Corona, Capitalism and Compassion — Saga of a Strange loop.
Cappuccinos. Symphony orchestras. Art galleries. Rendezvous parties. Candle light dinners. Modern capitalism (deliberately or in-deliberately) is extremely successful at sealing all of them off from the poorest rung of the society. Pseudo-criteria of replaceability made the toil of a farmer or a janitor worthless in front of those that do a white-collar job. Well, after all we have darwin’ed our way out, they say, it is not just our species but those fittest ideas too that survive. Well and good!
But every now and then, an epidemic hits us so badly - sending a terribly horrific scare-wave through the ocean of the society leaving a deep moral behind, that we always almost forget to notice. The trouble with strange loops. Strange loops are these concrete yet subtle underlying connections between various layers of the hierarchy that are almost hidden from the naked mind’s eye — which lead to serious paradoxes if seen partially.
Let me explain this in simple terms. A simple yet strange self-referential loop can be this statement in English, “English is a terribly faulty language so much so that every statement in it is prone to an error”. This statement is speaking about the very English it is written in and therefore of its own falsity. Another is the famous Liar’s paradox. “This statement is false”. If so, it is true. If it is true, then it is false. Ad infinitum. These strange connections across the levels, if not carefully handled, can lead to serious paradoxes. And sometimes they hint at the deep limitations of the foundations of mathematics and epistemology (See Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems).
Now how is all of this related to COVID-19 and Compassion? They are all connected through strange loops as I will demonstrate. These paradoxes indicated above arise due to the lack of the complete picture that shows the interconnectedness between various levels. Like that foolish man who starts to cut off the same branch he is sitting on, in order to fetch the wood, we try to focus on certain aspects and ignore the bigger picture, leading to a volcanic eruptions of blind spots and singularities.
Exemplary genius and artist M. C. Escher subtly hints at one such blind spot. In the picture above, you can see the merging of various layers of the painting. The man in the gallery is seeing a painting which leaks out into the real world. We no longer know if its a painting or an aspect of the real world. The boundaries between the seer and the seen are lost. In every such case there is a blind spot which Escher intelligently covers up with his signature (at the centre). This transition between seer and the seen can’t be smoothly pictured. So there is always a blind spot.
Now back to COVID-19. It is a very delicate topic — given the massive amount of misleading information, myths, false news/rumours around it. But it still an important pressing problem that not just affected our economy but most importantly our families, friends, immediate neighbourhoods and peace of mind. Like anything else this can be analysed in three phases. The Cause, The Effect and What about it? Again these three form a strange loop. Causes sometimes can be beyond our control. This is more justified in the case of hunter-gatherers. If some of them died due to floods or earth quakes, they don’t have climate scientists telling them “we told you so!”. But in our case, despite of us being fully aware (Oh please! Don’t say otherwise in this information era) the massive amount of exploitation on nature — we engage in, for our selfish pleasures we still try to give a blind eye to it. Ignore and pretend that things are OK — when millions of animals, endangered species, forests are slaughtered for our greed!
Not just animals, but we treat our fellow humans quite badly. I live in India, where health care policies for public suck in the most systematic ways! There is an old joke that says “If you are not well and are dying, frequent to a hospital, the doctors will take care of your obituary and final rites”. While rich have access to fancy medical centres, poor die in cramped conditions in those general wards, flooded with people bearing all sorts of infections and diseases, without proper segregation and quarantine measures, let alone getting treated and healed.
Well who cares about the poor? And why should we? Why should the compassion be forced down our throats? “We have earned our money”, certain rich man tells me. “Let the poor work hard and earn it too”! Fair enough. We have no right to ask others to be compassionate. It looks as if its a noble quality to be compassionate. Hold on.
Rich is the new “fittest” in the endeavour to survive and money speaks! Or so we think. But during these epidemic outbreaks we realise the negative impact of such strata in the society. While we, the rich, can successfully try to seal ourselves off in a bubble to obtain a continuous supply of fresh air, water, organic vegetables and great medical care, we almost forget to see the strange loops lurking behind this. That these very people we hierarchically seal ourselves off from, are the very ones who provide for our luxuries. The poor barista who makes the fancy cappuccino. An underpaid artist. An orchestra member who earns in peanuts. Waiter who can only bring the food to the table but can never taste it. An Air-Purifier servicing guy who lives breathing off the polluted air to only clean our filters. And so on! Well, so what? How does that affect our life? We will continue to live in our own bubbles. Well, we made a boo-boo by ignoring an important strange loop in here as the COVID-19 outbreak shows.
As much as they have effectively tried to contain the virus, the failure of the communist party is pretty evident. Though they managed to construct 1000 bed hospital in 11 days — which is pretty unimaginable for other countries, the chief concern is about those nations that are driven by capitalism. While the rich continue to get themselves tested and quarantined (and HR policies give them such a leeway) either at home or fancy hospitals, what happens to the poor? Those that work at hospitals? Those that drive people around from airports to hospitals in order to get quarantined? They barely can take a day-off from their work. Who will pay for a vegetable vendor or for a farmer when they stay at home? Though these people show the initial symptoms of the virus, they continue to labour and are so scared to approach a hospital that might eliminate their life time saving in a day or two. Without timely medical treatment and attention, those in the lower strata become effective sources for spreading the virus. In this sense, the rich are as much at risk to contract the virus as the poor. Nature is impartial!
One can’t — in this sense — seal themselves off efficiently. So what’s the way out? Assume we turn towards this really evil act of killing off all the poor who contracted the virus (like we already, heartlessly do, by inhumanely burning all the infected pigs and poultry alive or burying them), does this solve the issue? No. We still need people to dig the holes or kill the poor. And those people we employ to do so are again the poor themselves. You see? This can’t stop. How much ever the rich try to shield themselves off in silos, their life is still built on the very people they are shielding themselves off from. Like the Escher’s painting that wonderfully fits in this context, isolation is just an illusion. They always leak into the reality.
Just imagine the equivalent setting in the case of alphabets. Let’s say the vowels, one day collectively decide that they are important characters based on the frequency of their occurrence and try to create a class, vowelism (akin to speciesism). Does this work? If all vowels uplift themselves off from the other common-man-like alphabets in a sentence, they may very well succeed at not providing meaning to the sentence to only lose the very meaning of their own existence. Without the sentences vowels alone are meaningless marks on a piece of paper or noises in the air.
This brings to an important conclusion of Buddhism expressed some 2500 years ago by Buddha (and many others later). Pratitya Samutpada. Dependent arising. It is because of that; this arises; because of this; thus that arises. Just the fact that I am typing this is dependant on million parameters, for instance stability of matter on my phone; the farmer growing food that went into my stomach and metabolised its way into energy; my father meeting my mother in the first place, my father eating the food to derive his energy, the bus driver who didn’t kill all passengers (my father included before his marriage) due to faulty driving, the food he ate which again came from farmer and so on. It extends indefinitely into the past. Infinitely dense layer of interrelationships. One thing ceases things won’t fall in place. This isn’t some metaphysics or some old school outdated crap, but an honest representation of the state of affairs.
Only way rich can save themselves from this epidemic is by helping the poor. Providing them with equal health care facilities. Paid leaves and money! This very much goes against the roots of modern society and its structural hierarchy! You see… But this is the only way! Compassion is no longer a product of meditation or some inner reflection, but a direct, bare fact as how our existence is co-dependent on others. It isn’t a choice, but is the need of hour! It is a life-and-death problem!
2500 years ago when Shakyamuni Buddha has taught this gentlest lesson to flower the love in our hearts and that we are interconnected we barely pay any attention to it. Thousands of masters have re-taught it and have been re-teaching it, in the most compassionate way possible, using only the power of their kind discourse. But it seems that most of us don’t care. Here comes the COVID-19. It is also a master. It is the blind spot that left its signature between the rich and the poor! Since it has taught us about this immediate need for compassion. And awareness. It has forced this down our throats. It is now up to us, to reflect, repent and stop the exploitation we have done to our fellow beings. Humans and animals. To the nature. And change. Or to perish. To be struck in the strange loop. Or get out of it it. To focus only on our ‘selves’ — which anyway never existed before we die and definitely don’t exist after we die. Or to be selfless…
“All things, Near or Far, Hiddenly, To Each other linked are, That thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling a star” — Francis Thompson.