2020, COVID-19 and reflection on human immortality
The year 2020 will go down in history as the annus horribilis for the human race; the year that millions of lives were forfeited to a tiny and inanimate virus with no sensate hope or ambition. Yet, the coronavirus has decimated millions, and left many millions more cowering in our helplessness. This is one terrible year when most humans, for whom death is often a distant thought, came face to face with the possibility of a sudden demise from a COVID-19 ambush. 2020 has been the very definition of uncertainty for everyone, from the mighty to the lowly. We all got sucked into the vortex palpable fear—no one knew when the virus will strike, where it could be contracted, or how fatal it could be.
COVID-19 pandemic became the most lethal of all the enemies humans have ever contended with. And it fuelled our uncertainty in the very fact that we had no certain fact about its character and modus operandi.
As the usual tradition goes with the coming of a new year, we all welcomed 2020 with hope and resolutions. Governments made budgets, humans made plans and organisations made projections. The year was to be the usual in the trajectory of human activities and busyness. Children will be born, and adult will grow old and die. There will be achievements all around the world and calamities too. The usual diseases will keep ravaging humanity, from cancer to tuberculosis. All the states of the world would battle their normal internal crises and predicament, and few resolutions would be made. And yet, we all neglected what had been on humanity’s radar since humanity began its civilisational march many centuries ago; the very underbelly of humans’ desire to transcend themselves.
COVID-19 brought humanity very low. It humbled us at the very height of our civilisational achievements. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher, once perceptively remarked: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.” Since the Stone Age, and then the Industrial Revolution, humanity has grown beyond its cradle which is the earth. We not only concretised the fragility of the earth; we also have turned our attention to space. Humanity has arrived at what Mark Twain called the “limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.” This validates the Yoruba adage that when humans have eaten and are surfeited, they then look for unnecessary distractions. After civilisation had settled the issue of survival, it was then time for humans to transcend themselves, especially through the discoveries of science and technology and its limitless possibilities and dangers in ways that are often indistinguishable. When humans cracked the secret of the atom, we arrived at the nuclear reactor as well as the nuclear atomic bomb. We now contemplate a posthuman world with the breakthrough with artificial intelligence.
In its very essence, civilisation commenced as humanity’s search for survival. It has now been transformed into an exploration of our possible immortality. To be human is not only to be mortal, but to also have the capacity to perceive the infinite, which we do not see in our finitude. Humanity is trapped in the yearning for infinitude; the desire to undermine our mortality and live forever. Abraham Lincoln puts it better: “Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.” And so, once the first land was tilled and farmed, agriculture enabled humans to conquer starvation. But it also enabled an abundance that helped us to keep staving off death. With medicine, humans started to invade the genetic code to hold off the principle of ageing encoded into our being. We started battling diseases and sicknesses, and also death. Immortality therefore lies in the achievement of civilisation for humanity. We have to keep overreaching ourselves to be able to overreach our mortality.
Unfortunately, civilisation is what makes you sick, says Paul Gauguin, the French post-impressionist artist. But more than this, civilisation already puts in stock the pointer to what will eradicate humanity—the nuclear threat, and the virus. Since the combined effort of humanity’s brilliant scientists unlocked the secret of the atom, the human race has remained on the precipice of self-destruction. When Hiroshima and Nagasaki snowballed into the atomic mushroom, we saw in that catastrophe, the possibility of undermining our own race for immortality. That is the paradox of civilisation: it contained the seed for our immortality and our destruction in unequal proportion. In other words, we are more likely to be destroyed than to achieve immortality. If humanity is destroyed, then there will be no one left to remember us. This is where the insight of Emerson leads us—the civilisation we have invented to ensure our immortality is what will most likely kill and efface us and all the infinitude we ever hoped for.
The reality of our accelerated mortality came alive in 2020. Nature rebelled against the unmitigated assault on her sanctity and exploitation. A family of the coronaviruses jumped its boundary and landed in the civilised space of humanity. And we were not prepared because we have always underestimated the virus. After all, we seem to have got the structure of most of the viruses we know and their epidemiological features. The common cold is one of the most dangerous ailments afflicting humanity, but we seem to have tamed it. What can we not tame? Yet, we have arrived at the limit of human hubris. And it is neither yet from aliens in outer spaces nor from artificial intelligence. It is from a lowly virus that is inorganic and inanimate. There is less we know about the virus and its behaviour than we really know. The novelty of the coronavirus effectively undermines the accumulated scientific knowledge about its type that we have stockpiled for decades.
Mercifully, 2020 has also become the year in which humanity has managed to get an understanding of the vaccination that will stop the virus in its deadly track. Of course, human beings have the resilience to always overcome whatever adversity is brought on them either naturally or by their own efforts. But then, humanity has brought itself too many times to the precipice of destruction not to take notice of the dangerous side of our existence and the search for immortality. Essentially, it is human hubris that brought the pandemic of 2020 upon us. It is our inability to take stock of our civilisational progress and how far we are willing to go to transcend our humanity. It is certain that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, for instance, and all the others almost ready for us will provide instant relief from the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic. But should the fact of the vaccines, or human resilience in the face of troubles, blind us to how far-fetched our search for immortality is, or how dangerous?
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, has a piece of wisdom we can draw on: “A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings, and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit from his illnesses.” What insight do we need to urgently derive from this pandemic, and from others that have afflicted humankind? What deep lessons does COVID-19 teach us in 2020? It is simple: there is a need to de-escalate humanity’s rush for self-destruction. If this family of coronavirus could make the fatal jump into the human host, there are many more that can. Thus, the arrival of the breakthrough in vaccination against the coronavirus ought not be interpreted as the resumption of our human normality or the onslaught against nature. On the contrary, it ought to be a time to pause and reassess what it means to be human, and what civilisation ought to mean.
And more than this, we need a redefinition of what it means to be immortal. Humans can only be immortal in the face of posterity and the state in which we leave the world. Posterity is our immortality. Unfortunately, the logic of civilisation is often oriented towards a further exploitation of the universe with scant thought for what future generations will make of the progress we have achieved, and the failures we leave behind. It ought to be clear to humanity now that civilisation is amok. From the First to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, humans are barely managing the benefits of progress since we are ever confronted with the threat of imploding the world as we know it. 2020 and the pandemic make it very clear to us that we are nearer to destruction, and the undermining of our own immortality, than we imagine. The COVID-19 pandemic, uncontained, has the capacity to kill the whole of humanity. And we have barely even managed to get it arrested. And who knows what the future of more scientific and technological breakthrough holds? The coronavirus is insisting on the imperatives of weighing human progress on the scale of morality. Civilisational progress is not an unconditional good. It needs to be tempered by further thought on how our immortality can be retained in the womb of the future of those yet unborn.
Prof Olaopa is a retired federal permanent secretary