Of Covid-19 anxiety, human nature, and lessons from AIDS

As human beings, we are born with a number of inclinations prewired in us. Some of these have been referred to as instincts.

Perhaps one of the strongest of such instincts, which is also shared by many other living things, is self-preservation. Many, if not all living things, appear to have a deep interest in keeping alive – even when life becomes rather unbearable. Suicide or unbothered submission to death takes a lot of courage, quite rare.

Even a rabbit or chicken will put up a fight for its life. Perhaps this is understandable in consideration of our exclusive views on the afterlife. It could be said that a dog will fight to live because earthly life is all it can have.

Yet, not even the promise of heaven for a well-lived human life reduces our anxiety over ending our earthly journey. Death remains the biggest nuisance of our existence, coming in every now and again to spoil our party or to worsen our miseries.

The instinct to preserve our lives is what makes us panic in the face of disease. For disease is nothing less than death’s dramatic announcement of its presence. We, therefore, always have to find a way out of disease, or, at least, to tell ourselves that we have it.

Short of an answer, human survival instinct, plus our desire for hopeful knowledge in face of anxiety and desperation, will always send us into creating answers – even those that may seem stupid under normal circumstances.

Take the case of HIV/ Aids. When the first cases emerged in Masaka and Rakai, people found the disease horrifyingly strange. Some said it was witchcraft from Tanzania. Others theologised that it was a punishment from God for sexual promiscuity. In the absence of scientific explanation, an answer still had to be provided.

In hindsight, it may shock us that hundreds of people lined up at Yowanina Nanyonga’s home in Sembabule in the 1990s to eat a pinch of her soil for relief from HIV. Recalling that by then HIV meant a sentence to a slow, painful and humiliating death, any semblance of a cure did not call for rational scrutiny. One had to gamble with whatever provided hope.

HIV victims drank gallons upon gallons of all sorts of concoctions, ranging from concentrated pepper to fluids from all manner of leaves and roots. They converted from one religion to another on promises of miracles.

While all this could have provided some psychological relief, it is possible that some of it could have accelerated the deaths of some people. But could one stop them without offering an alternative solution?

Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, opined that ‘fear is the main source of superstition’. It is almost impossible to stop a frightened mind from creating answers. Hopelessness is too difficult to live with.

This is partly the reason why Voltaire imagined that ‘if God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent Him’. This way, people would be able to find hope where there was none, and not to fear that our death marked the end of the story.

What we are faced with in the current anxiety over Covid-19 can be understood in the frames of the above human tendencies. Media and social conversations are full of suggestions and testimonies of ‘effective’ remedies for the nuisance. I had to abandon a sauna where almost everyone had an idea about what could help.

The boiling water pan is filled with varieties of leaves collected on open merits of hearsay. Today, one patron will come in with an addition that makes everyone cough their intestines sore. The following week, another brings one that feels like pins in the nose. Without certain knowledge, anything goes for truth.

This sauna exemplifies what is happening out there. In an attempt to preserve our lives, everyone has become a doctor of sorts – conducting diagnoses, making prescriptions, and dispensing ‘drugs’.

A picture of a plant goes viral on social media as a magical cure, the next day it is on high demand and is being vended. At this rate of desperation and gullibility, it might only take one malignant person posting a poisonous plant as a cure and we shall face a national disaster.

Unscrupulous people are already taking advantage of the stampede by coming up with concoctions and then cunningly spreading information about ‘a wonder drug [theirs] on the market that has healed many who had failed to find oxygen’.

Social media rumours spread faster than savannah bushfires. Many thus unsuspectingly flock pharmacies in search for the said cure before it runs out. By the time the public learns that it doesn’t really cure, the ‘discoverer’ is smiling to the bank.

It is not that hard to manipulate the mind of a desperate person. One of the commonest gimmicks has been to attach authority of a doctor or professor to the wonder drug. In any case, we do not have the time to question if the drug has been adequately tested. Fear of death has naturally clouded our judgement.

We fear that Covid might kill us before tested drugs arrive. We need something to take us through the anxiety, to facilitate us with hope that we are among the lucky ones who will survive the swinging dagger. The logic of the Luganda proverb that running slowly is better than hiding is the one at play.

Government is too busy being overwhelmed and is apparently as confused as the masses. The public is rightly advised to follow SOPs.

But the fear of many is akin to that of those hiding in a dark house where some creature devours one after another. The question is, if indeed it is hard to access oxygen, in the unfortunate event that I catch the disease, what shall I do? Then trial and error takes over.


The author is a teacher of philosophy.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd