Sisyphus was condemned to roll his rock: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”

As I sit, work & dream from home because of COVID-19, the words of Karl Marx strike me as more realistic than ever: Capitalists are their own grave-diggers.

Detail of Colossal Krater from Altamura, about 350 B.C., Greek, made in Apulia, South Italy. (Photo: The Iris) Sisyphus article
Detail of Colossal Krater from Altamura, about 350 B.C., Greek, made in Apulia, South Italy. (Photo: The Iris)

A horrible virus has attacked humans all over the world, ignoring the accidental characteristics of age, gender, nationality, religion, economic status or other. Ironically, it is perhaps the first warfare that is not biased or discriminatory. Yet, it is also the most ravaging war, a pandemic that knows no mercy.

Perhaps via some bizarre mechanism of calculation, the virus does not attack non-human animals or fetuses. It also revives the environment and allow earth to breathe away from the harms and inflictions of a stupid, capitalist world.

Does COVID-19 have some hidden calculative emotional intelligence or perhaps a moral streak and chooses to stay away from the fully innocent?  Humans are advised to observe social distancing and stay home. Afraid of being put face to face with their ephemeral existence and irreparable mortality, they stay home.

Some practice social distancing for personal selfish reasons, others for self-regarding as well as altruistic reasons in the hope of flattening the curve. The result is the same: A rare day-to-day encounter with the same living room, the same surroundings, and the same aloneness away from the social fabric of society that makes one forget –even if only temporarily– the existential nature of existence writ large.

However, this is mostly a time for self-reflection. An examination of life; how it went, how it is going and where might it possibly go.

As I sit in my home, a blessing since many fellow humans do not have the luxury of a room, I cannot but think of the “other.”  Was it in that sense that Sartre said “Hell is the other”?

Is it because we cannot but be haunted by images of our fellow humans living in underserved areas, refugee camps, and slums, unable to fight the virus because of social endowments over which they have no control and of which they are not morally responsible? Is the other hell because it makes one feel ashamed of being able to sip from a warm cup of coffee in the confines of a safe abode, possibly away from the virus while other humans cannot?

Social determinants of death, I will call them, or perhaps social determinants of disease. COVID-19 does not attack poverty-stricken areas on purpose. It attacks them by proxy, on behalf of ruthless and unjust governments, in love with money, greed, and power. Governments send soldiers to different countries to wage wars against people, but they do not bother sending “soldiers” to fight disease.

As I sit, work, and dream from home, the words of Karl Marx strike me as more realistic than ever: Capitalists are their own grave-diggers. I can still see and hear my philosophy professor telling us that Marx was misunderstood. As usual, my mentor was perceptive.

As my mind wandered and contemplated the universe, I came to realize, more than before, how neoliberalism and late capitalism flourished by destroying all forms of social responsibility and solidarity between people critical to survive this pandemic.

Capitalism and money are the enemies of humanity and health, the latter perceived as nothing more than a commodity and a function of the supply and demand of a silly economic system. The philosopher John Rawls noted in his A Theory of Justice that, in order for justice as fairness to be possible, we have “to share our fate.” This is a  necessary imperative if humanity is to continue existing. Indeed, humans today are in widespread frenzy. The so-called acumen and intellect humans pride themselves in are unable to find any safe haven to stand on. 

I am in my home office thinking aloud as these letters get dispersed on the screen without effort from my part, as if my mind is throwing words on the screen without an intermediary. I often suffer from moral distress and moral injury, as I see the disease I call egotitis spreading like a merciless plague. I fall prey to nihilism only to pull myself up again, like Sisyphus who continues to roll his rock. After all, Camus said it well: We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Founding Director, Salim El-Hoss Bioethics and Professionalism Program- American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine and Medical Center

more recommended stories