The biblical story of Joseph the dreamer tells us of the existence of a people who collectively plan their future. The fact that Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream as the advent of seven good years and then another seven of bad harvests allowed the Egyptian people to save (accumulate) in those seven good years in order to survive during the seven bad years. Although it is not the objective of the story, it presupposes the existence of a community, concern and planning for the future of all the people.
The quarantine (which is a very old tool) was carried out at different historical moments with this logic, even in much poorer societies than our own. Faced with the appearance of an unknown virus, all movement was stopped until more was known and people lived on what had been collectively accumulated ... What happened this time?
We cannot say that humanity has not accumulated enough wealth to be able to protect itself for a few months (even a year), while buying time to find out more about the lethality of the virus, the after-effects it leaves in those infected, and advancing in the achievement of a vaccine or improvements in treatment. Never has there been so much accumulation of wealth and productive capacity as there is today. Science has never had the ability to advance as quickly either. The possibility then, is more viable than ever.
Some societies made a first attempt at care, but it was short-lived. Then there were countries that never even tried (Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and to some degree Trump’s United States, among others) and openings in the midst of outbreaks (Spain, United Kingdom) or liberalization during the peak in the curve of infection that we can observe in Argentina. There have been very few societies willing care for their population by distributing some of the accumulated wealth, amongst which are several communities from the East or societies that have a more cooperative social design model such as Australia, New Zealand or Norway.
At this point, we can say that the majority decision (despite the initial reproach to Trump or Bolsonaro) has been precisely that of Trump and Bolsonaro: caring for the population was deemed too costly and care policies were abandoned, in some cases merely focusing on improving the equipment of the health care system (very noticeable in the Argentine case) while in others, not even that.
What is surprising is not only the questionable decision of the governments concerning the inconvenience of preventive measures, but the general conviction not to touch the concentrated wealth as a necessary requirement for the development of policies that would provide care for the entire community and the perception that our habits cannot be modified even at the risk of death or possible exposure to a virus that is still unknown and for which there are no vaccines or effective treatments available and whose after-effects are still unknown.
This situation has coexisted with attitudes of denial and projection (the risks of which we had already been warned of in the month of March) such as unnecessary visits to relatives, social gatherings, the organization of parties on public roads or clandestine visits to closed places such as bars, restaurants or nightclubs, to the disbelief and pain of the hospital staff who sacrifice themselves day after day caring for the sick while risking death from the continuous exposure to the virus, in a situation of profound stress for the entire health system. Furthermore, constant attempts to lay the blame on others, be it the inhabitants of vulnerable communities, immigrants, political leaders or communicators, make it difficult to see our own irresponsible attitudes.
The role of numerous disciplines has also been disappointing, from psychologists suggesting that the confinement could generate more serious psychological consequences than the pandemic itself and authorizing violations of the rules of cooperation, to economists declaring the impossibility of stopping the flow of production of unessential products, as if the increase in poverty were a variable of nature and not a decision concerning the forms of distribution of human goods.
Social differences have existed (including extreme ones) in every historical period, but the concept of community present in the biblical story of Joseph and the Pharaoh implied that in times of crisis, part of the accumulated assets could be utilized to survive “the bad years” and that our behavior needed to be modified to try to collectively deal with tragedies in a more effective way.
It is expected that when the coronavirus becomes history, after the appearance of a vaccine or successful treatments, there will have been several million deaths (we have almost 900,000 confirmed, despite underreporting, many more than the annual deaths from influenza, numbers that put an end to the minimizations that treated this virus as a flu).
However, there will be an even graver consequence than the millions of deaths. We are sadly realizing that many humans no longer consider themselves to be living in a community.
When Joseph came to tell us that 2020 would be a bad year, many chose to ignore him, to shout at him as if he were lying, to denigrate him on social media, to claim that the pandemic was an invention. Many decided to violate all possible cooperation, to insist that the idea of sharing wealth was impossible and that it was necessary to accept that some people would die because “people always die” and “that’s how life is”, even knowing that some of those dead could be their own relatives.
I would like to believe, despite everything, that there are still enough of us who think it is worth living in a community that is willing to change its habits to care for the well-being of all its members and to share whatever there is, to be able to survive during the bad years.
Daniel Feierstein is a sociologist, Director of the Center for Genocide Studies. He has also been the Director of the Master in Cultural Diversity, both at the National University of Tres de Febrero. He was president of the International Association of Genocide Investigators, Judge of the Permanent Tribunal of the Peoples, and Consultant to the United Nations.