There is a great difference between panic and awareness. With awareness there is responsibility, a respect for the scale of the problem, and a calm consciousness of what needs to be done.
One can be aware of the coronavirus, aware of what needs to be done to minimise its spread – and we must do those things. But one should not make the situation worse with the negative imagination that is fear. For, like fire, imagination can create or it can destroy. It can make us act from our worst selves. That is what panic does. Panic is fear on steroids. With panic, sanity is lost. Ever since the virus entered our mental culture, it has become omnipresent. We have been engulfed in its world, in its fearsome power.
Many friends I spoke to on the phone said that just from reading too much about it, there were times at night when they felt pains in their chests or a fleeting inability to breathe. A few moments later they felt better. After a check-up, they found nothing wrong with them. They had simply imagined intensely the symptoms they read about and began to experience them in their bodies. It occurred to me that there might be a dimension to the pandemic that could be called mental contagion.
Is it possible to obsess about something till one becomes sick with it? People have made themselves ill with their own minds. If this can happen with individual obsession, what happens when a whole culture obsesses over something as potent to the imagination as the current pandemic?
Perhaps it is time to develop another mental contagion to counteract the force of the deadly one. Perhaps it is time to develop a contagion of courage, good health, and solidarity. Not enough has been said about the role of our mental condition in fighting the virus. Fear brings out the worst in us, it makes us panic buyers. But generosity of spirit makes us think of our common survival. This awakens in us creative ways of coping with the stresses resulting from the necessary measures to contain the spread of the virus. We are never more resourceful than when we act from courage.
Not only will we survive this pandemic, but we will be judged by how we survived it, by what we become afterwards. We will either be transformed by what we did or damaged by how we failed to live up to our potential for goodness. We are making ourselves all the time, but never so much as when we are faced with an existential crisis.
During the second world war, Britain was fortunate in having a leader who helped the nation prove herself greater than its adversity. Britain’s response to that moment defined its character. We are in one of those moments in history when we are given an unprecedented crisis in order that we may gift ourselves with an extraordinary response that can change our destiny as a species forever. We are at a fulcrum. Given the way we have managed life on this planet over the last 150 years, some sort of disaster was inevitable. We have overdrawn on the bank of our futures. We have exhausted the planet’s goodwill. There are those who speak of the current pandemic as nature pressing the reset button, nature speaking back at humanity for the unthinkable ways in which we have abused and depleted her. They see it as nature’s response to our arrogance.
It is therefore an important moment for us to re-examine our conscience as a species. A moment to take stock. The questions raised by the pandemic should spill over into all the other issues through which future disasters might arise, issues of climate change, surveillance, civil rights, universal healthcare, justice and poverty. Humanity is transformed by those who took from tragedy the highest lessons. In Britain, after the second world war, one of the greatest alterations made was the creation of the welfare state, with the health service as its jewel. The NHS has been under great strain these last 20 years. But it is now, during this pandemic, that we see the value of this ideal of universal healthcare, paid for by the citizens.
A pandemic of selfishness has eroded some of the best things the world learned from two world wars. We are gradually forgetting the value of international cooperation. Values of the market have taken over from values of human solidarity. And even of human life. Our judgments have been skewed by the measures of the money rather than measures of the heart.
This is another way of saying that we have lost our way. We are deep in a new wasteland. We got here because only one kind of voice has been powerfully heard, the voice of financial success. Other voices, just as valuable, have not been heard enough. What voices are these? They are the voices that speak for nature, for the poor, for justice: voices easily ridiculed.
We have entered the age of catastrophes. They will be universal in effect because the problems of the world are now universal. The climate catastrophe will not choose one country over another.
So much bitterness has divided us of late. Doctrines of division have nowhere to take us. There is no real destiny any more for small-minded dreams. The scale of our challenges must alter the scale of our visionary response.
The panic, driven by fear, ought to be replaced with a passion for a better life for the planet and its people. We will not acquire the calm we need to deal with this pandemic through a fear of death. What we need is a respect for death and a new hunger for life. We could begin now to create the best chapter in the human story. It could be said of us, in the future, that faced with a viral catastrophe we did something amazing. Imagine if the leaders of the world chose at this moment to put in place policies that could reverse climate change, bring health and education to all its people, and kill off the virus of poverty that has spread untold misery.
This might sound fanciful. But history has always been made by those who guided us with vision at moments of our greatest crisis. All our myths point in two directions. We either go upwards, towards the true meaning of civilisation, or we head for an apocalypse.
Tragic times call for extraordinary qualities. We are made for heroic realities. We have always known what to do. Our ancestors coded our choices for us in fables and legends. But we got deaf to what we needed to hear most.
What we need to hear most is now speaking with the sinister voice of death. Perhaps we will begin to listen.
The real tragedy would be if we come through this pandemic without changing for the better. It would be as if all those deaths, all that suffering, all the deaths to come, all the suffering to come, would mean nothing.
• Ben Okri is a Nigerian novelist and poet. His most recent two books are The Freedom Artist, a novel, and Prayer for the Living, a volume of stories
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