Something extraordinary caught my attention the other night while watching the closing graphics of the CNN weather report. It was a map showing the quality of the air for each country in our part of the world. There, in light blue, signifying purity, was the figure “1” for the Philippines. I took a quick glance at the other countries in our category — New Zealand, Australia, etc. At No. 3 were neighboring Malaysia and Vietnam. Wow, I said to myself.
Not being one who looks for the silver lining in every cloud, I wondered how CNN determined air quality in every country. Metro Manila’s air seemed so heavy in the days preceding the arrival of Tropical Storm “Ambo” that I simply couldn’t believe it was as the CNN air quality index showed.
I had to find out for myself. Stepping out of the bedroom in which I had been marinating for days in anxious thoughts of COVID-19-induced hypoxia, I took a slow deep breath. A cool breeze carrying the unmistakable scent of the dama de noche bloom greeted me in the garden as though to shame me for my skepticism. The air was as fresh as I had never known it to be.
When we look back at the defining moments of this phenomenal pause to which the coronavirus pandemic has brought us, I am sure that each of us will have vivid memories of some of the bizarre things we did to pass the time. My midnight encounter with the city’s cleanest air on record will surely be part of my recollection. It made me understand what Henry David Thoreau must have meant when he wrote about the need to check “the egotism of the race” by taking “wider views of the universe.”
It is an advice that is easier said than practiced. The busy-ness of our everyday lives seldom allows us to pause and reflect on the routines that make up and structure our lives. We lose our bearings when the machines that have appropriated our bodies suddenly grind to a halt. We find ourselves gripped by insecurity, anger, depression, paranoia, and a nervous sense of futility. Or, alternately, by resignation, humility, hope, love, and generosity. Yet even these, says Thoreau, are conditioned by the social world we inhabit. “In the promulgated views of man, in institutions, in the common sense, there is narrowness and delusion.”
Not being a poet of nature like Thoreau, I turn to sociology to look for writers who have tried to cure the “narrowness and delusion” in which our view of the world seems stuck. One of them, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, calls it the paradox of “self-referentiality.” We are able to imagine our differentiation from the world we inhabit only by constructing our version of this world. But this constructed world is a purely self-referential one—it is the world as we experience it; it is not the world as it really is.
What Thoreau calls the universe, or what we simply call Nature or the natural environment, is the reality that forms the “horizon” of human experience. It is impossible for us to grasp its immense complexity, no matter how much we keep refining our science. It includes our very own human bodies, not just the other nonhuman creatures out there. It encompasses the whole universe, not just the planet we call our home. It certainly includes the viruses, bacteria, fungi, germs, and worms, etc. that live with us and in us, most of which we have not named or paid much attention to.
That’s why there is something delusional about calling the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 an evil “enemy” we should wage war against. That is a moral description that has no place in science. We may as well tag our own body’s immune system as a treacherous enemy when, in the middle of a viral assault, it suddenly turns against the body that it is supposed to protect, and starts attacking its vital organs.
We often hear about “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria. Not being a microbiologist, I don’t know how these labels come about. It seems more sensible to think of bacteria and viruses as doing what they’re supposed to do according to their nature. Sometimes, their behavior may cause disease, but at other times, they may be harnessed as agents of recovery.
Some ecologists have long believed that a certain imbalance in the natural environment — for example, as a result of the severe loss of biodiversity — may cause certain organisms to behave in unusual ways. This unexpected behavior could be a form of adaptation to an altered habitat, and could persist until a new equilibrium is achieved. Some organisms might die in the process; some species may become extinct. Yet, from a different perspective, this whole process of rebalancing might well be a form of recovery.
Societies, however, are not accustomed to treat natural phenomena like epidemics as anything other than as threats to human life and well-being. They must be contained, controlled, and suppressed—no matter what it takes. We see this today in the frantic race to find a vaccine against the coronavirus, an effective treatment against the disease it causes, and a diagnostic test to quickly spot its presence. We see it, best of all, in the various social measures that are put in place to contain its spread—the lockdown of entire regions, social distancing, stay-home orders, the closure of schools, stoppage of work, and the cessation of all forms of mobility, etc.
These vast restrictions on the routines of social life, all aimed at suppressing the viral outbreak, have left virtually nothing untouched. Though originally meant to be temporary, these restrictions are now presumed to define the “new normal.” They — not the pandemic itself — sum up the concept of “catastrophe” in systems theory: “the relatively rapid transition of a system to another principle of stability.”