Opinion: Our Social Contract in a Pandemic

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Illustration- Craig Stephens/scmp.com
Illustration- Craig Stephens/scmp.com

By Tenzin Jampa

While I write this, COVID-19 has claimed way more people than I will ever ‘see’ in my lifetime and the death toll and the fear toll keeps cranking up.

We find ourselves at the mercy of our instincts while we strive to find some normalcy in our lives. But in the act of doing so, we feel like the hamster who runs but never reaches anywhere. In our doomed attempts, the absurdity of our life glares at us with a full smile. We look at it and cannot bear to face it.

And we ask ourselves “how did we reach here?” “Who/what is responsible for this?” And in the act of asking the question, we receive the answer: COVID-19.

“Ask and ye shall receive” as the saying goes is often true but how often is the received answer ‘true.’ For instance, we try to justify how COVID-19 has robbed us of our freedom, tranquillity and material comforts. We think of how this pandemic has killed thousands, stopped our economy, and introduced chaos in the system. And we believe that we had a normal life that was taken away from us. But don’t we all hear the voice that whispers: “ There never was a normal life”

Normal was us being hunted by animals, normal was people dying of diseases that you would know nothing about, normal was living in perpetual fear, normal was the ‘state of nature.’ And in mankind’s attempt to escape from the ‘state of nature’, we enveloped ourselves with a thin veil sewed together by the bonds of our social contract. But as time went by, we learned not to see the veil that protects us and thought it to be an inherent part of life. We forgot how easy it is to rip it apart and burn it to the ground. Maybe that is why we implicitly think COVID-19 has robbed us of our normalcy: something that was never ours.

I find it interesting to study how societal systems function in a time of dire crisis. For you can clearly see how the state and the people juggle between anarchy and authoritarianism to keep the ‘social contract’ intact. And the various nature of humanity manifests itself through the actions of various groups of people.

Some people think it better to have something rather than nothing and end up relying on things that they deem powerful, solid, and timeless even if it comes at the cost of their civil liberties. They fall prey to their irrational fears and give in to the promises made by absolute entities. Some find religion while some ‘pray’ to their politicians, whatever it is that comforts them. You will be astounded by their unwavering and uninformed faith. You will find these people arguing about how the government was right to exercise their power. And it may indeed be the case that the thing that saves us might be the draconian disbanding of our civil liberties but don’t they realize that authoritarianism awaits them down that road. Don’t they understand that the power they give to their leaders might taint them? Have they not heard the saying “Absolute power corrupts absolutely?” Maybe they have. Maybe they know that the road they choose might lead to hell but for them, it will be an ‘ordered’ hell. Maybe they will choose that road any day and time over the road that leads back to the ‘state of nature’.

Then there is another tribe of people who are truly stupid and highly incapable of seeing the bigger picture. They are people who are wedded to their personal desires and demand that the world revolves around them. They are the people you find actively disobeying the recommended social protocol just so they can have a day out in the sun. They are like the people in movies who we yell at and whose utter lack of competence and arrogance continues to astound all of us. No amount of reasonable anger is enough for this bunch of people.

Then there is another band of people who think that society is already crumbling down. They already see and hear the agonizing death of the social contract and are preparing. For they are not going down without a fight and they know in their heart that the ‘state of nature’ will be the new normal. And Some of them have been actively waiting for an apocalyptic day to arise for they want to go back to ‘nature’. Maybe that is why people are buying guns, ammunition and weapons if the time to use them ever comes. But don’t they realize that the ‘state of nature’ is no place to be? Don’t they realize how quickly they will miss the warmth of our social blanket when the cold gaze of nature strikes them down? Haven’t they heard of the truism: “Nature is red in tooth and claw.”

Then there are people who believe in the strength of the social contract and will try to mend it wherever it tears. They are the people who accept that absurdity glares at them while they foolishly sew back the social contract. They are the people who take in every passing day and moment with utmost joy and happiness even though what they do might not matter. They are the people who believe that we will get through any crisis with love and compassion. They are the people who will risk their lives to save other people. They are the people who will cry for a nameless person, donate for someone else’ child, and selflessly dedicate their being for the good of the many.

In some sense, they are stupid and won’t survive in a ‘state of nature.’ But don’t we all know that the society we have and the blanket we wear are due to them? Maybe we know that and hopefully, we are wise enough to thank them for saving us from the ‘state of nature’.

It is said that the strength of something is measured when it breaks. So this COVID-19 is a test for our social contract. Will humanity with its various nature come together and hold on long enough for this storm to pass? Will our social contract be strong enough so that it doesn’t crumble away?

 

The author is a student at Massachusets Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, (MIT ’23)

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