To Exhale a Pandemic

I’m Maseh Hadaf, and this is DeepTox. Thank you for being here with me.

  • Ramadan Mubarak.
  • Humanity is a large, looming figure in a trenchcoat with a hat and dark glasses. This person is admiring themselves in the mirror, and has been for a while. And at this moment, unlike any in recent history, the trenchcoat has suddenly dropped and in a rush to retrieve our garment, we are reminded that we are all a bunch of kids just standing on each others shoulders. At once, we see how fundamentally similar we are and how divided we have become, at least for those who choose to look in the mirror.
  • Some of us have been standing on the shoulders of others. Have we become so accustomed to seeing our garment, our image, that we have believed it to be true? That this was the only way to order ourselves? That we are invincible?
  • It’s a treat to relate this metaphor to humanity as a whole, but I found it more meaningful to reflect on how it applies to myself at an individual level, each child a part of myself that I am seeing again and those on the bottom I have left neglected.
  • Today I want to exhale what I have taken in from this experience, and share a story by a Sufi, an extension of a concept by philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, and some lesser known global health data that is allowing me to fit this oddly shaped covid puzzle piece into the bigger picture, and to make sense of what is happening around me and within me with some tools or rather toys from the other children in the trenchcoat.

Collective Vertigo

  • I’ve come across sentiments that Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate against one’s race, class, gender, or ability. In a sense, Pandemics flatten hierarchies between people. And in a way they do. Pandemics remind us all, on a collective level, of our mortality, that with all of our technology, all that we have so carefully built, we are not inviolable, and more painfully our ideas are not inviolable. I can die, and we can all die.
  • Sartre’s concept of vertigo in his book, Being and Nothingness, characterized by that feeling of standing at the edge of a cliff and looking down at our painful death. He says at this point, it is not fear that grips us, but rather anguish. Fear comes from external factors that we have no control over, anguish comes from discovering that the only thing that is stopping us from falling to our deaths is our choice not to jump. “Who I am now (aka alive) depends on who I am not yet (aka dead). to the exact extent that the self which I am not yet (being dead) does not depend on the self which I am (alive)” (Being and Nothingness, page 32). The only thing that matters is my freedom to choose death and to not choose it, that makes us look deep into the depths of our being to choose life.
  • Now imagine this on a collective level, a vertigo that people everywhere feel at the same time. At first thought, it seems that Covid-19 would fall under the fear category not anguish, it is something external that we have no control over. If I get it, I get it. If I’m older or have pre-existing conditions, I can die and that’s that. And yet, we do have ventilators, we do have healthcare systems, we do have governments, we can socially distance ourselves, these are all attempts at moving back from the edge of the cliff, and in fact, this pandemic is better characterized not by the power of the virus but by the response of humanity together. We are choosing to live, and many who have been shielded from that decision are experiencing a re-awakening of their ability to choose life.

To extend Sartre’s concept of vertigo, here is a story by Bayazid of Bistam, among the greatest of Sufi mystics who died in the ninth century. This rendition is from Idries Shah in his book Tales of the Dervishes.

Ignored Pandemics, the Infodemic, and Ongoing Humanitarian Catastrophes

  • You’ve heard of covid, but have you heard of the pandemic that killed 1.5 million people last year? There were 10 million people who fell ill last year because of it. It wasn’t covid, it was tuberculosis. Or that 1.7 million people were newly infected with HIV in 2018, and an estimated 770,000 died? Or 228 million cases of malaria and 405,000 deaths in 2018?
  • What are the differences between them and Covid-19? Is it because neither TB, HIV, nor malaria are as significant in developed countries as they are in developing countries? Is it not because Covid-19 has affected the developed world most so far, hitchhiking on the flights for those who can afford to fly and spreading across their networks?
  • This enormous response shows what is possible when people, resources, our ideas are coordinated and moved to action. Could you imagine explaining any of what is going on right now to yourself just two months ago? My extremely recent past self would have dismissed me entirely. And yet the mass coordination we are seeing is possible, and it is working. It reminds us just how free we are to morph our society and transform it into something better, it unfortunately often takes a confrontation with death, particularly by those in power, to do so.
  • And this ties into mistrust of the government, surveillance, conspiracy theorists, misinformation, censoring by social media, google searches filtered and ordered, shaming people instead of listening to them.
  • Infodemics Observatory measuring sentiment and spread of misinformation on twitter using machine learning, this is disaggregated by bot and human user, and as of April 24 there are 168 million localized tweets that they have analysed, 58.1% of them human, 41.9% of them robots, 70.4% of news deemed reliable, and 29.6% unreliable. You can see emotional sentiment over time in a heat map in Italy for example.
  • This is valuable data. When the pandemic lifts, what will remain is how people talk about it, remember it, imagine it, symbolize and make sense of it in the new world we imagine for ourselves.
  • The cracks in the old system become apparent under pressure.
  • Equal policing of the pandemic, but not equal ability to socially distance. Data on race and income (who are the majority of people working on the frontlines?), those in wealthier neighbourhoods being able to choose to socially distance earlier on and white collar workers being able to work remotely), higher proportion of blacks in US getting Covid but representing a smaller fraction of the total population, Public Health Ontario choosing not to collect data on race because “statistics on race aren’t collected unless certain groups are found to have risk factors” (Kassam, 2019)
  • Things are the same for my mom and dad. My mom, problems with long term care long that were happening far in advance. Saying thanks for frontline workers and its emptiness, are they all voluntary martyrs? If they didn’t have to do put food on the table, would they? Understaffing, underpaying part-time personal support workers and nurses with jobs across different facilities, networks that optimize disease transmission (David Fisman, 2020), $4 pay raise in BC for Personal Support Workers and bans on working in more than one place.
  • Looking at the world more broadly, policing in Afghanistan and India, what is looming for African countries. Access to ventilators, masks, facilities, doctors, with people working from hand to mouth day to day not being able to go to work, how many people have to choose between hunger and covid-19 exposure? Afghan show.
  • Humanitarian perspective, ongoing catastrophes around the world. The United Nations has a list of ten crises that need to be remembered as the world fights covid-19 (conflict in Afghanistan, hunger in Haiti, the billions of locusts that are destroying all crops in the Horn of Africa, violence and malnutrition in the central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger), Conflict and displacement in the Lake Chad Basin, the unmet needs of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh, the tenth year of conflict in Syria, the 30 critical UN programmes set to close in the coming weeks in Yemen (the site of the largest humanitarian disaster), economic and food insecurity in southern Africa, and decades of crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is the danger of diverting funds from these crises to covid-19, whereas additional funding is needed for existing efforts.


There’s a lot of speculation that this might be the end of globalization as we know it, globalization meaning open borders, more movement of goods, people, and capital, and more interdependency between countries. Supply-chains and covid-19, disruptions, Trump and 3M, absence of cooperation among EU states when Italy was getting hit hardest in the beginning. A return to localization, domestic manufacturing of essential goods like masks and ventilators, self-sufficiency where it’s necessary, and increased controls on the movement of people, goods, and capital.

Already there are talks of immunity passports and risk-free certificates. Essentially, you would get access to services or facilities or given the green light to cross a border if you have proof that you’re immune. Which the WHO recently dismissed because we just don’t yet know if people are necessarily immune after they’ve recovered.

An article on a new, new world order by Joe McCann, offers some very interesting speculation on changes regarding this issue, and a number of other insights across sectors (who become the content creators when Netflix or Hollywood cant produce movies due to lockdown? How are MOOCs replacing universities? Cloud-workers vs Land-workers being the new blue-collar vs white-collar) I’ve shared the link on the shownotes for this podcast, highly recommend reading it.

He argues that this might be the first public global blockchain use-case.

A blockchain is a just a ledger, aka a list of data, with a bunch of other features including decentralization, immutability, and cryptography. It’s a compelling use-case because it’s extremely difficult to get countries to coordinate immunity certificates, and to trust each other. After all, the biggest risk to a country after months of lockdown is if someone from a different country with the virus re-introduces it while lockdown is lifted. The blockchain gets rid of the need to trust each other by putting all the data on a public ledger, of course measures are put into place to prevent anyone other than the screening official to find out if you are immune or not. Clearly there are major ethical red flags on the immune vs the non-immune as another divider among people.

How can we ensure everyone’s health and wellbeing in an ethical way? Without further dividing people and limiting mobility along existing power hierarchies? How can we hold governments accountable and how can we unleash agency for communities at a local level proactively, and from the bottom-up?

The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war (Antonio Guterres, 2020). To extend this concept further, the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of separation. A separation from other human beings, of other life forms, and of the planet. With climate change, how can we act with this same existential urgency that we are mustering in response to Covid? How can we realize that we are in fact looking at our imminent deaths over the cliff when it comes to environmental devastation and irreversible climate change?

It might sound bizarre, but right now I believe that all outward separation with other people, life, the planet, ties back to a separation from our inner selves. Returning to the metaphor of the kids in the trenchcoat, I am sure that we will eventually get our garment back on, but while it’s off, there are parts of ourselves, at a collective and individual level, that we can see again and that we are terrifyingly free to change.