17th Jan 2021


Trying to think straight about coronavirus

"The corona crisis will be the end of globalisation."

"The euro and Schengen are doomed."

Read and decide

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  • It essentially takes 'Lebenslust' [zest for life] to win this battle: students who cook and go shopping for the elderly; teachers taking exams on Zoom; German hospitals flying in Italian patients for treatment

"Governments use virus control as a pretext to take our civil liberties away."

Locked up in our homes we see prophecies like these rolling over our screens on a permanent basis. Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris, quarantined in Milan, sees them too.

Ferraris, 64, is a professor at the University of Turin. His age group is at risk. At the instruction of the Italian government he has stayed home for the last three weeks, surrounded by CDs and books.

But even in confinement it is difficult to find rest, he wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently.

Being home feels more like being at the frontline - an anti-virus front, with books and CDs as a decor. Just as Ferraris' grandfather considered it normal to be sent to the frontlines during the First World War, our 'new normal' is to visit websites where prophets of doom predict where our world is going: straight to hell.

Clear-headed thinking becomes nearly impossible under this relentless barrage of bad news and apocalyptic analysis, Ferraris writes - a state of mind he describes as "cogito interruptus".

To escape this, he decided to write a couple of notes every day. They are simple observations, fragments of thoughts, nothing more.

In 2012, Ferraris wrote the manifesto for New Realism, a philosophical school that takes reality (and not theories) as the starting point for thinking.

At Turin university he leads the Centre for Ontology - the study of 'being'. He has published books with intriguing titles such as Documentality: Why it is Necessary to Leave Traces and Where are You? An Ontology of the Cellphone.

Those notes, some of which the Swiss newspaper published, are gems. In one of them he observes that the corona crisis isn't about money, like the eurocrisis of 2010-2012, but much more about life itself.

Now life must win the battle with the virus.

How do we achieve that? By coming up with kindness and goodwill, he writes, and by producing innovative ideas. It essentially takes 'Lebenslust' [zest for life] to win this battle: students who cook and go shopping for the elderly; teachers taking exams on Zoom; German hospitals flying in Italian patients for treatment.

All these initiatives are new, exciting, and full of lust for life. And all this is forward-looking.

Ten years ago, during the financial crisis and euro crisis, bitterness dominated almost every conversation. Everyone was battered.

This time it's different. Of course, there is deep suffering. Many of us fall ill and see relatives and friends succumb.

We all realise the economic and political fallout may be colossal. But unlike last time there are genuine eruptions of ingenuity and pure empathy. Despite the severity of the situation the world seems full of good intentions, too. People try to cope and reach out to each other in novel ways which, in a way, may point us in new directions for the future.

People need people

From this small, practical level we automatically move to deeper questions such as: how do we want to live? And how do we better organise the world around us? This is, as Ferraris observes with satisfaction, exactly what we must think about and discuss.

The virus also reminds the philosopher "that the earth is round. That people are destined to interact with each other, and need each other. Viruses can produce good ideas. That seems rather a positive infection to me."

Many Europeans worry if their healthcare systems can handle this crisis.

This is, of course, a frightening question. Those who criticise health policies over the last decade or so must be listened to. But we must also realise that 50 years ago we couldn't even have asked whether our health systems would cope, because these systems were much less developed then.

In other words, the corona virus reminds us of progress, too. Fifty years ago, Ferraris writes, we could hardly have fought back. "We would have undergone a pandemic as some ill-fated curse. Like the Spanish flu 100 years ago the virus would have caused a huge massacre."

Everyone has the right to believe in de-globalisation, the implosion of the eurozone or Schengen passport-free zone, and the evil state behaving like Big Brother taking our rights and our privacy away.

This pandemic reminds us that, indeed, we have a lot to lose. But we must also remember that it is possible to survive the trenches.

That despite current (over-)heated debates between national politicians, compromises and solutions can be found to stabilise the eurozone and Schengen. Or that we'll finally manage to moderate globalisation somewhat.

We can survive slaughter and return from the battlefield, as Ferraris' grandfather did more than 100 years ago. He died many years later, peacefully, in his own bed.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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