Humanity has been faced with existential risks from time immemorial. Such risks are of two kinds: external and anthropogenic.
Not every generation is exposed to a potentially annihilation event. Ours was faced with a ‘doomsday’ scenario during the Cold War as a result of the threat of nuclear weapons.
Notwithstanding such threats, we have yet to develop a lasting awareness of our common destiny, connect effectively with and behave more responsibly towards each other. In spite of thousands of years of civilisations, for our species, ‘solidarity’, a concept that the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun grappled with in the 14th century, remains a ‘tribalist’ concept.
That this is the case is seen also from Max Weber’s insightful yet inconclusive perspective on the categories of human groups and divisive Trumpesque calls about making this or that country ‘great’ at the expense of everyone else, including ‘strangers’ within. Culture, religious discourse – including that of proselytising faiths – literature, education and everything that exerts a lifelong influence on our development has often been geared mainly towards highlighting what separates rather than what unites the members of the human race.
The ‘us’ and ‘they’ mentality, epitomised in antiquity by the ‘Greek-barbarian’ and ‘Gentile-Jew’ dichotomies, was maintained throughout the Golden Age of Islam through the discourse on the ‘superiority’ of the Orient over the Occident. Modern civilisation also has played a detrimental impact in this respect, starting with the oxymoronically named Enlightenment.
Notwithstanding its Renaissance Humanism origin and achievements, the Enlightenment provided an ideological ‘justification’ for colonialism as a ‘white man’s burden’, thus replacing old polarities with new, equally divisive ones, as epitomised in what Edward W. Said calls, Orientalism. Enlightenment thought also paved the way for the emergence of eugenics, the most repulsive form of scientific racism.
The limited means of communication in the past determined the low awareness of our interconnected existence, especially when faced with cataclysmic events. The emergence of modern newspapers in the mid-17th century, followed by other inventions that resulted in what Daniel J. Boorstin refers to as the ‘Graphic Revolution’, enhanced the potential for human connectivity at unprecedented levels.
Since then, our species has been faced with a global pandemic and is being haunted by a looming man-made annihilation threat. The 1918-1920 Spanish flu is believed to have infected around half a billion people, or one third of the world’s total population at that time, and claimed between 21 to 39 million lives. Following the detonation of two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the nuclear holocaust remains a clear and present danger not just for humans but also planet Earth.
Largely thanks to the power of film, since then humans have developed a morbid fascination with Armageddon scenarios. Numerous cinematic productions serve as constant reminders of our vulnerability to forces beyond our control (Deep Impact 1998) and man-made disasters (Outbreak 1995, Contagion 2011). Following in the footsteps of the horror movies, a genre that thrived during the Cold War projecting the West’s fears related to nuclear proliferation and spread of communist ideas, Hollywood annihilation blockbusters since the early 1990s (Independence Day 1996, Mars Attacks! 1996, Armageddon 1998) are just as ideologically driven.
Far from aiming to forge a new consciousness about the togetherness of our monogenesis race and its shared vulnerable destiny, the main aim of such productions is to highlight the ‘saviour’ role of the US in a mono-superpower world.
A century after the Spanish flu, in spite of numerous warnings about coronavirus, at the start of 2020 we found ourselves completely unprepared for its newest strain. Covid-19 has exposed as never before not only the fragility of the US (one of the most badly-affected countries both in terms of infections and deaths), but also the weakness of Western civilisation.
A pandemic of such magnitude has raised many questions for the human condition in general and the place and role of science. Here are some of the issues that still need answers. Why did Covid-19 happen? Are humans culpable for it? How long will it continue to affect our lives? Could science have seen it coming and what is being done to contain and eradicate the virus? What lessons can be learned to avoid similar scenarios? Do we need to rethink how we operate and connect in all areas of human activity?
This pandemic is caused by a virus that differs from previous ones. According to findings published in prestigious scientific journals, the virus started within the animal population before it was transmitted to humans who have yet to develop immunity against it.
Here are some of the advantages and difficulties facing the scientific community in these challenging times.
Our knowledge and technologies to study and understand viruses are more advanced than ever before. Nanotechnologies are playing an especially important role both in terms of diagnostic and therapeutic applications
Notwithstanding the progress made to-date, more work is needed to utilise science and technology more effectively in providing solutions to challenges presented by a pandemic like Covid-19. On the one hand, the current situation has revealed the vital role of science in addressing a crisis of this seriousness and magnitude.
On the other hand, this pandemic has also exposed the extent to which science remains underfunded. This is one of the reasons why the scientific community was caught unprepared to offer urgent solutions to the challenges presented by the pandemic. We are collectively paying the price for cuts in research funds across the developed world.
The unprecedented level of globalisation explains why coronavirus spread so quickly. Equally important in this respect is the role of conventional means of communications, especially social media, in disseminating information about Covid-19. In a world where distinguishing what is real and what is fake has become increasingly difficult, where elected and unelected leaders and governments often behave and act in the same way, and where economic and political interests continue to clash, this pandemic has inevitably resulted in a proliferation of conspiracy theories that range from the insane to the bizarre. All these factors are bound to have an impact on prevention, diagnostics and therapy.
Covid-19 has exposed how ineffective collaboration and coordination of the scientific community are at the moment. Moreover, the pandemic has revealed flaws in communication between governments and health experts. This explains the unclear messages the public receive on the nature of the virus and how to protect outselves from it. At times, decisions on the distance people should keep in public, who and where to wear masks and gloves, the range of drugs that can be used or avoided (e.g. ibuprofen), and conflicting views on the symptoms of coronavirus seem to be determined by political agendas and economic determinism rather than medical expert advice.
The last few months have seen a proliferation in hastily published papers regarding Covid-19. Notwithstanding the need for urgent solutions, scientific journals should ensure that publications undergo a vigorous peer-reviewed process. Early signs are that lessons are being learned. Lancet, the world’s most renowned medical journal, for instance, has now retracted a study linking the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to increased risk of death and irregularity in heart rhythms in Covid-19 patients.
The coronavirus situation has made our generation increasingly aware of the need to establish pandemic task forces. Such bodies are only effective, however, if they are led by scientists.
In moments of global crisis, pandemic departments are crucial in bringing scientists, politicians and investors together. They are instrumental also in sharing and verifying data, making recommendations on suggested treatments and liaising with pharmaceutical companies which eventually play a significant role in producing effective drugs and vaccines.
The ongoing pandemic has taught us that our way of life cannot be taken for granted and exposed our fragile economic well-being. These testing times have also shown how resilient humans are in the face of adversity. Examples of outstanding sacrifices and solidarity are recorded worldwide.
In his famous phrase from 1624, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, the English poet and preacher John Donne stressed that we are never complete on our own, and that with each death part of humanity dies. Three centuries later, E. M. Foster renewed in Howards End the call to ‘connect’.
Our very survival as a species depends on how we relate to and are involved in mankind. In these challenging times we need to connect more effectively with fellow human beings across the world, making sure that no one, close to home or in distant places, is forgotten.
Gezim Alpion’s latest book is Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). Amongst his other books are Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? (Routledge, 2007), If Only the Dead Could Listen (Globic Press, 2008), and Encounters with Civilizations: From Alexander the Great to Mother Teresa (Routledge, 2017).