Dispatches from a distance

Day 3 of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order

I’m consuming a lot and posting a lot. The Movement Control Order (MCO) that started on March 18th hasn’t made me more productive or inspired at all, hasn’t turned me into a cool mysterious hermit writing the next great whatever instead of oversharing their domestic lives like everyone else. All that’s changed is that I check my phone more and sleep longer.

This renewed vigour in self-reflection and self-reinvention is another phenomenon I’ve started noticing on the Internet. It’s suddenly like New Year’s again: first, they started posting recommendations for self-isolating activities, then a girl appeared on my timeline with her ambitious social distancing schedule and then, exactly like New Year’s resolutions, I just saw my first “you don’t have to make the most out of a global pandemic” post (around New Year’s, this would be equivalent to the “you don’t have to make resolutions if you don’t want to; everyone grows at their own pace” type of posts). It’s a kind of lowkey cycle of reaction that will eat at you, if you let it, and, just like New Year’s, I’m starting to get weary. In a piece Zizek wrote on the coronavirus, he brought up Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory of the five stages of grief, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. He explains the stages of experiencing the trauma of coronavirus thus:

“First, there was a denial (nothing serious is going on, some irresponsible individuals are just spreading panic); then, anger (usually in a racist or anti-state form: the dirty Chinese are guilty, our state is not efficient…); next comes bargaining (OK, there are some victims, but it’s less serious than SARS, and we can limit the damage…); if this doesn’t work, depression arises (let’s not kid ourselves, we are all doomed). But what would acceptance look like here? It is a strange fact that the epidemic displays a feature common with the latest round of social protests (in France, in Hong Kong…): they don’t explode and then pass away; rather, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives. But this acceptance can take two directions. It can mean just the re-normalization of illness: OK, people will be dying, but life will go on, maybe there will be even some good side effects… Or acceptance can (and should) propel us to mobilize ourselves without panic and illusions, to act in collective solidarity.”

Monitor and Punish? Yes, please! by Slavoj Zizek for The Philosophical Salon

I think he has a point to see traumatic world events in this way, but I also think that the Internet has sped up our reactions to things and also jumbled it, so that there’s not a linear or productive progression of grief anymore. In a day, I can go through denial (oh… it won’t get me; this MCO is useful but they did say I can go to the grocery store so it should be OK…), anger (what the fuck is going on with this world? Why is everyone so incompetent? Why is this even happening?!), and depression (this is the end, absolutely nothing will ever be the same, and there’s no going back) multiple times in different configurations according to what I read online; the only stages I haven’t felt yet are bargaining and acceptance. I’m moving forward by insistently staying at home and sending my friends the latest Covid-19 stats when they mention that they superfluously left the house (i.e. not to buy groceries or food, but perhaps even those are superfluous movements that we can’t do anything about), and there’s a glimmer of hope yet left in me that we will indeed get out of this on March 31st, but every time I read the news, especially coming out of Italy, the U.S., or the U.K., I am despondent again. Even if the tide turns, it won’t be the same — I’m convinced of that, but I don’t want to be. Based on his corona piece, Zizek would probably diagnose (correctly) that I’m afraid of confronting my own and all humankind’s mortality and contingency. 

“What we should accept, what we should reconcile ourselves with, is that there is a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses, which always was here and which will always be with us as a dark shadow, posing a threat to our very survival, exploding when we least expect it. And at an even more general level, viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives: no matter how magnificent spiritual edifices we, humanity, bring out, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all… Not to mention the lesson of ecology which is that we, humanity, may also unknowingly contribute to this end.”

Monitor and Punish? Yes, please! by Slavoj Zizek for The Philosophical Salon

The immediacy of information also mixes up all signals. In the UK they’re on a crash course for disaster yet everyone is still walking free, seemingly without fear. The people who can quarantine themselves do, but it still seems like the majority of the population are waiting for someone to tell them to stay home, and that order just never comes. With that as information I’m easily able to access, one starts to doubt one’s own state-imposed movement control. Especially when I hear that some people are still making direct trips to their friends’ house for small hang-outs. 

So many laws seem so arbitrary now. As a friend on Twitter pointed out, when the MCO was announced there was a sudden spike in panic-buying and travelling, as if the virus will just pause its spread for the day and resume once the MCO is officially in place. And if Grab drivers can still pick up passengers, if Grab riders can still ride, and restaurant/pharmacy/supermarket staff can still go into work, then what’s the big deal if I just make one direct trip to a friend’s house, right?

If there are exceptions, people will always find a way to be exceptional, and that’s the whole gist of this pandemic isn’t it? That each individual is only capable of thinking of themselves. That the one thing that distinguishes us from beasts — our ability to think for ourselves — is the one thing that prevents us from the beautiful movement that some beasts are capable of, of moving blindly and intuitively with the herd, the collective. We’re making minor sacrifices now, but we don’t really know the meaning of real sacrifice yet. What happens if the government closes all restaurants, takes over food production and distribution, and you’re not allowed to go out to buy your favourite brands anymore? What happens if the government imposes a full lockdown and effectively takes over care of the vulnerable, and we find ourselves having to entrust them with our distant sick and/or elderly relatives, or young relatives in boarding schools/colleges? What happens if this outbreak really does last for as long as it takes to find a vaccine and we’re all stuck at home for the next few months, all our encounters with the outside world strictly virtual? What if production really grounds to a halt and private companies need to be nationalised? What does your government stand for and how much do you really trust them to save you in a crisis?

We may have had our opinions and misgivings about our government before, but the demographic of society that I and a lot of my friends fall into have rarely had to relinquish full agency of our lives over to the state. (This is why, in protests, you generally always have speakers acknowledging a list of other identities that are presumably more oppressed than the ones currently gathered there, such as migrant workers, refugees, indigenous peoples, etc.) Maybe a few annoyances here and there. Maybe a GST change here and there. But generally, I don’t think most of us have ever known what it is to give in totally. (Unless you’ve been in jail… which, OK, I know a couple of people.) 

The reason why I focus on the state as saviour is because the major battle now seems to be one between authority and individual will. Once the will of the capitalists and employers have been overcome, there remains the individual citizens’ will to overcome as well. There’ve been some amazing independent efforts popping up to offer the care and assistance that states are currently failing to provide, but it seems to me, based on China’s speedy recovery, that only a centralised effort can ensure that everyone is tested, everyone is equipped with the proper hygiene and safety gear to be leaving the house, and that only the people who are designated to leave the house are the ones doing so. It’s easier to not leave the house, to not stockpile, and to consider social distancing a collective effort when you trust that your government will not leave you to die. Knowing that there are vigilantes out there helps, but it’s not a proper safety net. 

In a utopic ideal, we give ourselves over to state control totally and the state fulfils its duties to the people. We look left and embrace a form of Communism like Zizek suggests, and we make sacrifices that we’ve never had to make, but which end up transforming us for the better. The relations we have with each other, and with our state, are totally revolutionised, and perhaps so are our private relations to our own mortality.

In a dystopic ending, the state bungles up their responsibility and things get massively worse with increased transgressions, with lootings and riots in the streets and violence in kind from the state; in a slightly less dystopic ending, they simply revert back to how they are now, but with greater and perhaps irreparable distrust towards the state. (Incidentally, how convenient that the one global phenomenon that is forcing such drastic considerations now is the one phenomenon that prevents people from assembling in public!)

Or maybe things continue as they are, and people continue to take risks as unprotected frontliners, and we continue to leave our houses at our own discretion. Maybe it takes a bit longer to stop the spread of coronavirus entirely (and maybe everything will change within the next few days; we live in those kinds of times now), but it is stopped eventually, sometime in the future, and the ones who remain drift back into their offices and resume their lives as before, but slightly shaken up now. During the MCO, perhaps the state is forced to implement policies that are staples of leftist ideologies such as emergency housing, rent alleviation, and monthly allowances or even a UBI, but these are reeled back when the threat dissipates. It’s up in the air whether we’d have learned our lesson or not, whether we’d be prepared to face another crisis or if the same amount of people would have to die again.

And maybe this is all exaggerated and melodramatic conjecture, but the whole world is in crisis and the only countries that seem to be handling it well are those that have imposed extensive state intervention. All around the world, people are cursing their governments for their action and inaction. What do you really expect from your state, and do you only want it now in a crisis or is it something you’re willing to live with? It’s a question worth contending with.

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