Style: Autobiographical Writing
Fields: Health, Ethics, Memory, Philosophy, Nietzsche
Author: Professor Thomas Steinbuch
Bio: Professor Steinbuch is a Nietzschean philosopher and co-founder of the World Posthuman Society; he lives and teaches in Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, P.R. China.
Outrunning COVID-19: The Race to Stay Human
We watched it closing in on us, Fistone and I, the day at the mall he helped me set up my new Huawei tablet. It was late January and COVID-19 was on the move. I was concerned that the battery on my older smartphone would fail and that I would be out of communication on WeChat and that I needed a more reliable device if we were entering a crisis. WeChat is a social media platform everyone uses, and we depend on our phones for everything. We transfer money with it and pay for things with an app called Alipay, which was introduced in Hangzhou by Alibaba, and now ATM’s that dispense hard currency are hard to find. Digital life is all well and good, but not in the case in which your phone dies and there are no shops open where you can replace it, and my OPPO is six years old and sometimes twitchy about recharging.
We were in a mall a few bus stops from the campus of our univeristy, since shuttered and to remain shuttered for the foreseeable as I write, and we watched as security guards put up tables at the entrance to take our temperature before letting us in. The whole temperature thing scared me to death, because what if you are just sweaty or have a slight cold? The temperature monitors are everywhere: what if I get turned back at the grocery store? Last year I had a bad flu and I did not take penicillin just in order to build up my immunity, so I was pretty confident that even if I caught a case of COVID-19 it would probably be a mild case. It was not the disease that scared me: that would just be a mano-e-mano situation, a fair fight. What scared me was getting tripped up in the prevention measures due to some misunderstanding and being reduced to the inhumanity of a suspected sack of viral infection. I came close.
It hit at the worst possible time. We were all caught flatfooted. Everything shuts down from the Lunar New Year, from January 15 to February 10 this year when the Lantern Boat Festival was scheduled. I am usually pretty well stocked up on the OTC meds I can get at the pharmacy but I was running out of something I use to control psoriasis. A serious psoriasis outbreak is nothing to be trifled with, and it is very unpredictable. Not to mention the possibility of psoriatic fever! Stress, change of diet, overall change of routine, lots of things seem to trigger it. Well, I was afraid the pharmacy would flat out close – it did, eventually -- but I got there on a day it was still open. It was a rainy day and I had a woolen cap on and a Safari hat over it just to be sure I did not catch chill, one to keep warm, one to keep dry. The pharmacist did not allow me in, so I just showed her the empty tube of what I needed. I took off my hat and cap to let her take my temperature with the digital thermometer, but my head must have been warm – which is the point of wearing two hats – and my temperature was 38.3C or something like that, too high. The pharmacist got very nervous and began to call for the volunteer guards at the end of the street. I think she was going to insist that I be taken hospital and tested for the virus. They did not hear her, for some blessed reason, and she went back into the store for my meds. When she came back she scanned me again and my temperature must have dropped in the few minutes I had my hat off and she let me go. When I got home I took my temperature with my trusty mercury thermometer: 37.2. Not a problem.
Fistone – a computer savvy kid from Zambia with excellent Chinese language skills – sent me a rogue video made by one of the citizen journalists who was documenting events and posting on WeChat. We read about two citizen journalists doing that; both have since vanished, fate unknown. The one Fistone sent showed people suspected of having symptoms being forcibly taken from their apartments. An entire family was being drug out and crammed into an airless stainless steel box on a flatbed ambulance truck – you could hear the little girl screaming – and hauled off to the hospital to be tested. That was in Wuhan. But then, what else was to be done? As I write, the number of reported infections in Hubei Province where Wuhan city is, is 75,000. Here in Hangzhou City we have had fewer than 200 infections. If there is a takeaway from this whole event that deserves our attention it is the sad fact that the people of Hubei Province were subjected to lockdown as the virus ravaged them from street to street, subjected to house by house calls to be screened for symptoms and possibly dragged from their homes. All so that the rest of us could be safe, so that the rest of us could outrun it, so that the rest of us could cling a little while longer to the fragile thing we call our humanity that we know now, if we did not before, can be stripped from us as quickly as taking a turn on a dime. I watched another video showing a women on the balcony of her high-rise apartment building, so typical in China, banging a pot with a wooden spoon for attention for which there were no ears in the deserted streets below as she wailed out a lament that her husband was lying in bed and could not breathe and she could not get help. “Fight me COVID-19, fight me, you don’t scare me one bit, I’ll break your back!” That I can do, win or lose, I have my dignity. What scares me, rather, is loss of my humanity, and that is right up close to me now and it seems to me that it has always stalked me, and I realize that I have never really known how to fight to keep it even in the best of times. There will be many, many deaths from the virus and much, much illness. Collaterally, all 60 million inhabitants of Hubei Province will be changed for good, and as we are learning from the study of epigenetics and the encoding of trauma and its trans-generational conservation, what they are enduring will leaves traces in their descendants. All that is baked in the cake, as they say. They surrendered up their humanity so that we could keep ours. The world should never forget the tremendous debt owed to them.
Later that day Fistone sent me another video, this time one of spraying the streets with disinfectant in a neighborhood about 10 minutes away from us. In my neighborhood, we were issued a pass that allows us to leave for two hours at a time to get groceries, but I have not gone out because the neighborhood where they were spraying is in that direction and I am still stocked up, so I decided to just wait. Fistone is a student and they are in lock-down in their dormitories and have to ask the dormitory monitor to order out for them. I go down to the gate at the bottom of the street every day and sit on a bench in the food court and report back to him on whatever I can observe that would give a clue when the students will be allowed out. I also report back every day to Xiao Ting who runs a coffee shop and bakery I used to go to every morning from 8AM until 1PM and sit and write. She is stranded in the country because she left Hangzhou for the Lunar New Year and now she cannot get back in the city. What a pleasure it was to sit at my usual table in Xiao Ting’s and have a latte café and scribble down the endless message being transmitted into my brain! Her baked goods are too sweet for my taste and I would never buy any and I would feel bad nursing an 18 Yuan cup of coffee for five hours, so I got into the habit of buying her chocolate eggs containing Walt Disney figures inside, Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, another with Mickey and Minnie, made for kids actually, but it brightened her day. That was our happy little interaction, now a distant precious memory. I am an eye for her too, and report on whether any of the businesses on her street have opened as she is running out of money and anxious to get back to work. As I said, I stocked up on food and water before we were quarantined, but no fresh fruit, so my landlord helps out by regularly handing me baskets of fruit. She is a hand for me. We are all living in pieces here.
First thing in the morning is not my best time of day, I am impatient and flit from one thing to the next and try to do too many things at once. I know this and so these days especially I was trying to be careful first thing in the morning, but my bad habit of impatience still caught up to me. I decided to take my temperature as soon as I go up just to be sure it was accurate last time and that I was not facing a psoriasis flare up. It was, 37.1, which is just ducky, but I thought, “wait, let me keep the thermometer in a while longer just in case”, and I went into the kitchen to boil some water and have orange peel tea with honey -- as I had fresh oranges, courtesy of my landlord. I poured the honey into my cup and scooped up a dollop that had run down the side of the jar with my finger and took the thermometer out with my other hand, and then, I don’t what happened, but as I repositioned the thermometer in my mouth with my now slippery fingers from the honey, out it flew onto my super hard kitchen floor typical in China and broke. I quickly donned my respirator which was on the kitchen table and looked for it, but I only found the stem, which I quickly deposited into an empty coke bottle and capped it, but, the mercury reservoir had broken and I could not find it. “Idiot, idiot, now you have a mercury release in your kitchen, tiny carcinogenetic droplets you can’t see are floating around in the air and now you are pushed into one remaining safe room. Bravo!” Toxicity seemed inescapable. Just like wearing two hats to the pharmacy against getting a chill in the rain got me into trouble, so did being scrupulous about taking my temperature. The protective routines I was developing were ending up having their own lethality. But I still won the race that day: I have a second thermometer.
Anti-American sentiment is running high, another way I feel my humanity slipping away. Some international papers ran stories about how COVID-19 was genetically engineered by US scientists to weaken China’s economy and earn money for pharmaceutical companies, and they got some attention here. The next wave of Anti-American sentiment came in the form of anger that the US was so slow in getting supplies here. It was not until February 20 that China received the 16 tons of masks and protective suits we promised them, and they still have not seen a nickel of the $100 million promised in aid. I was sent some very anti-American material on both occasions. But hold on a second! In late December I gave a presentation on the "Marx-Freud Synthesis and The Etiology of Fascism" at Zhejiang University, and I took the position that the rise of Donald Trump shows that liberal democracy cannot contain fascism and that Marxism is the only effective address to it. I, of all people, I felt, should not be lumped in with Americans who support Donald Trump: “Not my President” I bleated and bleated; “Judge me as an individual,” I implored. But to no avail. It is terrifying: first reduced to inhumanity by Nature, and now the echo of that reduction in and amongst ourselves as the challenge to individuality as inauthentic rears up, and indifferent alikeness in being American all that is allowed to be. The other dehumanizing pathogens that afflict us and that are held at bay in normal times are on scene and rallying around COVID-19 to flatten the landscape of being human even further.
The internet is pretty much inaccessible in China without a VPN, and I pay $99.00 annually for the service and it takes it mission seriously. But, China regularly escalates blocks that cause my VPN to crash. There were so many cycles of new blocks and issuances of updated apps beginning around National Holiday in October, but things started to stabilize around December and to my surprise, remained so even as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. Well, Philosophy in Review contacted me because they wanted me to make a small change in my review of Francesca Ferrando's book Philosophical Posthumanism because it was due to come out. And I thought, "let me get to this right away," because I know I am tempting fate waiting on it since I cannot access the Philosophy in Review submissions form without my VPN. So I did the revision and everything went fine. Not twenty four hours later, my VPN crashed and it stayed down for week, past the date the review was scheduled to appear. Beat you by a day COVID-19! World still intact.
There is concern that people will try to conceal symptoms and pharmacies are not allowed to sell cold or flu medications so that people will have themselves checked for COVID-19 at the hospital. Here in Hangzhou, we are not called upon door to door to check for symptoms, but whenever we go to buy something or pick up a package, our temperature is monitored, and sooner or later we all have to buy groceries. Same idea, just with a softer touch. Villages have lot of autonomy in how they choose to regulate who can come in and who can leave and for how long. One village is very strict and the gate is manned by armed men bearing a traditional Chinese weapon, a fierce halberd called a Guan Dao. The rule in that village is uncompromising: anyone caught deliberately spreading the virus will be shot. I am not sure that they could actually do that, but that is not my point. We do not do well in relating to Nature: that idea could be taken as the summa summarum of Nietzsche’s work. Unable to really understand how COVID-19 is spread and helpless to stop it, unable to endure helplessness in the face of it, we create the anodyne of finding something to blame. Because we don’t understand the agency of the virus, we imagine it is spread by something we can understand: it is spread by deliberateness, and deliberateness should be punished. Nietzsche said that without the narcotic of finding to blame we would soon go mad because it is the main relief value of the psychology of vengefulness, which we have yet to make any effort at all to control directly. This is why in his autobiography he says that in cases in which he is wronged whilst being in the right and so disposed to seek blame and punishment for the wrongdoer, he bites down hard on himself and strives for the discipline of blaming himself, although innocent, for the other’s wrongdoing, thus to elide the other’s wrongdoing from the world, and with it, anything to blame and punish. Blaming one's innocence is quite beyond metaphysical good and evil. As perfectly innocent, Christ is most liable to be wronged and so signifies finding to blame cocked back to a hair trigger. But a god come to earth, a Dionyisan god, should take upon himself the heaviest guilt as an act of self-mastery of the compulsion to blame and punish. But we are very far from that capability indeed, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the measures being taken in China – it has been a fantastic success, they bought the world time, just as the WHO stated – we are taking these measures as human beings, and that means an overlay of the all-too human, an overlay of the authoritarian compulsion to monitor, control, make obey, and of the vengeful compulsion to blame and punish. It is hard to judge whether everything happening is objectively necessary or whether other things that have a strange provenance are also on hand, and it is these other things that frighten me so. I am obeying instructions, I am being responsible and not deliberately trying to spread a lethal virus certainly, but it spreads anyway. It is not spreading as disobedience to be brought under control, or as deliberate wrongdoing that deserves to be punished. It just is.
To be continued.