Opinion: We are at war with Covid-19, and ourselves

11:18 am on 27 March 2020

By Faisal Halabi *

Opinion - When French President Emmanuel Macron addressed his nation on 16 March 2020, he used the phrase "Nous sommes en guerre" - translated to "We are at war" - exactly six times.

It is slightly alarmist language, but the message is one that is becoming repeated as the Covid-19 crisis spreads.

Bealey Ave, Christchurch on the morning of 26 March, on the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

Bealey Ave, Christchurch on the morning of 26 March, on the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Others have described the crisis in similar ways - UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to "beat the enemy", and the New Zealand government's own United Against Covid-19 branding evokes something of a lite wartime or emergency poster.

We millennials have spent so much of our adult lives hearing about the battle against terrorism, the battle against climate change, and the thought in the back of our minds that any next World War probably will be radioactive, that we never thought this type of battle would be one we would have to encounter.

It is a battle against an enemy. It's not one that puts East against West or Muslim against Christian but it's one that - in a simple, but mindbogglingly ironic way - pitches us against a common, natural enemy.

That enemy is a pandemic of a new illness which we don't know much about, but as the days pass, understand requires a united response.

Macron's comment of we - us, all of us - being at war, then makes sense. We are at battle, it's just with something we didn't quite expect.

In the days since Macron's speech, we've seen footage of people in punch ups over toilet paper, of dismissals of the importance of social distancing, and increased xenophobia and racism.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

This is also a battle against some of the worst elements of ourselves. Of course, we all have some of these elements in the makeup of our personalities: fear, contempt, anxiety (I'm currently sticking a thermometer into my armpit every few hours), but we're also capable of reasoning, compassion, and critical thinking.

Along with the balance against the enemy found in the microbiology of Covid-19, there's the battle in balancing those elements of ourselves.

Contempt tells you to disregard the advice of health professionals and to panic buy.

Compassion tells you to think about those who might be vulnerable in your community and to, actually, properly wash your hands.

The United Against Covid-19 page, for example, lists kindness amongst the tools in the fight against the virus (in addition to, of course, washing hands and economic stimulus). Painfully obvious as it might be, this is too a necessary battle that we need to be on the right side of, if we are going to get through this crisis.

Along with world leaders and loo paper, there's also a relatively mundane battle going on - the one on our daily routines. What if you're working from home - and are completely bored already?

Even worse, what if you've binged on every episode of your favourite Netflix series already?

Earlier this week, I complained to my mother about the inconvenience of altering dinner plans. In response she asked me what I would do if a tsunami hit or a bomb went off in Auckland tomorrow. "You'd adjust your normal and push on," she answered for me.

The language of battle is there again, although this time from my mother and not Macron. The prime minister touched on this sentiment, comparing the Covid-19 crisis to a Civil Defence emergency.

Although not a tsunami or a bomb, Covid-19 is altering our normal lives, for example with all that comes with social distancing and self-isolation, and we need to adjust to it. The science and the maths tell us this is a battle worth fighting, however mundane or inconvenient it may be.

Things are scary and surreal right now.

I'm still sticking this thermometer into my armpit.

Along with that, I'm adjusting my mentality at approaching this thing for the next little while. There are no tangible weapons, but there are battles going on.

The battles encompass a threat that we didn't expect, elements of our personality that we often don't reflect on, and scenarios we never thought we'd be in. This could be a test run, or it could be the real thing - too early to say.

In being mindful of how we think about it, we'll be better prepared to win on all fronts.

* Faisal Halabi is a New Zealand lawyer currently based in London. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, he was raised in Auckland.

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