There is a great difference between panic and awareness. With awareness there is responsibility, a respect for the scale of the problem, and a calm consciousness of what needs to be done.
One can be aware of the coronavirus, aware of what needs to be done to minimise its spread – and we must do those things. But one should not make the situation worse with the negative imagination that is fear. For, like fire, imagination can create or it can destroy. It can make us act from our worst selves. That is what panic does. Panic is fear on steroids. With panic sanity is lost. Ever since the virus entered our mental culture, it has become omnipresent. We have been engulfed in its world, in its fearsome power.
Many friends I spoke to on the phone said that just from reading too much about it, there were times at night when they felt pains in their chests or a fleeting inability to breathe. A few moments later they felt better. After a check-up, they found nothing wrong with them. They had simply imagined intensely the symptoms they read about and began to experience them in their bodies. It occurred to me that there might be a dimension to the pandemic that could be called mental contagion.
So much bitterness has divided us of late. Doctrines of division have nowhere to take us. There is no real destiny any more for small-minded dreams. The scale of our challenges must alter the scale of our visionary response.
The panic, driven by fear, ought to be replaced with a passion for a better life for the planet and its people. We will not acquire the calm we need to deal with this pandemic through a fear of death. What we need is a respect for death and a new hunger for life. We could begin now to create the best chapter in the human story. It could be said of us, in the future, that faced with a viral catastrophe we did something amazing. Imagine if the leaders of the world chose at this moment to put in place policies that could reverse climate change, bring health and education to all its people, and kill off the virus of poverty that has spread untold misery.
This might sound fanciful. But history has always been made by those who guided us with vision at moments of our greatest crisis. All our myths point in two directions. We either go upwards, towards the true meaning of civilisation, or we head for an apocalypse.
Tragic times call for extraordinary qualities. We are made for heroic realities. We have always known what to do. Our ancestors coded our choices for us in fables and legends. But we got deaf to what we needed to hear most.
What we need to hear most is now speaking with the sinister voice of death. Perhaps we will begin to listen.
The real tragedy would be if we come through this pandemic without changing for the better. It would be as if all those deaths, all that suffering, all the deaths to come, all the suffering to come, would mean nothing.
• Ben Okri is a Nigerian novelist and poet. His most recent two books are The Freedom Artist, a novel, and Prayer for the Living, a volume of stories