Stop asking the wrong questions

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how rapidly human society is decaying. It has revealed how unprepared we are for life.

Should we adopt a secular or religious solution to the chaos? Should we listen to politicians or the ulama?

Should we pray harder or provide more hand sanitiser? Is physical distancing more important than attending Friday prayers? Are conspiracy theories a manifestation of Divine interference?

Most importantly, are these the right questions to ask?

Philosophical questions have existed for millennia. Obviously, we are not better off now.

Societies continue to be affected by cyclical affects of human activity. The archaeological site in China, Hamin Mangha, dates back to about 3000 BC. An epidemic wiped out this prehistoric village. The Great Plague of 14th century Europe resulted in millions of deaths. Societies overcame, recovered and grew.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of people have died from Covid-19, with more to come. Once again, our economies will recover, and society will move on.
Life will get back to normal, our economies will re-generate wealth and we will continue to argue about politics and religion. Humans will plod along, accepting that pandemics are nature’s way of maintaining equilibrium.

However, as we keep advancing scientifically and technologically, so will we drift further away from what this balance really means.

The death of society will continue long after a vaccination is created. It is irrelevant whether the stock market improves, unemployment decreases and the price of crude oil reverts to a healthy level. Decay has already set in because we persist in asking the wrong questions.

The new normal everyone is bandying around is premised on misconstrued values. How can education save us unless we are taught to ask the right questions?

The Malaysian government and corporate sectors are now soliciting policy recommendations, on how to get our society back on track after the movement control order (MCO) is lifted. Among the most important tasks is to generate jobs, reduce poverty and rebuild equity. It is suggested too that universities accelerate their research into the following areas:

  1. Protection of vulnerable populations from epidemics and catastrophes; how data and technology can help us mitigate a crisis, and prevent its recurrence.
  2. Understanding the mental effects of confinement and physical distancing.
  3. How we can reinforce our health infrastructure and ecosystem so front-liners and other caregivers can be better prepared.
  4. Connecting climate change, loss of biodiversity and the origin of viral diseases.
  5. Connecting socioeconomic dynamics with the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases

Missing from this list is how to slow down. How to reduce the need for excessive resources, how to be satisfied with living on less and to re-define the concept of wealth.

Research into these areas should be carried out by philosophers, historians of science, theologians and jurists. They should begin their search for a delicate, ethical balancing act, as most of us prepare to reopen society after a global lockdown.

There has been a surge in domestic violence during the MCO period. This abuse exists in both urban and rural Malaysia.

We need to engage the services of historians of industrialisation. This is because the current crisis is systemic. It needs to be dissected from every angle, across every historical era.

We need to trace how and why violence between the genders evolved. Did the human ego deteriorate over time despite economic and technological advances? Or have these advances been a catalyst for gender abuse?

Ethicists and philosophers should deconstruct why Singapore’s latest surge in Covid-19 infections is offset by a very low number of deaths. While Malaysia’s confirmed infections are considerably lower, there are many more deaths.

We should take a closer look at the underlying health conditions of our population, of which diabetes and heart disease are prominent.

Malaysia too has the honour of being the most obese of Asian countries, where approximately half of the population is overweight. In 2019, Malaysia had the highest rate of diabetes in Asia and one of the highest globally. One doctor has called this “Malaysia’s perfect storm”.

Weight-control and attitudes towards over-eating are not solely the work of nutritionists.

Ethicists and philosophers play a vital role. They need to persist in discourse on how different societies exercise their freedom of choice.

Prevention of obesity means giving up choices. The trade off is a curb on personal freedom. For example, should government policy dictate the kind of workforce an industry employs, which may reject someone, solely on his/her obesity?

Can or should jurists step in to justify such policy?

Or is it morally prudent for ethicists to convince society that such a policy will prove sustainable for society in the long run?

In the final analysis, it explains how different cultures survive catastrophic pandemics. It will help overcome societal upheaval, by applying technical, ethical and spiritual data.

Current research into boosting the immune system has a psychological and philosophical dimension. The global frenzy to find a vaccine for Covid-19 has ignored these dimensions.

We need to conduct more research on human stress and its association with the concepts of time and progress. We have neglected the non-physical aspects of human development and progress.

We have neglected the finer points of what makes us human. Our humanity is not premised on more economic output in less time, while accommodating the SDGs set by the United Nations.

It is also more than just a healthy liver, cholesterol-free arteries or perfect brain chemistry. Attitude is everything because it is closely connected to the soul.

The soul should not be described or “saved” by organised religion alone. Religion often advocates for saving the soul in the afterlife. When it tries to advocate solutions for temporal life, conflict often erupts.

Clashes have occurred even within the same religion, as evidenced by the Sunni-Shia conflict. Theologists are needed to moderate this dimension in temporal life. Ethicists must re-articulate the insurance factor provided by institutionalised belief systems.

Humanity is in desperate need of a direct-line to the ministers, governments and other decision-makers. It needs help with ethical decisions provided by an eclectic mix of experts who need to ask difficult questions.

We need more than a whole-of-society response. We require a conceptual transformation of what our humanity is. Covid-19 may be proof that we have been ignorant of the answer, thus far.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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