I have since the outbreak of the COVID-19 in Ghana written to express why we should not fear. There are many reasons why we should not be petrified by fear. Fear can put us on a dangerous track that will imperil our chances of reverting to the status quo ante. Fear has different shades of definitions.
We either define it as an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness or a profound reverence and awe, especially toward God. These definitions have implications for how we respond to COVID-19. Both are good at helping us to stay safe in this perilous time.
Fear, in anticipation of something unpleasant happening, can help us to prepare and stage a calculated storm against any menacing element. This is usually used in the military where you first attack whom you fear. Fear energises to strike first. It is like saying, “attack is the best defence.” Logically, fear could be placed on the axis of hegemony and counterhegemony (in the logic of Antonio Gramsci). But this same fear can be very destructive if it takes siege of us and undermines our capacity to free ourselves.
The panic buying and hoarding, as well as the spreading of unverified, false, and potentially dangerous information about COVID-19, are all as a result of some of us being petrified by fear. The fear that we are losing control of the world when, since the nineteenth-century technology has given us the “false” impression that we were in control can also have a debilitating effect on our lives. This kind of fear is dangerous and health-threatening. It could weaken our immune system and predispose us to all forms of diseases. In other words, if we allow fear to overwhelm us, we could fall prey to the pathogens we are running away from.
On the other hand, there is a kind of fear that is reverential. This is the fear that demarcates the line between binaries – mortal and immortal, finite and infinite, human and deity, leader and follower, professor and student, and religion and politics. At this point, we should fear that the Lord is able to bring us to judgment if we engage in counterproductive activities in the face of this pandemic. In other words, if we deliberately and wilfully spread false information, engage in mindless conspiracies, and suppress encouraging information we will be brought to judgement before the Almighty God. In the same wavelength, this is the time to deepen our reverential fear for those in authority. The Bible enjoins Christians to show respect to those in a leadership position – including "secular" leaders (Romans 13: 1-7).
If you are a Christian, this is the time to scrupulously follow all the precautionary measures that experts, through our leaders, are giving us. We are to keep washing our hands at reasonable intervals, keep reasonable physical distance, avoid unnecessary congregation of more than five (and two in the case of the United Kingdom), and going into self-isolation if one shows all COVID-related symptoms identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for seven or fourteen days. These measures are to help us keep safe from the virus and to stem the tide against us spreading it. On the other hand, we are to bridge virtual social distancing, by calling or texting to find out how our family members and friends are doing. In all, it is to help humanity deal with a malignant virus.
At this point, I must point out that it is becoming increasingly difficult for many of us to stick to minimising congregational activities, focusing primarily on keeping physical distance. I was surprised that some fun-loving people in England thronged at the pub in a care-free manner on Friday (March 20, 2020) just when the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson had announced on Wednesday (March 18, 2020) that people in the UK should minimise their congregational outings and keep a physical distance. In the same breath, I was surprised that some individuals in Cape Coast could brazenly video themselves having fun at the beach today, discarding all cautions that the president of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufu-Addo, had clearly and unambiguously given on Saturday, March 21, 2020.
Certainly, beyond the lack of reverential fear for our leaders and health experts, we are demonstrating the routinised impact liberalism has had on us. Since the 1960s, ethics have been secularised to the extent that most of us have been made to believe that our agency, as individuals, is more important than observing collective ethics and rules. Individuals have been provincialized, while group-ethics are left to die. Individualism has found expression in a liberal democracy that promises to hold the right of the individual, not the group, as sacred and supreme. The works of libertarians, like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, laid the theoretical foundation upon which individualism is built. The extent to which these libertarians went with individualism has had a remarkable impact on us today. In all spheres of life, individualism is considered sacred. In politics, it is believed that the individual’s right trumps group right; in economics, the customer is always right; and in a classroom, a professor is to refrain from contradicting the answers a student provides. If for any reason, a professor has to, he has to do in an "inoffensive" manner. Social media has taken this up, such that there is hardly a dislike button to a post. We have deified the individual.
Given the pervasive effect of individualism and libertarianism on us, it is difficult for some people to just kowtow to basic rules to stay home and avoid unnecessary outing, even when it is for their own interest. The idea that we cannot interfere in the life of an individual, which has been consolidated in poststructuralism and postmodernism, is frustrating our world in this perilous time. But at this point, leaders of the world have no choice but to demonstrate leadership. They have to ensure that commensurate laws are made and enforced for the common good. This is the time to emphasise collectivism – humanity – at the expense of individuality and personalities. It will be difficult for us to surrender our "right" to physical mobility, but for a collective good, we have to do it. I remember in a Government class I sat in, in 1999, when I was at the West African Secondary School. One of the things we learned was that difficult moments can eclipse our rights. This is the time for us to appreciate that fact.
If you are a Christian struggling to submit your “right” to movement and congregation, you should remember what Jesus Christ did. He “surrendered” His glory and power and majesty for the sake of you. He was rich, but became poor for the sake of you. He is the creator of life, but He temporarily lost it for the sake of you. His sacrifices and self-debasement brought you your redemption. He was born into the Roman world that emphasised honour as opposed to shame. And yet, He chose shame to bring honour to you. This is the time for us to show love to our world. This is the time for us to reinforce our common humanity and allow our individuality to lie below. This is not the time for “my right”. This is the time of crisis and we need tough decisions – that certainly may be inconveniencing. But, no pain, no gain! It will take rocking the boat and unsettling our convenience to get rid of the coronavirus. Are you ready to sacrifice “I” for “We”? This is the time for the collective “We” to triumph the individual “I” for a common good.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra