned to live with the virus – is quite the opposite of relaxation because the worst is over. It is inextricably mixed with despair, violations of state regulations and protests against them. Since there is no clear perspective offered, there is something deeper than fear at work: we have passed from fear to depression. We feel fear when there is a clear threat, and we feel frustration when obstacles emerge again and again which prevent us from reaching what we strive for. But depression signals that our desire itself is vanishing.

What causes such a sense of disorientation is that the clear order of causality appears to us as perturbed. In Europe, for reasons which remain unclear, the numbers of infections are now falling in France and rising in Germany. Without anyone knowing exactly why, countries which were a couple of months ago held as models of how to deal with the pandemic are now its worst victims. Scientists play with different hypotheses, and this very disunity strengthens a sense of confusion and contributes to a mental crisis.

What further strengthens this disorientation is the mixture of different levels that characterises the pandemic. Christian Drosten, the leading German virologist, pointed out that the pandemic is not just a scientific or health phenomenon, but a natural catastrophe. One should add to this that it is also a social, economic and ideological phenomenon: its actual effect incorporates all these elements.

For example, CNN reports that in Japan, more people died from suicide in October than from Covid during the entirety of 2020, and women were impacted most. But the majority of individuals committed suicide because of the predicament they found themselves in because of the pandemic, so their deaths are collateral damage.

There is also the impact the pandemic is having on the economy. In the Western Balkans, hospitals are pushed over the edge. As a doctor from Bosnia said, “One of us can do the work of three (people), but not of five.” As France24 reported, one cannot understand this crisis without reflecting on the “brain drain crisis, with an exodus of promising young doctors and nurses leaving to seek better wages and training abroad.”  So, again, the catastrophic impact of the pandemic is clearly caused also by the emigration of the workforce.

Accepting the disappearance of our social life

We can therefore safely conclude that one thing is sure: if the pandemic really does proceed in three waves, the general character of each wave will be different. The first wave understandably focused our attention on the health issues, on how to prevent the virus from expanding to an intolerable level. That’s why most countries accepted quarantines, social distancing etc. Although the numbers of infected are much higher in the second wave, the fear of long-term economic consequences is nonetheless growing. And if the vaccines will not prevent the third wave, one can be sure that its focus will be on mental health, on the devastating consequences of the disappearance of what we perceive as normal social life. This is why, even if the vaccines work, mental crises will persist.

The ultimate question we are facing is this: Should we strive for a return to our ‘old’ normality? Or should we accept that the pandemic is one of the signs that we are entering a new ‘post-human’ era (‘post-human’ with regard to our predominant sense of what being human means)? This is clearly not just a choice that concerns our psychic life. It is a choice that is in some sense ‘ontological’, it concerns our entire relation to what we experience as reality.

The conflicts over how best to deal with the pandemic are not conflicts between different medical opinions; they are serious existential ones. Here is how Brenden Dilley, a Texas chat-show host, explained why he is not wearing a mask: “Better to be dead than a dork. Yes, I mean that literally. I’d rather die than look like an idiot right now.” Dilley refuses to wear a mask since, for him, walking around with a mask is incompatible with human dignity at its most basic level.

What is at stake is our basic stance towards human life. Are we – like Dilley – libertarians who reject any encroaching upon our individual freedoms? Are we utilitarians ready to sacrifice thousands of lives for the economic wellbeing of the majority? Are we authoritarians who believe that only a tight state control and regulation can save us? Are we New Age spiritualists who think the epidemic is a warning from nature, a punishment for our exploitation of natural resources? Do we trust that God is just testing us and will ultimately help us to find a way out? Each of these stances relies on a specific vision of what humans are. It concerns the level at which we are, in some sense, all philosophers.

Taking all this into account, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben claims that if we accept the measures against the pandemic, we thereby abandon open social space as the core of our being human and turn into isolated survival machines controlled by science and technology, serving the state administration. So even when our house is on fire, we should gather the courage to go on with life as normal and eventually die with dignity. He writes: “Nothing I’m doing makes any sense if the house is on fire. Yet even when the house is on fire it is necessary to continue as before, to do everything with care and precision, perhaps even more so than before – even if no one notices. Perhaps life itself will disappear from the face of the earth, perhaps no memory whatsoever will remain of what has been done, for better or for worse. But you continue as before, it is too late to change, there is no time anymore.

One should note an ambiguity in Agamben’s line of argumentation: is “the house on fire” due to the pandemic, global warming etc? Or is our house on fire because of the way we (over)reacted to the reality of the pandemic? “Today the flame has changed its form and nature, it has become digital, invisible and cold – but precisely for this very reason it is even closer still and surrounds us at every moment.” These lines clearly sound Heideggerian: they locate the basic danger in how the pandemic strengthened the way medical science and digital control regulate our reaction to it.

Why we cannot maintain our old way of life

Does this mean that, if we oppose Agamben, we should resign ourselves to the loss of humanity and forget the social freedoms we were used to? Even if we ignore the fact that these freedoms were actually much more limited than it may appear, the paradox is that only by way of passing through the zero point of this disappearance can we keep the space open for the new freedoms-to-come.

If we stick to our old way of life, we will for sure end in new barbarism. In the US and Europe, the new barbarians are precisely those who violently protest against anti-pandemic measures on behalf of personal freedom and dignity – those like Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in- law, who, back in April, bragged that Trump was taking the country “back from the doctors” – in short, back from those who only can help us.

However, one should note that in the very last paragraph of his text, Agamben leaves open the possibility that a new form of post-human spirituality will emerge. “Today humankind is disappearing, like a face drawn in the sand and washed away by the waves. But what is taking its place no longer has a world; it is merely a bare and muted life without history, at the mercy of the computations of power and science. Perhaps, however, it is only by beginning from this wreckage that something else can appear, whether slowly or abruptly – certainly not a god, but not another man either – a new animal perhaps, a soul that lives in some other way…

Agamben alludes here to famous lines from Foucault’s Les mot et les choses when he refers to humankind disappearing like a figure drawn on sand being erased by waves on a shore. We are effectively entering what can be called a post-human era. The pandemic, global warming and the digitalisation of our lives – including direct digital access to our psychic life – corrode the basic coordinates of our being human.

So how can (post-)humanity be reinvented? Here is a hint. In his opposition to wearing protective masks, Giorgio Agamben refers to French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his claim that the face “speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised.” The face is the part of another’s body through which the abyss of the Other’s imponderable Otherness transpires.

Agamben’s obvious conclusion is that, by rendering the face invisible, the protective mask renders invisible the invisible abyss itself which is echoed by a human face. Really?

There is a clear Freudian answer to this claim: Freud knew well why, in an analytical session – when it gets serious, i.e. after the so-called preliminary encounters – the patient and the analyst are not confronting each other face to face. The face is at its most basic a lie, the ultimate mask, and the analyst only accedes to the abyss of the Other by NOT seeing its face.

Accepting the challenge of post-humanity is our only hope. Instead of dreaming about a ‘return to (old) normality’ we should engage in a difficult and painful process of constructing a new normality. This construction is not a medical or economic problem, it is a profoundly political one: we are compelled to invent a new form of our entire social life.

Source and Image: https://www.rt.com/op-ed/508940-normality-covid-pandemic-return/

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The trauma left by Spain’s coronavirus lockdown: ‘I have never felt panic going outside until now’

Europe / Spain / 08/07/2020 / Authors: Noor mahtani and Miguel Ángel medina / Source: english.elpais.com


Although the confinement measures have ended, many people still feel anxious about leaving their homes and are worried about the risk of contagion.


“I have traveled around Africa, I have seen people die in the street, I have been in Colombia with the Zika [virus] and in Congo with Ebola, but I have never felt panic going outside like I do now,” says David Martín, a 48-year-old researcher. Martín, who is from Granada but lives in Madrid, has still not stepped outside even though Spain lifted the state of alarm on June 21. “I have recurring nightmares about diseases. I don’t go outside unless I am taking out the trash,” he adds. Psychologists refer to this as the fear of leaving a place after a long period of reclusion, and it can affect women and men of all ages.

“It is not a pathology or a disease but it could lead to one,” says psychologist Laura Croas, who is an expert in emotional engineering. “It is the consequence of an exceptional situation which in this case has been confinement,” she continues. For people who found a place of comfort and safety in their homes during the coronavirus lockdown, going outside and doing everyday activities like visiting friends, taking public transport or walking in busy places can be mission impossible. “It generates fear in those who are doing something for the first time,” Croas explains. To alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed, she recommends taking small steps: going for a walk around the block, avoiding peak hours when there are more people on the street and meeting up with small groups.

Sometimes this fear can go further. According to a recent study by the Spanish medical insurance company Sanitas, 8% of Spaniards believe they will need psychological help to recover from the scars caused by the coronavirus lockdown, which was introduced in mid-March. The study, which interviewed a thousand people, showed that the state of alarm took a larger emotional toll on women, people under the age of 35, and those who have needed psychological help in the past.

Sweaty hands, anxiety and dizziness. This is what Cristina feels every time she has tried to go outside. She has still not managed it. “Confinement changed me. Just thinking about stepping out onto the street scares me,” she explains. According to Cristina, who preferred not to give her surname, the feelings of panic have even led to nightmares, and the 40-year-old has been seeing a psychologist remotely for three weeks to try to find a solution. “Now, with meditation and breathing exercises, I am getting better, but I think I will be confined for more time.”

Victoria Cadarso, an expert psychologist in trauma, says that in cases such as Cristina’s, it’s important to seek help. “It is the same with any other traumatic experience. Once the source is understood, it can be managed.” Last Wednesday, Cadarso gave a workshop on fear management to more than 2,300 people across the world. “It’s common behavior. There is not a clear profile of the people it affects, it depends on each person’s experience and level of resilience.”

“Until there’s a vaccine, I’m not going out”

Croas warns that young people and adolescents have replaced face-to-face social gatherings with video games and video calls as a result of this fear. Ángeles (fictitious name) has still not seen her friends or his family. “Until there’s a vaccine, I don’t think I’m going to go out. Perhaps later on I will start going out in open spaces, but I don’t see myself having dinner at a restaurant or going into a shop,” she says. The 27-year-old has not sought psychological help, but she is considering it. “I have had to go out three times to go to the doctor and all three times I got very nervous. I was very keen to get back home,” she explains. “When we were given permission to go out for walks, I tried to leave, but seeing so many people I felt overwhelmed. It was also very hard for me to breathe with the face mask on, so I decided I couldn’t go out again,” she adds.

The fear affects people of all ages. Pilar Orgaz, a 67-year-old retiree, does not want to leave her apartment in Villaverde. In three months, she has only left once to go to the hairdresser. But she believes it’s because she hasn’t wanted to. “I miss going out and seeing my friends, but I have more worries than a desire to go outside,” she says. Orgaz doesn’t even go out to go for a walk, instead using a treadmill at home. Her husband has tried to convince her to spend some days in their apartment by the beach, but she has refused. “What happens if they shut down the country again? Too many people get together too much, they’re not being careful anymore. There are definitely going to be outbreaks [of the coronavirus],” she says.

There are other people, like Daniel Vega, who have reconnected with their homes. The 36-year-old freelancer, who works in the audiovisual sector, has not left his Madrid apartment once since March 11, three days before the Spanish government declared a state of alarm in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus. “I have rediscovered my home. Before I had two jobs and I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t have time to stop and read a book or play a video game. I have also discovered the joy of cooking and eating with calm,” he says. His partner walks their dog and they buy their groceries online. “I have made the decision not to leave out of respect for my friends who are health workers. I am not afraid, but rather responsible. Many people are irresponsible and there will be [coronavirus] outbreaks. I will not have a problem going out when things begin to calm down,” he adds.

According to one survey, 8% of Spaniards believe they will need psychological help to recover from the scars caused by the coronavirus lockdown

María Zaragoza, a writer, says she has always liked to stay at home so the lockdown was not difficult for her. “I used to travel a lot and I always missed home. The shutdown due to the confinement measures has helped me a lot to work on a novel. I think people who like being at home have had an easier time. I have only gone out to take out the trash and go to the supermarket,” says the 37-year-old from Castilla-La Mancha. For now, she has decided to remain in her home in Castilleja de Guzmán in Seville and not to see friends or revive her social life. “I miss seeing my family. Before I traveled once a month to Campo de Criptana [in Ciudad Real] to see them. But I don’t feel like getting on a train with a face mask and without there being distance with other passengers,” she says.

David Martín has had the same problem. “I bought two tickets to visit my parents in Granada but in the end I had to cancel them because I didn’t think I was capable of going. I was scared of infecting them,” he explains. “I stopped watching the news to see if my mindset changed, but to no effect. The other day I saw that there were another 200 cases and that made me feel worse again.” Martín is waiting for something he can’t define to happen before he can return to his normal life. “I hope that then I can go out without any problem.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

Source and image:  https://english.elpais.com/society/2020-07-02/the-trauma-left-by-spains-coronavirus-lockdown-i-have-never-felt-panic-going-outside-until-now.html

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Coronavirus hoaxes spread fear of Madrileños in southern Spain

Europe / Spain / 08/04/2020 / Author: EVA SAIZ / Javier Arroyo/ Source: english.elpais.com

Local mayors have had to refute fake messages warning villagers that ill families from the capital have arrived in town to get away from the center of the epidemic.

“Families, be careful because there’s a man from Madrid who lives on Azahín street who’s got the virus.” This was the first sentence from a voice message sent via the WhatsApp messaging service last weekend by a resident of Cazalla de la Sierra, in Seville province.

The voice recording was quickly shared in this municipality of no more than 5,000 inhabitants nestled in the mountains of Seville province, where the mayor recently explained that everyone is keeping close tabs on who goes in and out of town, and reporting any “suspicious” movements to the police.

Although Mayor Sotero Martín has since made a statement stressing that the WhatsApp message is a fabrication, the hoax did nothing to improve the mood in a village that is angry at the fact that many Madrileños initially fled to their holiday homes to escape the main epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in Spain.

On March 14, the Spanish government declared a state of alarm and confined people to their homes. The police have since stopped scores of Spaniards attempting to drive to their second residences in various parts of the territory.

Like Cazalla, many villages in Andalusia – and elsewhere in Spain – that once welcomed visitors are now taking unilateral steps to keep out unwanted outsiders. This includes erecting physical barriers on access roads.

“The situation has calmed down, but the arrival of Madrileños during the state of alarm has created a lot of concern,” explains Cazalla’s mayor, Sotero Martín.

A truck creating a roadblock to keep visitors out of Setenil de las Bodegas, in Cádiz province.
A truck creating a roadblock to keep visitors out of Setenil de las Bodegas, in Cádiz province.

“They show up here, thinking this is a virus-free zone because we are in the middle of the mountains, but we are subjected to the same rules as everyone else,” he adds. “Measures have been taken and there are increased road checks to stop travelers coming from Madrid.”

Martín says that before the confinement orders were issued, some Madrid residents had already shown up in town. These included an elderly couple who came because the husband, a native of Cazalla, thought the mountain air might be good for his wife, who was experiencing respiratory problems. She has since passed away, although there is no confirmation of whether she had the coronavirus.

“We have nothing against people coming here from Madrid; many of them have relatives here, and we need them because we are part of Spain’s underpopulated areas, but they also need to understand that we want people to act responsibly,” says Martín.

More hoaxes

The fear of Madrileños is spreading. Another hoax involving an alleged family from Madrid whose members are ill has made the rounds in Turre, in Almería province. The mayor, Martín Morales Fuentes, was forced to to issue a statement on Facebook admitting that some neighbors had filed a complaint over an occupied holiday apartment. The statement added that both the Civil Guard and local police are investigating how long the occupants have been there, and asked government authorities to either expel them or ensure they remain “confined and under tight control.” The mayor has denied that the occupants of this apartment have tested positive for the coronavirus.

And in Aguilar de la Frontera, in Córdoba province, a message made the rounds last week claiming that a well-known family from Madrid was in town. The mayor, Carmen Flores, was forced to make a statement and apologize to the family, whose members are in fact in Madrid, observing the confinement orders – and now also considering whether to take legal action against the individuals who started the rumor.

English version by Susana Urra.

Source and image:  https://english.elpais.com/society/2020-04-07/coronavirus-hoaxes-spread-fear-of-madrilenos-in-southern-spain.html

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