Two years of restrictions and millions of deaths brought on by the pandemic might have had us reflect on the reality of suffering and death, but as booming pharmaceutical and retailing figures suggested, nothing can distract modern folk from their love of distraction. A view from an Argentine physician.
BUENOS AIRES - Talking about death gets bad press. Our culture hides it, and we shun it and can barely accept it as the final point of our lives. For philosophy, however, death is a star that has irradiated its dim light from the very dawn of thought. For medicine, it is akin to a calendar.
Evidently at certain, crucial moments in our lives we come to face death, through grieving, illness or old age. Collectively, this happens amid tragedies like a plane crash, mass shootings like we've seen recently in the United States or outbreaks of disease like the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic is clearly just one of many 'plagues' that have struck humanity. We needn't go back far to find the HIV-AIDS epidemic. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest of the mass plagues, and precisely as its worst moment has passed in terms of fatalities, this may be a time to reflect on possible meanings of mortality, and particularly the communal experience of witnessing the death of others.
This is precisely the sense explored in an intimate and posthumously published book by the French linguist and intellectual Paul Ricoeur. With characteristic erudition, he took note of the figure of the survivor, or those who outlive their so-called fellow-travelers.
He took particular interest in the experiences of two famous survivors, in their cases of the Nazi death camps: Primo Levi and Jorge Semprún. But as Ricoeur pointed out, whether it be a death camp or a pandemic, we are all, in any case, 'provisional survivors.'
There is clearly no sense in comparing vastly dissimilar situations or in needlessly sowing fear. But one might suitably reflect on the 100,000 people who died of the pandemic just in our country (Argentina), and on death as the great equalizer.
As history recalls, the Black Death cut down one third of Europe's entire population, and might have paved the way for new ideas: humanism, and more egalitarian notions that undermined the reverence shown to princes and prelates. It may be said to have set man's secular creativity in motion.
Our 'digital cave'
Stones left from the "march of the stones" tribute on Aug. 16, 2021, to victims of Covid-19 at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Each stone is meant to represent someone who died from Covid-19.
Today, the South Korean philosopher Buyng-Chul Han observes, adopting a Platonic perspective, that we are living in a "digital cave." Effectively every historical period recreates restrictive chains that limit our ability to take control of our lives.
Confinement proved a tremendous boon for pharmaceutical profits.
If the distraction of the Roman populace was "bread and circus," today we're dulled down with Clonazepam and Netflix. Not surprisingly, two years of pandemic-induced confinement proved a tremendous boon for pharmaceutical profits and online retail.
We are trapped as a society in a collective inability to overcome our fears and ignorance. If instead of trying to escape our lives with pills, entertainment or cynical indifference to it all, we might turn instead to knowing and recognizing our world and other people.
There may be no light left for our deceased, but we could leave the cave and see the light. The end of the tunnel is near.