Gabor Maté: The unwelcome teacher

Covid-19 has exposed fault lines in our personal and political systems. Are we brave enough to try and fix them?

Gabor Maté
Gabor Maté on Covid-19 for Penguin Perspectives
Image: Tim Lane/Penguin

Unless you are blessed, or cursed, with prophetic vision, you will not know, any more than most of us do, what the ultimate meaning of this pandemic may be. For that we will need the benefit of retrospection at some yet unforeseeable time. At present, in relative or absolute isolation, we navigate our uncertain way through the avalanche of news reports, the sober entreaties of health authorities, the flailing about of politicians, the legitimate doubts of thoughtful critics and the phantasmagoric imaginings of conspiracy theorists. And we wait for the future to unfold and reveal its lessons, for we do sense that in a crisis so global and so vast there must be some teaching. I believe abiding through uncertainty is the most immediate wisdom the virus is bestowing upon us.

Still, now is a good moment to pose some questions—if not about the future, then about the past and present. The pandemic may be leading us to some, as yet undefinable, new normal but it is already revealing realities about us as individuals and, no less, about ourselves as a society. In a sense, it is acting like a truth serum, as an agent dissolving the gloss that, in ordinary days, obscures verities we may not be willing to encounter closely.

We all are losing something: a sense of security that, even if illusory at the best of times, we all cling to; a sense of normalcy, which, no matter how precarious, holds us in a world that appears familiar and in which we feel we know how to be; a sense of ourselves. It may be shock for many us to discover that, even in the richest societies the world has known, economic security and physical well-being are so precarious for so many, that a threat can so rapidly arise to menace ways of living and being we had taken for granted. We may also be asking ourselves just how essential some of our ordinary concerns have been. As much as we may enjoy football, for example, just how important is it whether or not Liverpool FC finally clinches the Premier League title this year?

'Fault lines in personal psyches, communities and family systems are also being exposed'

On the individual level, some of us now have an enforced opportunity to consider how much of our self-concept is bound up in what we do out there in the world, with the activities we engage in, with the acceptance other people offer us. ‘If not all that, who am I?’ becomes an almost inescapable question. The answer may not be immediately comfortable.

Unsurprisingly, alongside many inspiring local and transnational examples of empathy, compassion and mutual support, fault lines in personal psyches, communities and family systems are also being exposed: the rate of addiction has risen under the stress of the pandemic, as has the number of cases of domestic abuse and mental illness.

In the social sphere, the questions that arise are equally disturbing. In Britain the first ten physicians to die of Covid-19 were all in the BAME category: that is, Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic. Pure happenstance? Not likely, given that internationally it is the most stressed and marginalized citizens that are also at the greatest risk. In the U.S. as in the UK minority populations are succumbing in disproportionate numbers. And what of our regard for the elderly and our respect for those people who look after them—often, again, of immigrant and minority backgrounds? Internationally, elder care is manifesting itself as a scandal: neglected seniors, undervalued, stressed, and underpaid caregivers.

Most disturbing about such facts is that they are not new: they reflect patterns of inequality and moral indifference that have been with us for a long time, patterns we have not—as societies—deemed essential to address. The virus has not caused them, it has only robbed us of the luxury of denial.

Unwelcome a teacher as may be, the pandemic offers lessons we ignore at our peril, personal and social. Dare we hope we are up for the learning?

Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.

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