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Isolation in an interconnected world

Alexander Gorlach / No Comments Share:

We are currently living through two major crises simultaneously: The global coronavirus pandemic and the resulting financial and economic crisis that it sparked. It has been said the fight to repair the damage caused by that second crisis will be far greater and much more protracted than the current battle against the COVID-19 — an illness that has already claimed several thousand lives and will doubtless kill scores more.

It makes no sense to weigh the one against the other, or a human life against a corporate bankruptcy. At the same time, these two crises are inextricably connected in a much more profound way than simple cause and effect: By now, every person on earth must clearly see how interconnected our world really is.

Pandemics are colorblind

It seems that basic truisms about illness are once again being proven valid: Pandemics know no geographic borders or skin colors, nor do they differentiate according to religion, culture or language.

Those who just weeks ago looked down upon the Chinese in a racist manner must now look on as the virus continues to ravage Italy, Iran and South Korea — countries that could not be more different. Perhaps the only thing that will connect them and their people in the long run are the experiences they will all gather by facing this crisis.

People are thrown together during such existential crises. Beyond the tight-knit network of global trade routes there is something more that connects us: the bond of being part of humanity.

The third crisis

This gives rise to a third crisis, one that is intimately linked to the first two: the challenge of “social distancing,” a retreat precipitated by the closure of public spaces and the need to avoid contact with others to slow the spread of the virus. For those in the West, it is the first time since the end of World War II that they have had to sacrifice freedom of movement.

People are either confined within their own four walls or quarantined in unfamiliar surroundings. Beyond one’s own neighborhood or city, states, countries, even entire continents have been cut off from one another. As did the US before it, the EU now has plans to close its external borders, and more barriers are going up within Europe by the hour. The freedom of borderless travel within Europe, a central tenet of the EU, as well as a point of pride, has been curtailed, country by country, within a matter of days.

United in isolation

This can make one feel powerlessness. And well-meaning advice about using isolation as an opportunity to finally tackle all of those books on your reading list only go so far here, as powerlessness breeds lethargy and lack of freedom saps motivation.

It would therefore do the human family well to approach this third crisis — and the others as well — as a spiritual opportunity. This goes beyond having a clear strategy for keeping oneself occupied, as well as beyond the issue of how well people can actually handle being with themselves and on their own.

We ultimately need to learn from the oppressive isolation that so many of us are now experiencing and construct an uplifting and comforting narrative for humanity for once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

Today, many of the most world’s most emblematic sites known for their ability to forge communities from all corners of the globe — Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, among them — are abandoned. This may seem depressing, yet people have assured each other that they are there and will remain so. Now they are fighting to establish a new public sphere under daunting circumstances.

We are all in exile in our homes and need to give strength to one another — like the Italians who last weekend took to their balconies and windows to play music and sing heartfelt serenades with and for one another.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Religion & International Studies Institute at Cambridge University. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisery positions at Harvard University. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche. DW

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