Zeitgeist, the Mona Lisa, and 'the end' of pandemics

Published May 14, 2020, 12:15 AM

by manilabulletin_admin



Diwa C. Guinigundo
Diwa C. Guinigundo

Zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times, is shaped by people reacting to available public information.  It is formed through social pressure and a contagion of ideas. This is one of the useful insights from Nobel laureate Robert J. Shiller’s book, “Irrational Exuberance” particularly in Chapter 10, “Herd Behavior and Epidemics.”

He writes that it is zeitgeist that enigmatically made Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa famous, expensive and treasured.  While the Mona Lisa is undoubtedly an outstanding masterpiece, many would argue that it has its equals, even if not, price-wise.

Urban legend fueled the painting’s popularity. In Da Vinci’s biography by Giorgio Vasari, he wrote that the artist spent four years searching for “the right smile,” among a group of musicians, singers and even jesters, to no avail. This search was then, the talk of the town… in today’s speak, “viral.”

Shiller stressed that the painting benefitted from a contagion of ideas. The first was provided by Sigmund Freud who wrote that “Mona Lisa’s smile was a suppressed memory of his birth mother, from whom he was separated at age four, and who had expressed an unnatural affection for her son.” This family drama made it irresistible to the hoi polloi.  Michelangelo called the smile ironic. For others, it is mysterious, witty, scornful, and of course, sensual and remote.

Second, zeitgeist was flamed when the painting was stolen from the museum. A lot of publicity was generated by the thief’s trial. It is rumored that as the decision was read, the thief “listened to his sentence with a facial expression somewhat akin to Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.”

Zeitgeist is a poweful but it could also be irrational.

With this pandemic bearing heavily on everyone, there is a real danger that zeitgeist will greatly influence how, and when, this global pandemic “will end.”

Dora Vargha of the University of Exeter asks, “For whom does the epidemic end, and who gets to say (it has ended)?”

Indeed,when is the pandemic’s end?  Will it end only when a vaccine becomes widely available?

No one knows for sure.

If we go by the world’s experience with the bubonic plague, “the end” could not even be explained. Those infected were reported to show severe swelling in their armpits and groins.  The dead were buried en masse. Villages were burned. Yet people argue whether these steps were effective at all. Nobody could explain how the pandemic ended. Some attributed the plague’s end to the cold weather, some to the reduced potency of the bacterium, and still some, attributed it to the change in the rats from black to brown.

It appears that people and societies merely adapted to the pandemic as a way of life.

In this spirit, a pandemic ending can take place even without the disease being defeated by competent health care or a vaccine.  People merely “grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with disease.” People are adaptable.  This behavior is encouraged by the pandemic of fatigue. Fatigue compels us to evolve.

Of the current COVID19 pandemic, Harvard historian Allan Brandt pointed out that “many questions about ‘the so-called end’ are determined not by medical and public health data, but by sociopolitical processes.”  In the same vein, New York Times’ Gina Kolata quotes Johns Hopkins historian of medicine, Jeremy Greene: “When people ask, ‘when will this end?’ They are (actually) asking about the social ending.”

This implies that the medical and scientific “flattening” of the epidemiological curve may not likely to be the most prominent factor in deciding on either stricter or more liberal quarantines.

And even assuming that statistics can be depended upon in formulating public policy, how does the Philippines fare in terms of its own epidemiological curve? Is the curve reliable?

As of 12 May 2020, 11,350 infected persons were reported. Of these, 751 perished.  Counted recoveries are now less than triple at 2,106. Our ability for mass random testing remains limited. Moreover, standards differ in what can be considered as “COVID-19 incidents”. In some areas, there is suppression of data.

A flattened curve cannot yet be claimed even as the number of recoveries exceeds mortalities by nearly three times.  More infections are reported daily.

There is real fear that our health care system would be overwhelmed once a good sample of infected persons is identified and isolated for proper treatment.

In any case, given human nature and the prevailing influence of personal experience and self-preservation, people talk about the corona virus with very little reference to the epidemiological curve. Instead, what leaves a greater imprint on the subconscious, is a frightening mental image of a COVID-19 patient grasping for breath alone in the pandemic wing, or of one’s mortal remains being immediately incinerated with very little space for private mourning.

These imaginings, instead of curves, graphs and statistics, compel people to stay at home.  It is this reasonable fear that could rally support for IATF’s recommendations.

Fortunately, and at any rate,  recent public policy on community quarantines is anchored on WHO recommendations for a gradual and incremental phasing of restrictions.  The state of our health system was also said to have been considered.

As of this column’s writing, the Government announced that a modified ECQ effective 16 May to the month’s end would prevail over the National Capital Region, Pateros, Laguna and Cebu City. These areas were determined to remain at high risk for COVID-19 infection. On the other hand, general community quarantine (GCQ) would be imposed over Regions II, III, IV-A, CAR, VII, IX, XI, XIII.  Meanwhile, Regions I, IV-B, V, VI, VIII, X, XII and ARMM – areas identified as low risk –  will be under minimum health standards.

Indeed, the community quarantines have themselves seen many mutations ranging from strict ECQ to MECQ to GCQ. How long will these quarantine variants be imposed on our cities and provinces?  Will public response entrench itself in science and principles of public health?

In this regard, we must take heed of cautionary tales.  New COVID-19 outbreaks near the Russian border in China and right in Wuhan – where stringent measures were already imposed – have again occurred.

Moreover, despite first setting a gold standard in pandemic management, South Korea recently reported a dozen new infections from a “super spreader event” after it allowed restaurants and nightclubs to open.  A 28 year-old COVID-19 man, weary of cabin fever from weeks of staying home, reportedly partied at five nightclubs, infecting many. Indeed, the virus is unforgiving of unwise and careless choices.

There are reports too of the virus mutating, of it becoming more infectious, and of it now causing complications in children and young adults. The virus is deadlier now.

Countries seeking to restart their economies could learn from these twists.

But these uncertainties birth other plagues that demand management.  Beyond the viral pandemic, is the pandemic of fear and perhaps for many, fatigue and despair.

The pandemic of fear can grip the heart of the nation. It could also paralyze public policy to limit itself to health issues, instead of also prioritizing social protection and economic bounce back measures.

A pandemic of fatigue and despair also sets in when people have to constantly struggle to receive a few thousand pesos in ayuda, or when they have to line-up for hours under the hot sun for small grocery purchases, or when they remain locked-down in crowded areas behind military barricades, unable to work to put food on the table and unable to pay rent and utilities. We suffer fatigue from weak internet connection risking more isolation from outside world. We realize the limits of WFH, bank deposits that can only buy so much.

We are all racing against time. Indeed, Government is faced with a very difficult balancing act. There are limits to public policy. Rushing out like recently caged-creatures celebrating freedom will be counter-productive and will render our months of sacrifice and lock-down, nugatory.

Zeitgeist can help or hinder public policy. We can help by keeping our eyes on the ball.  We have the power to influence and shape zietgeist.