love in a time of corona

I’ve wanted to throttle a stranger twice in the past year, both in the same week of a renewed viral surge: when a man wearing his mask sub-nose started coughing on the bus, and when a man on the train walked by and grabbed my arm — he was either addled out of his head or he’d mistaken me for a train pole.

Both cases awoke a sudden disgust reaction: wear your mask properly you GODDAMN BARBARIAN, and OMYGOD where have your filthy monkey paws been before this?? Not particularly forbearing or loving.

Many Hong Kongers don’t meaningfully see other people these days: it’s colleagues who daren’t sit too close, clients and students on Zoom, the grey-eyed lady wedged behind the takeout counter, our family and loved ones if we live with them — but when’s the last time we hugged them without feeling just a twinge of unease, either on their behalf or ours? What unimaginable burdens must healthcare workers carry daily, even at home? We can’t even bring to bear our most important gift, just being there for our loved ones.

All you need is love? Fine, but how about social distancing? Dine-in bans? Only two to a table? Not being able to meet on Sundays? How are we supposed to apply the wooly definition of love when so much is running against it?

But maybe that’s precisely what we need right now.

Because it seems our collective sense of humanity is hanging by a thread. Over the last 14 months we’ve found reason to stop seeing other Hong Kongers as people: they’re this or that colour, they’re the acolytes of this or that side, their businesses support the regime, they’re rioters, brainwashed zombies, traitors. They’re not people who make (sometimes honest) mistakes, they’re agents from the other side. They’re here to bring you harm.

And now the viral pandemic is only accelerating this process: those aren’t people, they’re vectors of disease, they’re incubators, silent carriers. Avoid shaking hands, don’t stand next to them, don’t touch what they’ve touched. They might well bring you harm — stay away.

Wear your goddamn mask. Get your hands off me.

Now this is all in fact very solid advice given how contagious the virus is, but this is only adding to our unfolding tragedy begun last June; now there are in fact very solid, compelling reasons to keep each other at physical and metaphorical arm’s length. I really do have good reason to assume people around me could cause me and mine harm — keep them away. But the way I see people is being warped; and it’s only adding to a warping that started more than a year ago. So much has encouraged me to stop seeing each other as people: fallible, at times disgusting people, but people who need love nonetheless, and whose love could keep us alive too — regular people. People like you and me.

It’s not just wooly pop psychology though. Think of what’s going on at large right now: around the world, state surveillance and security is being beefed up, for better or for worse — some nations are doing it to keep better track of pathogenic infection, and others are doing it for… less savoury reasons. Is this indication of dehumanisation? Not necessarily — but then consider also the correlation between prevalence of infectious diseases and strongman state control. Does our general, virally-induced misanthropy make us that much easier fodder for dehumanising political ideas? It’s no coincidence that many of our most infamous dictators were young men when the deadliest pandemic in modern history killed some 50 million people worldwide. Perhaps the most reviled dictator of them all likened his enemies to parasites and infectious diseases.

Our sense of humanity is hanging by a thread. And the psychic road we’re on could get a whole lot worse before it gets any better, if our political trajectory is anything to go by. Maybe there should be love in a time of corona, maybe love could be a good antidote for the increasingly dehumanising climate we’ve found ourselves in. That’s a human being made in God’s image, not an avatar of a political agenda or state, not a pathogenic vector — politically blinkered and corrupted, and virally infected though he may be, his humanness is more real than all those other things, even if it doesn’t seem apparent, even if believing this might bring harm. That person there is still, despite all the fallibility and wrongness and sin — which you and I share equally, though perhaps not in the same forms — the closest thing approaching God on this green earth. We need love in a time of corona — and I don’t even know what that would look like; maybe social distancing could be embraced as an expression of love and care (which in many ways it is, even if the isolation it often causes can leave one feeling unloved).

But we need love. Otherwise we in Hong Kong and all around the world have very far to fall before we hit rock bottom.

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