Josna Rege

451. Life Depends on It

In Books, health, Inter/Transnational, reading, reflections, Work on March 22, 2020 at 3:37 pm

Still from David Gladwell’s film adaptation of The Memoirs of a Survivor

A friend just wrote to me that she feels as if she is living in Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor; so do I. So do I.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly we can make drastic changes in the way we live if our lives depend on it and if the authorities tell us that it is essential to do so. One day we hear the term social distancing for the first time and the next day we are practicing it (and rightly so). One day we are getting up and going to work and the next, we are working from home indefinitely (with or without pay). One day we are in the thick of a critically important election campaign and the next, primaries are being postponed with little to no opposition, despite fears of the general election going the same way. No such drastic action followed when more than 50,000 children died of starvation in Yemen in one year alone; or when we received dire warnings of impending climate catastrophe from the scientific community; or on the numerous occasions when the current U.S. President has overstepped the limits of his constitutionally defined powers for what seemed like one time too many.

Passengers in a train in Chennai on March 19, 2020 (PTI)

We are living in conditions we never dreamt of just a few short weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, I’m sure that even as each of us goes through the motions mandated by our leaders, a part of us is watching and seeking to understand what it all means. What kind of a world is going to emerge at the other side of this crisis, and what can we do to help shape what that world will look like? We feel the need to act, not only for ourselves but for the future.

COVID-19 scenarios and benefits (Washington State)

We know that the wealthy and powerful are working hard to ensure that they come out of this on top, that even as patients gasp for breath, healthcare workers run out of masks, and hospitals out of ventilators, they are in the process of restructuring the system to consolidate their power still further. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, has called it a pandemic shock doctrine; in a March 16th video, Coronavirus Capitalism—and How to Beat It, she warns of this opportunism but suggests that the unfolding  global disaster also offers the opportunity for transformative change from below—if we demand it with the same urgency that we are now putting into hoarding toilet paper.

Yesterday I read an article about the millions of workers in India’s informal sector who are suddenly out of work; there are no provisions or protections for them. It’s the same with gig workers around the world, or part-timers without benefits. Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, pointed out on March 15th that because the United States doesn’t have a public health system worth the name, millions of Americans will be left without adequate care and coverage. In the face of this crisis, authoritarian rulers around the world are acting to protect themselves and their own but, aside from empty posturing, have little of substance to offer their people except for draconian measures that may well become permanent, unless we act and keep on acting to create a different future.

In the meantime, we do what humans do: we hunker down, obey orders from above, share frenetically on social media, and do our best to ensure that we and our loved ones survive. But we are also working hard—albeit  in place—to gain an understanding of this developing situation, reaching beyond and deep within ourselves to help create a just and sustainable future for us all. Life that’s worth living depends on it.

P.S. If you read The Memoirs of a Survivor, do let me know what you think. Love, J

Shelves at a Tesco supermarket after panic buying (Picture: Michelle Davies)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. The enormity of all that’s happened, is happening and will happen, is overwhelming, Josna, and wherever each of us is in the world we know that it’s proving harder and harder to process it all. I have to focus on positive things that I can control in order to cope but that’s not an option for many, I know. As you say, yesterday’s novel concepts, like social distancing and self-isolating, we’re all practising today, and wondering what tomorrow holds.

    I hope you and yours remain well in body and spirit.

    • Thank you for responding, Chris. I feared it was all too much with us to be able to comment on, and that I was being a bit too melodramatic. Meanwhile, I comment (fearfully slowly) on student essays and am grateful for your continuing reviews and constant reminders of the values that we must continue to uphold no matter what comes our way.

      • I don’t think it’s melodramatic at all; we recognise these are unusual times because if we don’t we’re putting our heads in the sands. But for our mental health we have to balance doom and gloom with things that lift the spirit — for me that’s music, literature, walking in the fresh air and similar, not forgetting keeping in touch with like minds, albeit with social distancing or, as now, on social media. One thing though I’m losing and that’s my sense of humour, which is a little worrying.

  2. hi josna, and thanx, as always. i share your sentiments, too. but you know i could not bear reading that novel at this point, it’d drive me totally nuts. i am already chased by my own vivid and critical imagination into the wildest scenarios in my mind – even though in germany, lots of things still seem to be regulated with german thoroughness, for better or worse. but i fear for c. in senegal, they will have it coming at them really hard, the epidemy itself but also the socalled collateral damage, as in economic desaster. they have wonderful doctors but no resources, and a more than precarious infrastructure not even owned by themselves but by france and other re-colonial actors in the global wealth “game”. ach. i tell myself, this too shall pass, but not with my fullest conviction. josna, bleib gesund!

    • Actually, it isn’t the horrific postapocalyptic fiction you might imagine, it’s a woman of about our age, watching an old settled order delude itself that everything is more-or-less okay, while it’s very clear to most ordinary people and young people that that old order is gone, never to return. Lessing called it “an attempt at autobiography,” and it’s very introspective, as the narrator is preparing internally for an entirely new order while watching the demise of the old. A fascinating work of indescribable genre, with some unforgettable characters and relationships.
      Come to think of it, even as I seem to exhort us to action in the piece above, I think what is more important is for us is first to try to understand what is happening, and then figure out what our role may be and how/whether/where we can help to see our way forward.
      And yes, we can only hope that somehow it will not hit the global south with the same force it has so far; you’re right that the health infrastructure there, miserable as it is here in the U.S., is a patchwork with even more gaps. And yes, you too, please. Take care of yourself. x J

  3. Dear friend, It is normal for people to fear when they feel that they are not in control of their lives. However, the truth is that we are never in control of our lives, really. We do not know what the future will bring, ever. This virus scare has only made it very plain to everyone the simple truth. We need to catch our breaths and re-consider what is really important and what we believe. Are we treating each other with respect and dignity? Are we acting loving to our neighbor as much as we do to our friend?
    As a Christian I am not afraid because the worst that can happen to me is actually the best that can happen to me. If I die of this or any other cause, I will be with God and the loved ones who went before me. That is my hope and it is wonderful. So, why fear?
    So while I am here on earth, I want to follow what is right in God’s eyes and do unto others
    as He wants me to do- love my neighbor as myself and be kind to everyone I meet, even if it is at 6 feet away! We need to keep singing! Life is joyful!

    • Dear Marianne,
      I agree that in ultimate terms we are not in control, but at the level of the government we are still supposed to be a democracy. I’m not trying to be a fearmonger, but I do want to sound a note of warning that we should be vigilant so that, like war profiteers, those who already have too much power in this country (and world) don’t grab the opportunity to consolidate their power still further. More immediately, we have to see to it that the most vulnerable among us, who have no cushion, no safety net, are supported so that they can survive, and that most of the bailouts are not given to the big corporations.
      But you are quite right, in the meantime the best we can do is to be good to each other and to keep singing. So grateful to be in a position that I am able to keep my job and keep working from home–so far, at least!

  4. Yes! I thought of Memoirs of a Survivor the other day and the similarities with life now. U remember how that book didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the series.

    • Kristin, I somehow think that Memoirs was her breakthrough novel that allowed her to write the Shikasta series. In it, she captured the moment of the mid-1970s, understood what was starting to happen, and found a way to come to terms with her aging, her mother, and her younger self and simultaneously to explore the inner and the outer processes as they unfolded. (Does that make any sense?)

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