covid-19 learning to live

What Do Epicurians Teach Us About COVID-19

The coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened as many as 145 million people worldwide. It is raging in several countries like never before. The second wave of COVID-19 has seriously exposed the health infrastructure in India. Even as I write, thousands of dead bodies await their turns on temporary cremation grounds. Thousands are dying on the streets, waiting to be admitted into the hospitals. Several thousand are begging, borrowing & stealing oxygen cylinders to keep their loved ones alive.

It is a manufactured crisis. The election rallies in Bengal and Kumbh Mela were buzzing with millions of devotees – both political and religious – clinging to one another, chanting their respective Gods’ names. The megalomania of the supreme leader & the consequent downplay of the virus have spiralled into a crisis like never before.

The COVID-19 pandemic – and the loss of loved ones – has created a void in our lives. More particularly, human anxiety over life and death has risen. In reality, we survive near-death experiences every day. Mental health has taken a significant toll on each one of our lives. As we scroll through Instagram and Twitter day-in-day-out, we are anguished by the current crisis. Each one requires the other to say: “Hey, you. I know things are pretty crazy right now. It is all overwhelming and scary. But, you will be OK – eventually.”

covid-19 pandemic and Kumbh Mela
Amid rising coronavirus cases in the country, thousands of saffron-clad seers and ash-smeared Nagas flouted Covid-19 norms and gathered at Har Ki Pauri ghat in Haridwar for a holy dip in the Ganga during the second “shahi snan” (royal bath) of the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. | Press Trust of India (PTI)

The pandemic has completely changed our lives. Let’s take something as simple as our experiences of space: our mobility is enormously restricted and is under the constant gaze of the other. We don’t go out for morning walks – if that luxury existed for some of us. We are restricted to four walls of our homes, working while sulking in bed. We don’t even realize what time it is, what day it is – for all days are the same. Anthropologist Jane Guyer calls it “enforced presentism”: we are coerced to live only in the immediate present, having lost the ability to plan ahead. (However, the reader should note that Guyer coined the term in her seminal 2007 essay on contemporary forms of temporal reasoning.)

This enforced presentism raises questions about what it is like to live in times of normalcy. Can there be an everyday life after the pandemic? Amidst crisis, it is hard to imagine a future that looks different from the present. Here, we seek to ponder life’s big questions: What is the meaning of life? What it feel like to be dead? Does God exist? If so, how can the Almighty witness the suffering of millions on their death beds, in anguish, in vast numbers? However, I do not seek to discuss these questions in depth – at least in this essay.

With regards to God, Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” His reasoning: the existence of God helps establish social order. Decades later, somewhere in Russia, Mikhail Bakunin wrote: “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.” A century later, Albert Camus, a scholar of existential philosophy, sums up the God dilemma in this quote: “If God did not exist, we should have to invent him. If God did exist, we should have to abolish him.” As a philosophy student, I am convinced that – God or no God – we will have to live a life. It is here, that the epicurean thoughts come to my rescue.

Mass cremation in times of COVID-19 pandemic
Mass cremation of victims who died due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, India, on April 22, 2021. | REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism was developed in 300 BCE in Athens by Epicurus. And its leading proponent: Titus Carus Lucretius, the author of the tremendous didactic poem, “On the Nature of Things”. Epicureanism challenged society in ways that seemed unacceptable at the time in Greece. It teaches that the greatest good is to seek modest pleasures to attain a state of tranquillity, freedom from fear, and the absence of bodily pain. This combined makes up for eudemonia (happiness).

Epicurus and his followers formed a small commune in Epicurus’s house, surrounded by a garden, outside the city walls. The Epicureans took their meals in common, discussed philosophy, and socialized. Epicurus was a pragmatist. He declared that all that exists is made of indestructible atoms – tiny mobile particles invisible to the naked eye.

Prayers, to Epicureans, were useless, for there was no hell. “The life of eudemonia was simply the one where pleasure dominated over pain”.  To them, happiness was derived from external things and socialization. When there is no immediate danger of dying, people are less afraid of death, Lucretius says. But when illness or danger strikes, people begin to think of what comes after death.

Epicureans believe that when things go wrong, they do so badly. We will suffer. And there is no natural cure except time and distraction. They say it is essential for you to be aware of the external causes of misfortune and steer clear of them before they occur. These thoughts resonate with humans’ reaction to the 21st Century pandemic.

COVID-19 pandemic & Varanasi
A man selling masks on the busy street of Varanasi during the pandemic. | Shubhangee Vyas for Unsplash

Bad things occur – again and again. Already, the pandemic has fueled inequality both among and within countries. New virus variants have ravaged the streets of London, Mumbai, and California, among others. Everything is scarce everywhere – hospital beds, doctors, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, Remdesivir tablets, etc. Quarantines – and the general concern about the raging virus – have significantly impacted our day-to-day lives.  Mental health has been neglected since. Living has become a misery for many of us. Death does not come easy. And the dead don’t die in peace. With COVID-19, we feel it all – one at a time. So, how do we cope? Or can we really cope?

To be frank, I don’t have answers to these questions. COVID-19 is a new disease, and there is no road map for a predictive future. No one knows how long the world will take to reach normalcy. But, as an Epicurean would have responded: “We just need to learn to live with it.” HOPE, I guess, is what drives us forward. Let’s hope that someday the world will have the complete toolkit to tackle the pandemic. Our future needs better management. We will need to focus on building the infrastructure to mitigate such health crises. We need to cooperate better. The rich are obliged to help the poor – both among and within countries. We need to build a sustainable future.

In the meantime, we must focus on learning to live with the pandemic.

Picture: National Geographic

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