The Great Derangement: Applying a Humanities Lens to COVID-19

In the year 2020, reading the news, turning on the television, or even just opening up social media can make one feel as though the world could end any second. Sitting in our homes and consuming media, we are removed yet in the midst of the suffering and death caused by COVID-19. No matter how much we pride ourselves on our ability to shape the environment around us, the pandemic is an overdue reminder that we coexist with nature and are still behest to our environment. 

Amitav Ghosh’s short non-fiction work, The Great Derangement, addresses the systems in place which propagate the perceived separation between humanity and nature by examining a different environmental issue: climate change, specifically the rise of sudden, deadly natural disasters due to the increasing global temperature. However, Ghosh’s work is not entirely scientific. Instead, it seeks to put the lens of climate change upon different aspects of humanity, specifically literature, history, and politics, to analyze the flaws within our system that define our relationship with nature. Faced with a similar force of nature today in COVID-19, applying Ghosh’s philosophy to a pre-COVID-19 society provides philosophical guidance to reexamining our relationship with the environment. 

The portion of the book especially relevant to COVID-19 critiques the portrayal of nature throughout the history of media, especially novels. Though literature may seem irrelevant today, novels tend to explore the human experience, and as a result have a massive effect on readers’ philosophy. This is applicable not only to novels, but to all consumable media, from movies to TV shows to even the news. Ghosh claims that the media sets its tales too narrow, only focusing on an “individual moral adventure.” This has the effect of removing nature from the narrative. 

Ghosh in 2017 / Photo by Gage Skidmore

When we see a character driving a convertible with the wind in their hair, obviously enjoying a moment of freedom from the mundane, we don’t question how the character is able to afford the convertible or whether it’s economical for the character to be driving alone. We focus on the character’s emotions, or their individual journey. Our culture isn’t trained to immediately latch onto the environmental consequences of what we see. Instead, we latch onto the meaning behind the symbol of the convertible, the green lawn, the massive house, and ignore the consequences which these objects have in real life. Due to this lack of realistic environmental representation in our daily life, we are separated from the environment which we live in. We are repelled by forces which aren’t borne from humans, because we cannot necessarily control them. 

COVID-19 is especially emblematic of this relationship between humans and the environment which we consider to be separate from us. The twenty-first century has created a perfect storm for a disastrous pandemic: a large global population, massive metropolitan areas, and the same globalization which led to the cultural and economic interconnectedness we share today. Aside from the physical aspects of our world which make us vulnerable to viruses, there’s also the cultural aspect which Ghosh emphasizes deeply. We are scared of what we cannot control, so we disregard it. We forget about Ebola and SARS, and continue to slash funding from public health programs. Finally, there’s also a significant historical and political aspect to crises which arise from natural causes which cannot be ignored. When we look back at 2020, experts will attempt to piece together the cause and effects of the virus, of what could have been done to curb the pandemic, of whose “fault” it was. It is integral to the records of human history that we put a historical lens on COVID-19 while it is still happening, for otherwise we will never learn from the various flaws in the system revealed by the pandemic. 

In the end, that is truly the most important end goal of putting a humanities lens on a scientific phenomenon. How can we improve our systems and culture? How can we make it so that when the next pandemic arrives, we don’t fall into the same chaos? When shelter-in-place regulations are relaxed, how can we improve our relationship with the environment? As of right now, it is too soon to tell what the world will look like when the pandemic ends. However, I have hope that the realization that we are not separate from nature will encourage people to look past the restrictions and symbols of the past. Hopefully, the effects of the pandemic will remind the world’s population to become more environmentally conscious and distance ourselves from a culture which separates us from nature. Maybe one day, people will look upon environmentally detrimental actions like taking baths or not composting with just as much aversion as they do upon not wearing a face mask outdoors today. While the COVID-19 pandemic will have an enormous toll on our society, it is also a chance to create our culture and systems anew, this time with a focus on what’s really important: our relationship with the environment which we are a part of.

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