We are used to different acronyms. BLM, GOP, COP and so on. They all make sense, they allow us to save time, and turn out to be symbols which represent very sensitive and important processes. But it looks like it’s time to introduce a new acronym. We can call it NHC in English – “New Humanitarian Catastrophe” or NHD if you use the word Disaster.
The most recent Annual Valdai Club conference (2021) was largely devoted to the position of a private person in the modern world, his relationship with society and the state, his ability to maintain his privacy and freedom, and his ability to feel protected.
It is clear that these are key questions for all of humanity. In a sense, this is what all the culture available to us is dedicated to: how to live, and how to spend the years granted to each of us. It happened that after the Second World War, we seemed to feel that we all have a chance to develop what can be called humanity, a chance to live independently and relatively free. Although, of course, the problem of freedom has not gone anywhere, its understanding remains as it was, and is still the subject of difficult discussions.
But it so happened that we were faced with a pandemic. Generally, as everyone has noted, the pandemic did not bring anything new to the life of the planet, but only emphasised and catalysed what was already happening. This is exactly what has been scary about it.
Just recently (this text is being written in December 2021), we heard about omicron, a new strain of Covid discovered in South Africa. The dangers of this new variant remain a matter of conjecture. But air travel with South Africa is already grinding to a halt, leaving many people deprived of the opportunity to return home or, conversely, fly somewhere to attend to their own business, regardless of what kind of business it is. The South African authorities, incidentally, have sadly noted that this is a kind of punishment for their vigilance. Moreover, almost everyone who is somehow connected with this country is punished.
It is clear that the decision to strengthen the isolation of South Africa is largely dictated by sanitary considerations. Nevertheless, many people have suffered (let’s imagine, for example, how the people stuck there feel as well as people attempting to return there). And these people don’t necessarily suffer from Covid! Other people have the power to divide our societies into those who are threatened and those who threaten.
I would like to emphasise that the problem of safety and the fight against disease is the most important issue. But how this issue is resolved deserves discussion, since it is always a method used to play with human lives.
Another completely Kafkian story is that of the refugees on the border of Poland and Belarus. In this story, in my opinion, it is necessary to place the primary focus on the several thousand living and breathing people from the Middle East who are at the crux of the issue. It is clear that you can present your bill to the Belarusian authorities or Polish or European leaders. Still, the main victims in this story are not they, but the refugees. Surprisingly (or just not surprising), the political discourse reflected in the media is not focused on them, but on the contradictions and disputes between the authorities of the bordering countries.
Incidentally, a completely similar, but somewhat more terrible situation is to be found at the English Channel, where thousands of migrants who have reached France are trying to reach England. A ping-pong game continues with the lives of people. Pope Francis quite meaningfully called the neglect of the migrants’ lives “the collapse of civilisation”. Incidentally, he spoke this way after a visit to a migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, adding that the selfishness of states has dire consequences.
Of course, you can object to me, and point out that compared to the populations of Belarus, Poland, Germany, France, England and other countries, the number of refugees who have accumulated at the border is small, that thousands of refugees are not worth thinking about, when compared to hundreds of millions of permanent residents, the economy, the geopolitical game, etc. This is, of course, true. But this is also the problem: not only the thousands of unfortunate refugees, but the millions and even billions mentioned are victims of a humanitarian catastrophe.
At one time, Michel Foucault wrote a rather remarkable book called “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison”, in which he reflected on the transformation of human communities, depending on their attitude to the sick and to diseases. According to him, the fight against leprosy had led to the idea of isolation, in which society was divided into sick and healthy. The first were expelled from society, isolated and, in fact, abandoned to their fate. Interestingly, although leprosy was practically exterminated in that way, the institutions that arose in the course of this struggle did not disappear. Incidentally, this is reflected in our language. The words “leper” and “leprosy”, for example, are still used today and contain significant meanings that remain quite relevant. Another contagion, the plague, gave rise to quarantines and other disciplinary measures in which a special class of pariahs did not appear, but almost everyone was under supervision. Finally, smallpox gave us an example of more sophisticated power strategies: vaccinations, observatories, and the like.
The fight against Covid has shown us that virtually none of the measures historically used to combat mass disease have been forgotten. But the question is: what are the consequences of this?
I believe that we underestimate their destructiveness to human life. For example, a survey released on December 2 by Ifop and the charity Dons Solidaires in France showed that a third of all families are experiencing deep depression, and nearly every other person in France (47%) is afraid of the future. In general, there is no way to celebrate Christmas, as in the well-known Russian joke about fake Christmas ornaments. When asked why they are fake, the answer is because they are not making us happy. However, the answer is not surprising. What is surprising is that the situation in France this year is much better than it was last year.
Here I want to make a reservation right away, that the fight against Covid, sanitary and police measures are necessary. But recognising their necessity, I repeat, one cannot fail to notice the consequences.
First of all, the fact is that the transition to the digital age has led not only to the simplification of communications, it has also yielded a total increase in supervision over us all. Covid has intensified the growth of this surveillance.
Once again, I am not opposed to using modern technology to combat the pandemic. I am even for it, but still it is impossible not to think about the consequences for humanity.
It always seemed to me that if there is any meaning in history, it is in the development of humanity, in the acquisition of individuality by a person: his or her own peculiar features. We can even make the assumption that the main, specific way in which people differ from one another is in their ability to plan their lives independently and creatively.
It is even permissible to note that, for all their contradictions, modern social movements, such as the notorious BLM or Cancel Culture, may be somewhat ugly, but reflect the desire of people to acquire a degree of individuality. It is possible, by the way, that they are ultimately anti-individual, but that is another matter.
In one way or another, the entire post-war era has been imbued with the idea of individual happiness and freedom.
It is characteristic, that even during the Cold War, at least in words, both the USSR and the USA declared their adherence to humanistic values.
And today the question arises: are we witnessing a great degradation of the idea of freedom?
Covid only emphasised the growth of human surveillance over the past 10-15 years.
Perhaps this is the inevitable price to pay for the existence of nearly 8 billion human beings, and for the comfort and prosperity in which a significant part of us live. But, be that as it may, there is a colossal risk that we face a new humanitarian catastrophe.
Its approach is evident from the growing depression, the nervousness of people. This can be seen in the daily life of many cities, from the growth of tension both in the relations between individuals and entire states. This is also evident from the fact that between the calls for the protection of some abstract humanity and the protection of the rights of an individual, the gap is growing and constantly widening. And this, in essence, is alienation, the separation of a person from the rest. That is a direct path to the aforementioned depression, which, in essence, means a feeling of the impossibility of love. It’s true that there are pills which can be taken for this. But this is not accurate, by the way.
With each new day of the pandemic, control measures, surveillance measures are increasing. People begin to feel as if they live in occupied cities; at every corner documents may be demanded, like the Ausweis ID carts used during the Second World War. And woe to anyone who does not have this magic pass.
I repeat, the fight against the pandemic is not under discussion, but there is the threat of a humanitarian catastrophe.
In conclusion. In all countries the media like to criticise the authorities for inconsistency in the fight against the pandemic. Here, they say, the authorities impose restrictions, then cancel them, then force us to present QR codes, then not. Perhaps this criticism is somewhat fair. But the inconsistency is still completely human in nature and makes the authorities closer to ordinary people, who are also imperfect.