Consider This | A very thin veneer
“Civilization is but a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen.” — Bill Moyers
Regardless of where you were last New Year’s Eve, whether with family, friends, loved ones or strangers, as we witnessed the waning hours of 2019, billions of the earth’s inhabitants were focused on the countdown clock as it predictably, but ever so slowly, sauntered toward the midnight hour on January 1, 2020.
As we all celebrated the start of a new decade, no one imagined that, at that very hour, a deadly virus was incubating and would affect its first victim 12 days into the new year.
On that joyous first day of this new year, we were oblivious that an existential threat to millions of human souls who inhabit the planet was developing its own life cycle.
While some religious fanatics were preaching doom and gloom about the imminent end of the world, more sanguine souls were cautioning about the calamitous consequences of climate change on the human species.
Few, if anyone, could honestly admit that they entertained any idea that not only would we be confronted with a global threat which, before now, was featured only in sci-fi movies and fanciful novels, but that that threat would imperil our very lives and virtually shut down our planet.
A new reality invaded our lives this week and along with it came a scarcely used term – pandemic – which resided undisturbed for decades and could be found principally in the dictionary or dusty history books.
Today this new term punctuates everyday conversation.
Therefore, this week, we would like to consider this — how will we emerge from this newly identified pandemic that has conclusively confirmed that human life and the entire civilization exists within a very thin veneer?
An enduring breed
From the beginning of time, whether one accepts the ‘inspired’ interpretation of the story of Eden or the Darwinian version of the origin of the species, the story of the human race has been one of stubborn survival. Throughout the tumultuous tides of time, and despite all manner of environmental and biological challenges, Homo sapiens have proven to be an enduring breed.
As early as 429 to 426 B.C., the Plague of Athens, which was quite likely typhus or typhoid fever, claimed the lives of between 75,000 and 100,000 souls.
The Antonine Plague of the second century (165 A.D. to 180 A.D.), which historians speculate was smallpox, resulted in five to 10 million deaths.
The Plague of Justinian wiped out between 25 and 50 million people or 40 percent of the population of Europe, Egypt and Western Asia between the years 541 A.D. and 542 A.D.
The Black Plague, one of the most notorious, claimed the lives of between 75 million and 200 million of the European population between the years 1331 and 1353.
In the 20th Century, up to 100 million souls were erased by the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. That worldwide influenza was described as a pandemic.
In the last two decades of the 20th Century, it is estimated that the HIV/AIDS pandemic claimed the lives of more than 32 million people.
In each and every case, the species not only endured but recovered as the infestation was contained.
Despite the very thin veneer, that at the time seemed to threaten to breakdown and destroy the future of civilization, the species endured.
HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence as it was in the early days of that epidemic that later attained pandemic status.
Today, those infected can lead a near normal life with the aid of pharmaceutical protocols.
The Bahamas has had its own tragic experience with a devastating plague when it was struck by a cholera epidemic in early September 1852 that reached Nassau from New York on board a Bahamian ship named the Reform.
It affected about a tenth of the population of New Providence, killing a quarter of those infected and with 70 deaths a week at the height of the epidemic.
By December, the cholera had spread to nearly all the Bahamian islands, but it was waning.
When it was over, more than 1,000 people perished, including 696 in Nassau, 178 in Harbour Island, about 200 in Eleuthera, 108 in Abaco, and 40 in Ragged Island.
The new threat today, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, has reportedly so far claimed the lives of nearly 6,000 in a very short period, although 156,738 persons have allegedly been confirmed as infected at the time of this writing.
Yesterday, authorities announced that a 61-year-old Bahamian woman has tested positive for the virus. She has not traveled within the last 20 days.
It should be emphasized that contracting the coronavirus is not necessarily a death sentence.
The key to containment of this virus is intimately tied to its proper diagnosis and management.
Public panic about government’s response and management of this virus have magnified the fear of contracting it.
In the meantime, the entire world, largely assisted by 24-hour media coverage, has developed what appears to be a coronavirus craze.
This is not to minimize the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. There are significant personal and economic impacts that will persist until we are better able to diagnose and prescribe effective medicines to contain and mitigate the virus’ effects.
Stock markets have experienced what appears to be a relentless tailspin.
Large institutions such as colleges, universities, primary and high schools in many countries have temporarily closed. Large entertainment and sporting events have been canceled and many of the engines that propel economic activity in many countries have ceased operation.
If the coronavirus is not soon contained, it is quite likely that, apart from the actual deaths that will result, entire economies could experience an economic recession that could have longer and deeper effects than the great recession that began in 2008. Billions of lives, the world over, will be adversely affected by this pandemic.
In the absence of a cure or a vaccine, there are prudent measures that can be taken to mitigate or minimize the virus’ impact.
Those measures include self-quarantine if you suspect that you are infected, regular and thorough hand washing, avoiding large public gatherings, social distancing and other common-sense approaches to avoid situations where the virus can easily spread. In addition, the health authorities must facilitate testing for persons who believe that they have been infected.
A very thin veneer
The reality that we now face with the coronavirus pandemic is that we must come to terms with the fact that our lives are separated, protected and defined by a very thin veneer. That veneer must be strengthened by proactive measures that will assist us in overcoming this pandemic.
Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher and one of the founders of modern political philosophy, described the natural order and life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and that, in order to overcome this, we have entered into a social contract.
The social contract posits that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or to the decision of a majority, in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.
In the context of the Hobbesian social contract, we must accept that, in the days and months ahead, we might have to surrender some of our civil liberties in order to ensure that the social contract works for us all in overcoming this pandemic.
That might mean mandatory quarantines and other austere measures that are coordinated by the state.
The level and scope of panic by the citizens of this and other countries will be greatly influenced by the confidence that governments inspire in the actions they take in contending with this pandemic.
Such actions will include the closing of national borders, either completely or very selectively, as well as screening protocols implemented for returning residents and visitors.
Now is the time for strong, decisive leadership in dealing with this crisis. That will include a full, frank and open dialogue regarding the status of the incidents of infection and, most importantly, what will be done to contain and mitigate its spread within our borders.
As Bill Moyers observed, “Civilization is but a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen.”
This pandemic will test and stress our ability to meet the challenges in the months ahead.
In the fullness of time, as in other cases, scientists will discover a medical prescription to prevent and possibly cure the COVID-19 virus from continuing its destructive path.
In the meantime, this pandemic will continue to represent a very thin veneer that will absorb every activity in which we engage.
It remains for us individually and collectively to solidify that veneer in order to ward off the effects of this pandemic until a permanent prescription is discovered.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to [email protected].