Read: “Humanity Is Subjective,” a conversation with Ai Weiwei about perpetual migration
Similarly, time erases faith. There are no eulogies, no last words, and the corpses are no longer moved to manicured graveyards. They are put in refrigerated trucks, brought to parking lots. One loses belief in the government, in parents, in neighbors, in the very possibility that life will continue. How long can vegetables and melons stay fresh? Rice? Noodles? Will we have enough food a month from now? Several months?
The understanding of time is lost. It’s dark, but you don’t have to go to bed. The clock that runs is the one that counts deaths. The numbers mark the difference between now and a while ago. The death of an infant means that one life, even before consciousness arrives, passes from one eternity into the next. A ventilator is moved from the bedside of an elderly patient because less life remains to him than to a younger patient.
The difference between a human being and a virus grows elusive. A screen monitoring a heartbeat replaces the waves on the ocean, replaces the dangers of the stock market.
Wuhan becomes numbers to track: its coordinates on the globe, the size of its population, the number of people who fled before it was sealed off, their destinations. The “Wuhan virus” spreads to every corner of the world, deaths skyrocket, and the scale of its spread demolishes our understanding of order, science, regimes, freedom, dignity.
People want to know: How big is a virus? What does it look like? How does it get into a living cell? Where does it get the cell’s “key”? How does it copy itself, suffer attack from an immune system, eventually perish? To understand this tiny thing, far smaller than a bacterium, is about as easy as understanding the Earth and its orbit from the vantage point of the universe.
Space, location, scale, and time are the undergirding of self-knowledge. Abandonment of rational thinking leads to a collapse in which fear and joy, ignorance and wisdom, all blow in the wind. The new coronavirus, as it turns lives upside down, has led people to reflect on questions that had not occurred to them before. To wear a mask or not? What kind? When will the next batch of N95 masks be available?
These are serious topics in the news. And for a person, the feather-light mask carries all the weight of fears, hopes, pains, warmth. When the epidemic ebbs in China, the rest of the world finds itself lacking masks. The notion of “mask” drains other concepts of urgency. Masks become a banner for national pride. The imagination soars no longer toward moon landings and driverless vehicles. For the cost of a large commercial airplane, you could buy 10 million masks and 1,000 ventilators. That’s just the way it is.
But no airplanes are in the sky anyway. You don’t even get out the door. Cities are like mausoleums, streets like ruins. New York, Paris, London, Venice—they appear as if yesterday were doomsday. Behind all the shut doors and windows is this thought: That is my borderline; outside, the abyss, where I can be instantly attacked and no longer exist, or might visit disaster upon another.