Chinese workers keep to the 'social distancing' rules during a lunch break at Dongfeng Honda in Wuhan. Photo: AFP/STR

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in one of his famous plays, No Exit, in 1944: “This is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is – other people!”

We all are in hell, without any physical torments but confined to our homes. The official torturer is missing but each of us has the potential to act as a torturer for others. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche further described this situation in these words: “The world is poor for anyone who has never been sick enough for this ‘voluptuousness of hell’.”

Today, the global modern world resembles the image of German sociologist Max Weber’s “iron cage” from which there is no possible escape. The Covid-19 pandemic has transcended every aspect of human social, political, economic and cultural life. The numerous modern systems that were once in place working for human needs and development are crumbling and unable to meet the pressures unleashed by this pandemic.

Not only has this widespread epidemic put the best systems and models to the test, it has challenged the human way of life and thinking. The patterns of social interaction and its structural ingredients are overturned and a new vocabulary and concepts introduced. The nature of the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in new forms of relationships and existential crisis.

The social geometry of relationships is now defined by the coefficients of “social distancing” and degree of closeness and group size. Humans are now confronted with new forms of social realities and patterns of social interactions. People are facing extra social, economic and psychological pressures.

George Simmel, a notable German philosopher, holds that we value things in terms of distance from individual actors; it is not considered valuable if it is either too close and too easy to get or too distant and too difficult to obtain.

More important, the world is composed of diverse cultures and ways of life. Social-sciences scholars are trying to theorize about the diverse forms of social realties in the universalistic idiom while ignoring the socio-cultural complexities in the time of Covid-19.

The coercive social and cultural forces of the pluralistic world might have little room for the adaptability of the new forms of behavioral patterns and repressiveness. The existing terminologies and definitions can no longer fully explain the ideas of freedom and the existence of individuals, which largely depend on the outside world and forces and their reflections on human life.

The interventionist and repressive strategies of the modern state might not be new in some parts of the world but the group relationships, symbolism and meanings associated with human life are radically altering and pushing for novel formations and projections in various social milieus. This is to argue that in the basic units of society the “microscopic molecules” are in movement and shifting.

In addition, we are witnessing the stigmatization of Covid-19 patients and their families in various cultures and communities of the world. Many people find it difficult to report their health conditions or get treatment for fear of ridicule, racism, xenophobia and stigmatization.

The cultural, religious and social sensitivities are very apparent ethnic markers for the xenophobic violence and discrimination around the globe. Recently, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that Dr Furqanul Haq, who died of Covid-19, had refused to get medical treatment because of the stigma associated with the disease.

This pandemic further requires a gender lens to look at the surge in domestic abuse and violence against women in the countries under complete lockdown across the globe. Women, children and other vulnerable sections and minorities, especially migrants, are at higher risk of abuse and severe living conditions.

Technology has provided an alternative medium of communication and resource to do work online from the confines of home, but we cannot ignore the impact of technology on mental health and economic life. Suicide hotlines have reported a surge in calls for help after the Covid-19 outbreak.

Religion has always been seen as a unifying force by its followers and clergy rather than dividing the whole world into different sects and communities. The structural coherence of almost every religion is based on its organizational unity among its followers. As the Muslim world welcomed the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the congregations, rituals, prayers and celebrations were regulated or even canceled in different parts of the world.

Covid-19 has challenged every ideological system and both its superstitious and rational foundations. We can only eagerly wait to see how much further change this pandemic can bring to the micro and macro structures of society. Yet the patterns and structures of interaction and behaviors of co-existence and repressiveness are already evolving in accordance to the radical pressures and human capacity to control this pandemic.

Zahid Ali Shah

Zahid Ali Shah is a graduate of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests include Orientalism, colonialism, post-colonial theory, race, ethnicity, nationalism, subaltern studies, decolonization, and transnational feminism.