Covid-19 lockdown: Towards a capsule existence

A glance at the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus world map and the Worldometer coronavirus tables reveals a striking pattern: the march of the new coronavirus, SARS- Cov-2 begins with those countries most integrated into the global economy and works its way down the rankings. If you venture to compare countries by gross domestic product (GDP), as collated by the World Bank, it is striking how closely infection rates, and sadly mortality rates, too, correlate with the rankings.

As each country’s campaign progresses, there is a striking similarity in the course of daily infection rates, mortality rates and recovery rates as the graphs rise, flatten and drop. Notably, this is a march through the global population and, as the virus works its way down the GDP rankings along ever more tenuous trade routes, so must poorer and poorer countries contend with the waxing and waning of the virus. Frayed global links, as in manic-depressive South Africa, or slight global links, as in mild-mannered Vanuatu, will not spare a country from the virus, but simply delay it.

Governments, international organisations and even corporations have shown a remarkable consensus in the cure — physical distancing and a policed lockdown. Just three months after the epidemic became a global phenomenon and two months after it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, billions of people worldwide are experiencing some form of these two measures.

What is most striking in the online media portrayal of lockdown is a global foreshadowing of what might be called a capsule existence. Broadcast and digital media have long speculated on and imagined the coming of a rupture with the tactile, embodied and face-to-face way of life humans have engaged in for millennia.

Much has been written about how the digitisation of culture and the economy through a wholesale transfer of activity onto the internet is rendering virtual the flesh and blood nature of human existence. Some pretty exciting and compelling television series and movies have imagined what this kind of existence would look like — and feel like. 

Computer games have walked humans through their future. Apps on devices that festoon the home and the body do a fair bit of your thinking for you, arranging your life with other apps in the cloud, and hinting at what the future could be.

The future is now

With the coronavirus lockdown, this future has all at once come to pass. Across the globe humans find themselves confined to a capsule — their homes. They must work from home and, because of the digitised nature of most service jobs, this is not only possible, but it is also dawning on employers that this is cheaper and more efficient.

For those people whose jobs can be rendered virtual, it is pretty certain that much of their social life already is. Video-conferencing and social video calls have now merged to create an online life that spans the entire day, and sometimes night. So too, if you are a schoolchild, your occasional silly video call with your buddy has now become hours every day of remote schooling.

Exercising in your capsule is, in some countries, not only the sole legally endorsed kind, but has found to be eminently doable. A virtual pet might well start to seem more attractive as cooped-up pet owners watch friends interact with their animals on WhatsApp video calls with the kind of easy pleasure that is now just a memory.

Those people whose work cannot be done remotely because they are required to touch other humans to save their lives — or to frogmarch them back to their capsule — take on a superhuman quality. They are dressed in astronaut-style hazmat suits or in army combat gear finished with a medical facemask, all stark reminders that life outside of the capsule is a hazard indeed. Farmers, supermarket workers and delivery drivers, who must of necessity labour outside the capsule, are less dramatically clothed and perhaps even more heroic for it.

In tracing infection clusters and hotspots, the online press urgently report on people seen touching, hugging, kissing and even sharing drinks from the same glass. The encapsulated reader leans back from their device and shakes their head in awe that humans dared just three weeks ago to indulge in such risks. Touch now is best done virtually, more pleasurable in that it is free of fear. Humans have discovered a facility to imagine the sensation of touch, and in a way that remarkably does not seem that different to the real thing, precisely because it is the only safe way.

Apps are designed daily, commissioned by every government from the mighty United States to modest Eswatini to track and trace citizens under suspicion of infection, to monitor the mildly ill in self-isolation or the quarantined traveller, scolding them if they leave the capsule, and even alerting teams of masked police to frogmarch them back home — or to jail. Most everybody appears to agree that this is a good thing or, at the very least, necessary. Certainly, it is the kind of technology and policing that was science fiction a month ago, read about with sceptical awe, but now is just another app on everybody’s phone and the expected duty of every police officer.

A world government

And who is designing all this safety and security; who is marshalling resources and setting up all these strategies, experiments and technology? Government. An institution that seemed outdated and laughable just the other day is now seen as the laudable creator of the capsule. There have been suggestions of a temporary world government, and from level-headed nationalists, such as Gordon Brown in the United Kingdom. 

Certainly instrumental units within national governments, such as finance ministries and health departments, are co-operating on an international level, as though part of a de facto world government.

The scenario of the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits seems to imply a vague global government, authoritarian but benign, at least in the perception of its encapsulated citizens, mesmerised by video games, pornography and game shows.

Like them, pursuing the accumulation of merits in following the decrees of the government, so do we flock to purchase broadband internet, sign up to Zoom and Netflix in our millions, buy the cut price ebooks and video games on sale across the web, and, if we are in Italy, watch PornHub Premium for free, and if not wonder if that deal will come to our sector of the global economy when the daily death rate merits it. The overarching implication of a capsule existence — a world government assisted by international corporations eager to do the right thing (as decreed) is here. Within one decade of this show airing you are starring in it, virtually.

Those who have been hankering to work from home throughout the decade when a capsule existence was merely entertainment, now find that the reality might require your narcissistic boss and your annoying colleague to be in your home all day; even when you log out of Zoom they seem still to be there, hanging from a rail in the cupboard, waiting to be rebooted. The capsule, if you have a sense of the virtual, and almost all humans it is now clear have an acute one, is far from tiny. The capsule, in its virtual reach, seems vaster than a lived existence ever could be.

Shut away in your capsule and reliant on internet platforms to give you a sense of the wide world outside, it is evident that you had best get online now, and stay there. Once you are there, even if you are reading about dire scenarios or lockdown victories in every quadrant of the globe, there is the sense that say, New Zealand, is no longer a distant land but really more a province of your own country, going through near-identical trials with which your “province” might be keeping pace despite markedly real-world dissimilarities.

You come across pictures of women in Kenya making facemasks in a factory that in no way looks different to the one in Singapore. The police photographed in the Peak District of the UK and the soldiers in the rough townships of Cape Town zealously keeping you in your capsule seem like units in the same force.

Verified aerial shots of prisoners burying a hundred bodies a day in the mud on New York’s Hart island and disputed ones of mass graves in Iran might as well be in the same municipality. And it is precisely the reliance on online media in an encapsulated existence that allows this sense of ever-expanding connection.

Deconstructing binaries

The online media, by blending the struggles of each country in a breathless torrent, have revealed possibly the most far-reaching consequence of an encapsulated existence. No longer can one take seriously the notion of advanced, emerging, developing and underdeveloped nation states. Two countries with national public health systems meant to be among the world’s finest — Italy and France — were cruelly exposed in a glut of painful images and searing reports. The UK and the US stand tentatively at the same abyss. The US, with a nominal GDP that, if China’s is set aside, is greater than the rest of the world combined, sends out agents to buy up medical supplies on the runway of a Chinese airport from under the nose of erstwhile ally France.

Media reports explain the substantially higher death rates of people of colour in the US and the UK as due to “underlying medical conditions”, when the elephant in the room, of course, is that the underlying condition in question is poverty. Meanwhile, “fragile” economies like Guatemala locked down right off the bat and can now count mortalities on one hand; and a supposed junkyard like South Africa is experimenting to find a vaccine and building its own ventilators.

In our capsules, watching the red dots grow over the face of our planet, marvelling at red ink dripping down the map, with the online media our only portal beyond the capsule, we see that we might well have been duped. There is no North, nor South, no advanced economy or underdeveloped one, but one globe with one population and one economy, with broken bits here and high-functioning bits there, distributed in a way that bears no resemblance to the old portrayal.

This kind of clarity might make us never want to leave our capsules, but at what cost? The encapsulated future foreshadowed in the online and broadcast media might come to pass in the course of a very real world tragedy.

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Zinaid Meeran
Zinaid Meeran is a writer and filmmaker based in Cape Town. He is a founding member of art collective Team Tarbaby. He is the author of the novels Saracen at the Gates and Tanuki Ichiban.

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