Coronavirus contemplations: Part I

Coronavirus contemplations: Part I
Comment: In this three-part series, Dr Azmi Bishara takes a deep dive look at how citizens and states have responded to an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic that is reshaping our world.
28 min read
18 May, 2020
There are over 4.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, and at least 316,060 deaths [Getty]
This is Part I in a three-part series. Read Part II here, and Part III here.

I: On life as we know it

Having realised in our housebound isolation that this year there will be no spring for us – telling ourselves that this is at least better than losing whatever remains of our sunset years, that to forgo the gentle vernal breeze for one year is at least easier than gasping helplessly for air or begging that death release us from slow asphyxiation, nameless and alone in some makeshift hospital – we have begun to wonder when life might possibly return to normal. But was there anything 'normal' about the life we were living before? What was 'normal' about our 'normal lives'?

Are we really ready to return to a 'normal life' where it is not coronavirus but civil war in Syria, Yemen or Libya that dominates the headlines alongside the proclamations of tinpot sectarians, the machinations of petty warlords or the antics of vacuous celebrities? That is, of course, when there is nothing new to say on the US elections; when the Trumpian gestalt of self-confident teenage narcissism and swivel-eyed anti-intellectualism that today characterises many leaders from Brazil to the Philippines has fallen temporarily silent; when Putinism's alliances with the populist right in east and west, with Assad and with Netanyahu, have produced nothing newsworthy; and when it is a slow day for racist bigotry and that particular form of nihilistic political violence against civilians that we refer to as 'terrorism'.

This is not the intended meaning. What people mean is the minute details of life as they know it – details that they sorely need to return to, and which some of them miss dearly, depending on their circumstances. Making ends meet, trying to make a living, and embracing loved ones; grumbling about everyday problems in the office or on the commute, moving up the career ladder, or taking joy in small victories at work; meeting friends and commiserating and joking together, setting the world to rights and enraging at politicians, whether genuinely or more often just to pass the time; being seen by doctors and finding the money for medication – and not worrying about the possible risk to the people and things close to us, or having to wonder whether we ourselves might unwittingly be placing those around us in danger. All right, then – perhaps it would be better to say 'life as we know it'.

There is no going back to a 'normal' life. Human memory is incapable of retrieving a 'normal' moment. But there is nothing wrong with assembling a putative 'normal' in opposition to the 'abnormal' that we are experiencing, and fighting for it on that basis despite the fact that it is as constructed as anything else. To act in the name of ideals can be productive: in the human world – luckily for us – conflicts not only take place between competing interests, greed and will to power, but also between different ethical conceptions of how to live together. These different conceptions in turn may give rise to different conceptions of interest.

The current collective longing for a return to day-to-day life, life as we know it, is in reality a healthy desire to move past the state of exception under which all humanity is now living – the state of shared fear. Politicians have lost the luxury of their favourite expression; their  'concern'. They are as scared as the rest of us, and if like addicts they continue to use it, it is perhaps only to express their 'concerns' regarding fear itself. The epidemic has intersected with globalisation – in short, it has itself been globalised not only "pandemized". The state of emergency is no longer a local affair, the fact that it is still states that declare these emergencies notwithstanding; a global état de siège prevails, accompanied by a keen individual sense of danger. This danger, this anxiety, hangs over everyone. People cannot behave towards it as they have previous grave political events – wars, hurricanes, famines – in other parts of the world, thinking about it when they feel like it and ignoring it when they do not. The measures taken to fight the epidemic affect them. They feel that the virus is targeting them personally, and as such, they are not mere passive objects: they contribute directly to the atmosphere of fear, panic and hope, and to the confusion around how to deal with the epidemic. And this might well be the first time that every media outlet in the world has run the same headline story on a daily basis for months.

Thinking about the fate of humanity in a time of plague cannot be separated from concern for loved ones and speculation about the fate of those with whom you have lost contact. 'Humanity', 'the world', 'the human race' – these are no longer abstract concepts. You are genuinely and specifically interested in conditions in every single country, whether near or far. You want to know about the measures being taken and how different societies are behaving in the face of the epidemic. The figures that now concern you are the number of cases and the number of deaths. You engross yourself in these figures and closely follow their peaks and troughs. They haunt your conversations, your worries and your day-to-day thoughts. The plague may come upon you at any moment: you are a deer in its headlights. You are constantly in death's presence. Death is not selective: it can strike anyone. And since it can strike anyone, it is everyone's concern. The epidemic and the measures taken to combat it have obliterated the distinction between the public and private spheres. And other important issues – and likewise other deaths – have been pushed to the sidelines.

Fear and uncertainty restrict freedom of action in exactly the same way as inevitabilities and necessities. There is an epidemic that we do not know how to deal with, which controls us and our behaviour. Perhaps biology, epidemiology or virology will set us free – a treatment, or a vaccine. The knowledge of natural inevitabilities is an important rule of human freedom: there is no freedom in nature. But we can sometimes become slaves to a belief that we can conquer nature or influence it from the 'outside', leading us into folly.

As things stand, the coronavirus test is of no help to the person taking it, but does help the collective – specifically those close to you. Unlike most preventative measures, you don't  do it for your benefit but so that you can protect those around you from the virus.

In any case, you take the test. If the results come back negative, this does not mean that you will not be infected later. And if they come back positive and you are asymptomatic, you will have to sit at home hoping that you didn't infect anyone before you knew that you are "positive" and wait until you recover or develop symptoms, in which case you will spend every second, perhaps every millisecond, following their ups and downs from moment to moment. If you recover it is not at all certain that you will not become ill again, and if you do not recover and are sent to hospital, then it is not at all certain that they will be able to treat you. Uncertainty hems us in on all sides, which cannot but mean anxiety and exhaustion, whether conscious or otherwise. But tests nonetheless remain crucial, and everybody wants to be tested so that they can help control the virus's spread, so that those who are infected do not wander freely among the public as if wearing suicide vests.

Some philosophers have described this constant worry that you might harm others as 'moral fatigue'. But this worry is invariably accompanied by a fear that you might yourself be harmed by others. You are simultaneously and ineluctably afraid for yourself and for others. Nobody is doing anybody else a favour. And while it is certainly exhausting, it is wrong to describe it as moral fatigue. This term was developed for different conditions, and its contrived use here is no more than a fruitless psychological exercise. Perhaps we should call it 'anxiousness fatigue' instead.

From another perspective, this new inseparability of the global and the individual has made humans far more aware of their direct relationship to their humanity. This is perhaps the most 'normal' or 'natural' thing to have happened to us for a long time. Individuals are sensing their humanity in and of itself; their simultaneous helplessness in the face of nature; the state of uncertainty and the attendant predictions, hopes and fears – above all else the fear of the unknown and for loved ones and hope that others will be safe – and the waiting for others' efforts to bear fruit; and the desire to do something to help. Is there anything more 'normal' or 'natural' than that?

All this talk of 'nature' brings to mind the philosophical 'state of nature', which some imagine as a paradise lost and others as a hell of anarchy and constant war where it is every man for himself; these visions of the state of nature are the foundation on which differing conceptions of how society and state should function are built. But the state of nature is a pure fantasy: so long as humanity has existed we have done so in social groupings in order to guarantee food, security and shelter. It is more useful to think about our human nature than the state of nature. The state of nature is no more than an intellectual exercise allowing us to think about the meaning of organised society and the role of the state.

Fear of the unknown and a tendency to cling to hope are part of our human nature just as much as reason, thought and the capacity for speech, as are self-interest and the instinct to survive, altruism and the desire for recognition. The struggle to survive drives attempts to overcome powerlessness in the face of nature and uncertainty, whether using reason, knowledge, imagination or mysticism. And just as human nature is capable of producing hate, envy or be covetousness, it also generates solidarity with and attachment to others, love, and the desire to be loved.

In our isolation we find ourselves alone with our humanity, our fears, and our solidarity with others. We listen closely to ourselves, and discover that we are in fact multiple selves, multiple voices in one self. Our solitude  may be lonely and still very crowded, we may discover a rich internal dreamworld of elliptical and interwoven places, people, stories and times, moments of similarity as we form new relationships with the world, moments of immanence between the self and death. But in every interaction with outside influences we also find our prejudices and jealousy, our pride and selfishness and our desire for revenge rearing their ugly heads, jostling for position with our love and sympathy and empathy for others – that is, our ability to imagine ourselves in their position, confronting problems, choices and moral dilemmas.

Fear of death is not simply a matter of instinctive love of life but also of our love for those around us, our fear of losing them and of loss more generally, it is the pain of the parting the separation. Love is the finest of the human emotions, and the foundation of life as it deserves to be lived.

In our isolation we find ourselves alone with our humanity, our fears, and our solidarity with others. We listen closely to ourselves, and discover that we are in fact multiple selves, multiple voices in one self

II: On theory for theory's sake

I am not a great fan of those philosophers who have taken advantage of the more attentive, less distracted captive audience provided by current circumstances to pontificate to them on the meaning of death. Death from coronavirus has no meaning. In fact, death in general has no meaning. Moreover, neither does life in general. It is more productive for an individual to think about the meaning of his life, and not about the meaning of life – and, furthermore, to ask what the lives of others mean to him, and how valuable they are to him. Here you will find answers that determine your personality, or a personality that determines your answers, in good times and bad, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health – epidemics included.

I likewise have little sympathy for those who engage in angry historical comparisons between plagues and epidemics at different times across history outside their historical context (that is to say, ahistorical comparisons), and nothing but frustration and exhaustion for the various types of rumourmongers (as great a difference as there is between them and the former group). Nor does the brisk trade in fast food thoughts-for-the-day (delivery free for the whole coronavirus season!) do much for me. My thoughts are with the doctors, nurses cleaning staff and other hospital employees on the front line and those working in agriculture, or factories, or power plants, or utility companies – and yes, with the police and the security forces (just this once!) and the media, at least those who are doing their jobs properly. And with the volunteers who are doing good, whether by providing succour to the needy, by serving society in general in vital institutions, or in the many other ways that people are helping out. And I cannot take my mind off those with other serious illnesses, who in a time of coronavirus (an illness which will tolerate no competitor) will be reluctant to be open about their suffering or even to call the doctor when they are in pain – and will be very hesitant indeed about going to the hospital when they are hit by a bad bout, either for fear of being infected or because they worry no-one will have time for their problems.

Some of us are going to learn how important service and factory workers really are – workers who this society of stratified status and economic inequality normally has little respect for. Will our newfound respect last once the plague is gone? Those who I am talking about have always needed these workers, but it is only during the coronavirus epidemic that they have begun to think about them and meet them, because while others stay at home these workers cannot.

Nature is complicated and the human world even more so. Humans live and change in, through, and with innumerable contradictions. The jobbing philosophers of coronavirus season transform every detail into a prediction and proceed easily from cherry-picked detail to a general theory. They are the soothsayers of the day, the masters of secrets and visions and ideas and fates – and if the cherries they picked had been different they could have reached different conclusions. This sort of philosophy – or thought-for-the-day-ism masquerading as philosophy – is entirely superfluous. Sometimes they accuse modernity, sometimes neoliberalism – or religiosity, irreligiosity, democracy or totalitarianism – as though the epidemic simply confirms their existing beliefs and provides an opportunity to express their anger. But it is an epidemic. Epidemics have occurred throughout history and under political regimes of all kinds. There are others that continue to take many lives in Africa, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic. There may be different approaches, and there is nothing wrong with discussing different state responses. But states are not the cause of coronavirus, and neither is the international system responsible for its spread.

In times of disaster intellectuals like to use attention-grabbing titles like 'the Gulf War that never happened' or 'the invention of an epidemic' to carve out a space for themselves. When you read the article, however, you are unlikely to find anything new except the title itself.

Numerous indeed are the 'prophets of rage', who blame even this epidemic on development and modern lifestyles. Development can be held responsible for environmental issues and global warming, for the devastation of modern warfare, for gluttonous overconsumption of all kinds – and even for the mental illnesses and sense of alienation that individuals feel in modern society, for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol. And it can be held responsible for the neglect of epidemics in Africa. Pick one – it's a long list! But epidemics themselves are not on it.

Civilisations throughout history have experienced lethal epidemics of unimaginable fierceness (the black death, typhus, measles, polio, cholera, yellow fever – the list goes on), many before the invention of modern medicine or science or even societies organised into states. The great plague of the 14th century – the first to leave behind detailed historical records – swept across Europe as far as the Black Sea before finding its way to the Mamluk-ruled Levant, carried not by trains or planes but by flies, fleas and rats. Like a divine punishment it cut down swathes of terrified people – including conjurers and fortune-tellers, whose lives it took as unceremoniously as anyone else's. It left behind cities empty and silent but for the whistling of the wind, stripping whole regions of their populations; in many cases there was no-one left to bury the dead.

Today epidemics are rarer and less devastating. We have science and medicine to thank for this, as well as the existence of states capable of taking preventative measures and who should be held responsible for not being prepared and not taking scientists' alerts seriously, and many other interrelated factors: development, production, living conditions, and changing hygiene habits. The population of the world has grown and its life expectancy increased in direct correlation with social and economic development. Infant mortality has fallen and nutrition and medicine have improved. Some may also consider these to be negative developments, but that is another question entirely. Much will depend on science's response to viruses' capacity to adapt to the human immune system, and vice-versa. Think of how many times the flu virus has mutated, and of the unceasing efforts to develop new vaccines against it. Flu (for example), and the coronavirus family more broadly, may well become humanity's greatest enemy: these viruses are always taking on new guises. The Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to be particularly "small", simple structured and exceptionally elusive.

It does not take a lethal epidemic to know that in human-nature, interaction and human relationships, there is no alternative to rational thought and humanist ethics, whether before or after the epidemic, as well as a more humble relationship with the natural world. Scientific logic is based on man mastering his environment and discovering its rules so he can turn them to his own advantage (to produce a coronavirus vaccine, for example). But we have to recognise that our control over nature is not that of an occupying power on foreign soil: we are part of nature and subject to its rules, and we cannot control it from outside. That is a fantasy. The "belief" in this hypothesis is essential for environment and climate, global warming as an exigent manifestation of it. It is essential for public health policy, and perhaps even to infrastructure and industrial planning, which affect our whole way of life. But I doubt it will concern any epidemiologist or bacteriologist investigating the virus's RNA or protein structure or trying to determine whether an RNA or inactivated vaccine would be better. There are no philosophical questions here that those rushing to grace us with their 'philosophical' opinions or hastily conducting interviews in order to compile them into bestsellers can answer. But they still go on talking. Perhaps this is a simple fear of missing out on grand events, a fear of being silent.

You follow the experiments of scientists looking for vaccines or treatments in different countries or on different continents, and await the results. Those who label researchers and scientists infidels are awaiting those same results – just as they happily make use of industrial products manufactured in the West or in east Asia in their daily lives, or use communications technology or social media platforms developed in the West and owned by Western companies to condemn Western societies while declaring the superiority of their culture. The rupture between thought and practice will carry on; the cognitive dissonance thesis doesn't work in the case of closed ideologies. Dealing with the epidemic will not change this.

Why did some philosophers turn their ire on modernity even before health organisations and states had had time to react publicly? Is everything that happens in our time the product of modernity? What is the relevance of modernity to coronavirus? It has nothing to do with its genome, its protein structure, its RNA or its infectiousness. The leaps of viruses from wildlife to humans through intermediate hosts (given that the thesis is true, as it seems most likely to be) can't be a modern phenomenon. The virus is new, but it is not modern. What is modern is crowded cities that accelerate the spread of an epidemic, mass tourism and travel, the response to the pandemic, its reproduction as a media and social phenomenon, even as a political phenomenon insofar as concerns the role of the state (in contrast to the pandemics of the past).

The media, live broadcasting, the internet – all these factors have produced a certain homogeneity of time around the globe. People experience the same events at the same time even if they do not understand them in the same way. The presence of experts, analysts, doctors and scientists or WHO communiques helps create a unified understanding of the phenomenon, using the same terms – translated in the blink of an eye to the world's many languages.

The thing that is particularly 'modern' about the epidemic is this production of simultaneity. The resulting proximity of worries and concerns contributes to the imagining of a vast community, 'humanity'. This does not necessarily mean the generation of new ethical values or that these values give precedence to 'human' belonging over all other identities. Although the terminological underpinnings of this idea are no longer mere abstractions – and have in fact become the basis of a vast living experiment in which we are all participants – many factors will continue transforming cultural, ethnic and religious difference from simple diversity into conflict and hostility.

States emphasized their borders, some states allowed only citizens back to the country. Palestinians carrying Lebanese travel documents were not allowed to board in a plane carrying Lebanese nationals back from the Emirates. The Corona moment in history is an opportunity for political leaders to practice humanity and to silence racism, and, they will be surprized, most people will be on the right side.

Unlike the great depression, the causes of which were obscure for most people, every person knows well that Covid-19 is an epidemic that could make every human being a potential victim. It shouldn't be as easy to turn fears into rage and divert it against the other (minorities, enemy states etc.) as happened in the 1930s. It shouldn't be an easy task for Trump and his likes in our world if enough reasonable people speak out and condemn such attempts in a consistent and uncompromising manner.     

Many of those who like to engage in public eureka moments have 'suddenly' discovered the insignificance of man: how hollow his glory and might have proven when confronted by a virus invisible to the naked eye (as though before coronavirus other illnesses were somehow visible)! This sort of talk is hardly new. A veritable downpour of it follows every unexpected or accidental death: 'life is a joke', 'man is nothing', 'how powerless we are compared to nature', 'how insignificant we are compared to the Almighty'.'

But humanity's glory, the value of human life and of how humans approach life, cannot be measured by how quickly human bodies succumb to a virus. Nor is this evidence of the glory of the Creator: there is much better evidence than this, most importantly humanity itself as creatures made in God's image (Genesis). God's glory appears not in man's insignificance but in man's own glory; not in the virus's victory over man but in his victory over the virus. After all, the famous verse tells us that heaven and earth both refused the 'trusteeship' (amana) of granted by God that man accepted.

Man dying from a virus is a matter of biology; the value of his life and his greatness or otherwise belong to another realm beyond the reach of epidemics and viruses made from organic material. Conscious, moral man asks himself what his life is worth whenever he is anxious. During an epidemic it is more important to think about prevention and recovery, individual and human survival. This is not a philosophical matter.

Some of us are going to learn how important service and factory workers really are - workers who this society of stratified status and economic inequality normally has little respect for. Will our newfound respect last once the plague is gone?

III: Fear

The difference between people's attitude in the corona era and how they have dealt with previous crises is a collective sense of fear cutting across borders between countries and continents, a fear produced by uncertainty during the  anticipation of mortal danger: collective and simultaneous fear and expectation.

A surprise death does not scare us because it takes us by surprise: we never have to confront it face to face to start with, and the whole thing ends without an encounter of this kind ever taking place. But living in the shadow of mortal danger whose presence we are aware of (whether visible or invisible to the naked eye) is necessarily stressful and anxiety-inducing, even if the looming threat does not ultimately lead to death. The effectiveness of a horror film does not depend on surprises but on using the power of suggestion, background music, sounds, silence and cinematography to produce a sense that something horrible is going to happen. This is why we feel so 'on edge' when we watch horror films. It is not the shock but rather the opposite — the fearful apprehension. What we are currently experiencing is not a matter of the seriousness of the virus but the feeling of dread that it produces. The threat is eyeing you up just as he eyes up those around you; it chooses its victims at random.

Then there is the fear of other people, of things around you, of everything. A new word has entered popular use in Arabic – astuh ('surfaces'). Who would ever have dreamt of using this word so often outside a physics lesson? Now all of us have to think twice whenever we touch the 'surface' of an object because the virus can go on living there for hours – and if you want the real detail, you can easily find dubious figures telling you exactly how long it can survive on any given material. And we are forced to think about unconscious movements like touching our faces. This requires constant sensory vigilance. But even as our senses are constantly vigilant, they are failing: the threat cannot be seen, heard or smelled. And who among us has not responded to this constant subconscious confusion – which often overflows into the realm of the conscious – by asking ourselves: 'have I got it?' 'Am I spreading it without realising?'

This justified fear is a 'psychological virus'. Some may be able to alleviate its effects by thinking rationally about probability and taking all reasonable precautions. Others escape by occupying themselves with whatever they find meaningful. And a third group seems to enjoy the fear and the stress – and sometimes to get a kick out of scaring others or stirring up domestic disputes.

Ultimately this is a problem that we have to learn to live with, a fear that we have to confront with the greatest possible rationality, morality, sympathy, kindness and mutual understanding until such time as a solution is found. Some also use humour to deal with the stress. There is a saying commonly misattributed to Ibn Khaldun (why, I couldn't say): 'when you see people who make many jokes during times of disaster, know that misery has ground them down, that they are a people who have suffered neglect, enslavement and hardship, like those who are dragged to their deaths while drunk.' Even if Ibn Khaldun had said it, I wouldn't be able to agree with him. People who tell a lot of jokes during disasters are creating a subconscious defence mechanism that helps them deal with the stress. And where physical immunity fails to beat the virus of the body, psychological immunity can at least beat the virus of the mind.

Some like to make comparisons in order to downplay the threat posed by the epidemic or promote the adoption of a herd immunity strategy. One French doctor has noted that car accidents kill more people than Covid-19. This may well be true; car accidents are a global menace. But there are already measures in place against accidents of this kind – an endless list of instructions developed over time. And even if you do everything right, that might not save you from others' drunkenness, mistakes, or even from simple bad luck. Car accidents are man-made, while the virus is not. And so long as there is no treatment or vaccine, then human action will have no influence on the virus's effect – only on how it spreads.

Ultimately this is a problem that we have to learn to live with, a fear that we have to confront with the greatest possible rationality, morality, sympathy, kindness and mutual understanding

IV: Physical distancing, distance and politeness

Even before the epidemic there were many reasons to reconsider our way of life. The virus's genetic code is not the product of people's lifestyles. Past plagues were likewise able to tear through societies and leap from continent to continent. But there are many compelling reasons to slow down the pace of life, to turn down the pressure and to think about quality before quantity. Those who have developed a newfound penchant for philosophy tell us that sitting at home will teach us how. Well, they should wait a little while, until sitting at home itself starts to be a source of pressure and other undesirable social, familial and psychological problems that I won't go into here – the rise in domestic violence, for example. They should wait until it takes its toll on workers  who haven't been able to work and won't be able to provide for their families.

Sitting at home is crucial to checking the spread of infection, and some people want to find the benefit, to make it a source of moral lessons. But there are no theories to be gleaned from the peculiar details of the movie scene that we are currently living through. We might learn something useful about how people behave under pressure or the importance of the survival instinct as opposed to the moral instinct (as human identity), and some might conclude that human beings act very similarly when confronting the same threat. But does this mean accepting the moral principle of equality? Not necessarily. I hope so, but this is neither a scientific conclusion nor a prediction.

There are certain unified behaviours that the epidemic has foisted on us everywhere, all of them related to the now global concept of 'social distancing'. Today everyone thinks of the benefits of washing their hands, individuals' responsibility to the community, and the responsibility of the state as purely domestic matters. Many of us have become experts in simplified science, while other sections of society are still looking for metaphysical explanations. Masks have become a sort of global uniform. And businessesthose who take advantage of  many people's aversion are afraid of to uniformity and uniforms everyone dressing the same are working are planning to satisfy their need for diversity by producing  a vast array of masks, while in the meantime individuals are working hard to vary the styles of the masks they wear.

Social distancing is a neologism referring to maintaining distance between human bodies in order to prevent the spread of infection. I have to admit that I can't understand why the term 'physical' or 'personal' distancing wasn't used instead. Why 'social'? In any case, the term is established now and there isn't much we can do about it. Even outside a time of epidemic, maintaining distance between individuals is no bad thing: excessive contact constitutes an undesirable imposition of the self on the other, a violation of his privacy. Even in overcrowded cities some people never get used to the uncomfortable physical proximity of commuter buses and crowds and are surprised that others are able to; finally, giving up on physical defence of it, they try to separate themselves from their personal space mentally, ignoring the constant physical violations of this space from all sides.

Societies that respect individuals' privacy avoid physical contact even as an expression of appreciation or affection; in such societies, the excessive tactility seen among young people is no more than a form of rebellion against parents' coldness.  Keeping your distance became such an important part of behaviour that it became a  substitute for politeness and cultivation – as though politeness means distance between individuals. You can no longer easily tell which came first: physical distance or emotional distance – that is, this social standoffishness that may be the price of individual privacy. Getting the whole package – warmth, familiarity, affection and personal privacy – seems to be difficult. But not impossible.

What is impossible, however, is maintaining the distance necessary to preserve autonomy while simultaneously being able to express affection and friendship without suppressing its physical manifestations. This can't work if we are forced to spend the whole day fighting a multi-front war of attrition to defend every last inch of our autonomy – multi-front because this autonomy is not only violated by touch. Our ears might be forced to tolerate others' musical tastes, the clamouring of crowds or the honking of horns; society might intervene in a family's lives or a family in those of its adult children. Here we can meaningfully talk about social distancing to combat social busybodyism and forcing your tastes onto others. I doubt this problem can be solved by social distancing or masks or even by working from home via video conference.

Embracing others is a human need. It's not only about expressing emotion, but also about receiving it: a hug is not simply symbolic but one of the few ways in which body can correspond to soul. Doing without it means doing without a part of your humanity. But shaking hands is just a greeting – originally a sign that a deal had been concluded or a contract sign. There are plenty of other physical gestures with which we can greet someone. Handshakes may never be as common again after this crisis. But hugs will absolutely return. I doubt anybody misses shaking hands with anybody – but many of us long for the day when we will be able to hug family and friends again, and lovers feel the inability to hold one another very sharply. And let's not forget the hugs we exchange at the funeral of a friend or relative. Many of us have been unable to say our final goodbyes to loved ones in recent times or have only been able to comfort others from afar.

Some aspects of epidemic life may prove lasting once the crisis is over. The effectiveness and the benefits of working from home are now clear and companies are sure to develop techniques more sophisticated than we can possibly imagine now to allow their employees to carry on doing so. It's obvious that remote meetings are shorter and more efficient than meetings conducted around a table. And distance learning will no doubt change the way that schools and universities teach even in peacetime – even in countries and societies whose infrastructure is as yet unprepared for these accelerating developments, and for individuals who lack the necessary skills to deal with them. Having previously been the province of digital universities and one or two other institutions here and there, distance learning is now becoming a much more comprehensive social phenomenon.

 Most people will still have to work in factories, fields, retail facilities, streets and railways, not to mention hospitals. Many people have to go out to work during a pandemic, even in sectors not defined as vital, because work is vital for them and their families.

Dr Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @AzmiBishara

This article was translated by Chris Hitchcock. Chris is an Arabic-English translator working at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.