A thousand years ago, Persian philosopher and father of modern medicine Avicenna (ibn Sina) wrote a massive scientific encyclopedia called Kit’ab Shifa’, a major work of medieval Islamic philosophy translated today as the Book of Healing. Latin Medieval translators, however, had a different rendition for the Arabic word shifa’ than its literal meaning: “sufficientiae” to indicate a more metaphorical significance for healing as reaching a higher level of satisfaction or sufficiency. Avicenna, whose elaborate writings on medicine heavily informed medical instruction in Europe until the 17th< century, did not mean the term shifa’ in a medical sense but rather as an invitation for a philosophical healing of the soul from its excesses, its temptations, and its indifferences.
I start with Avicenna because in the age of Coronavirus and racial trauma we must require a richer definition of healing that is not restricted to finding a vaccine or firing a few police officers as the ultimate cure. The tragic scenes of death and suffering, the frailty of our exposed health systems, and the sparsity of our safety nets of the last few weeks should force us to seek more honest answers to an urgent question: what are we healing from?
This question is particularly important today as long-standing structural degradations in our systems continue to annihilate vulnerable bodies and dictate a mean politics of survival. Our human progress feels brittle in the face of this relentless virus not only because of its devastating impact on our bodies but also because yet again the futility of our political logics, our economic priorities, and our grand theories of trickle-down equality is unmasked.
Racism, poverty, and precarity determine as ever who lives, who heals, and who dies while the platitudinous statements of our politicians and the empty slogans of our corporations speak of resilience, courage, and collective optimism. A toxic form of optimism and positivity which perversely awaits the miraculous salvation of a vaccine so we can sweep our ugly imperfections underneath the rug again.
No, our need for inoculation must be more complete.
Ironically, the ferocity of Covid-19 is in its assault on the lungs, our vital organ for breathing. Patients and doctors describe terrifying instances of lung failure or complete respiratory arrest. I can’t breathe, that chilling expression of agony we hear from black men held to the ground by violent police, from refugees drowning with their children in the Mediterranean, and from millions around the world who live in misery under the crushing heel of a heartless capitalism, is beginning to literally haunt us all.
Breathing, a basic right of life, appears more like a premium and suddenly we are made intimately aware of our own collective atrophy. Death lurks too close, our confinement is insufferable, our masks are uncomfortable, our social distancing is distressing, and our life under the virus is tedious and scary. Yes, there is truth to these feelings, but there is also hypocrisy. Whose pain counts, whose fear is noticed, whose stress is validated, and whose dead are grievable?
We didn’t need a virus to begin to hear the cries of the world around us. We didn’t have to wait for the panic of death to hunt us to realize some among us had been superfluous and disposable all along. And we certainly didn’t need confinement to discover how poor our life can be when our right to mobility is constrained.
Before the virus evened out death and suffering, some among us had been living in a permanent state of fear and crisis, a form of existence that is destined to a devastating end. Kenyan postcolonial scholar Abdul JanMohamed aptly calls this the ‘death-bound subject’, that is a person who is produced by the imminent terror of death. JanMohamed’s piercing questions in this regard are worth our attention today: “What happens to the ‘‘life’’ of a subject who grows up under the threat of death, a threat that is constant yet unpredictable? How does that threat permeate the subject’s life? How far and how finely does death penetrate into the capillary structures of subjectivity?”
Although the context of JanMohamed’s analysis is based on the black experience from slavery to Jim Crow, his argument about how the specter of death saturates life is greatly instructive for our current condition. This feeling suspended between the possibility and impossibility of life and death that we contemplate in the eerie silence of our isolation today is what many experience daily. Death-bound people live close and far from us. Ask the poor, the uninsured, the perpetually precarious, and the refugees. Ask the casualties of climate change, the innocent civilians who will perish by the strike of a drone, and the countless victims of neoliberal globalization. Ask also the mother of Iyad Halak, an autistic Palestinian young man, killed for no reason by Israeli police and those who shout Black Lives Matter whose only wish is to be allowed to live.
To heal is to repair the will to live for all free from that crippling anxiety of an impending social and literal extinction.
COVID-19 might be our most visible ailment now, but we suffer from much more and no quick vaccine can mask our multiple diseases. Let us not forget that not so long ago, we were outraged by migrant children in cages, helpless refugees rejected at our walled borders, shootings in El Paso and Parkland, white supremacists openly marching in Charlottesville, and the nightmare of police brutality against black men and women, without mentioning the horrific things we perpetrate in distant lands but we remain too busy and aloof to notice.
President Trump thinks his Warp Speed vaccine campaign will magically restore everything to normal again, as if our predicament can be eased merely by accelerating time. What matters to him in a moment of unspeakable tragedy and historic pain is rebooting a depressed economy so we don’t fixate on the carnage of the virus or the massacre of the whip of racism. Making America great again has never felt more treasonous and treacherous. His empty triumphalist slogans are deadly in their cold indifference and their aggravating narcissism. For years now, his paranoid vocabulary deploys only a carceral language of walls, borders, enclosures, invasions, threats, and contaminating difference.
What an arrogant and impoverished reading of our world. What a warped vision of the promise of our humanity. And what a sickening farce of leadership in a time of gasping urgency.
In the last decade, the world has convulsed with protests from people who are tired of feeling invisible, disqualified before even trying: Arab uprising, Occupy, Standing Rock, MeToo, Black Lives Matter and many others. Yet their grievances still ring hollow. They warned us of abuse, greed, and violence, zombie viruses that multiply and never die. A vaccine will eventually be found for COVID-19, but what vaccine will deliver us from the racist violence visited upon George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the codified segregation of redlining that leaves black and brown communities far more vulnerable to the devastating effects of the pandemic, the normalized misogyny that created Harvey Weinstein and spared Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the vicious amnesia of settler colonialism that continues to plunder indigenous life, and the rapacious arithmetic of capitalism that bails out corporations at the expense of ordinary folks?
Yes, this is a dark portrait of our time and if you do not feel the weight of these grievances, you have been living in a world of comfortable fantasy. Many people experience life, Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe writes, as “the rag of humanity,” ghosts whose marginality denies them the right to a dignified place in the world. Degraded, devalued, and ruined, rag humans fight back through the last thing they still have: their speech.
“Speech”, Mbembe says, “remains the last breadth of a pillaged humanity, which all the way to the doorway of death refuses to be reduced to a pile of meat, to die a death it does not want: ‘I don’t want to die this death’.”
But many did not have to wait for Coronavirus or for a racist police officer to die this death or live as if death could strike at any moment. We must repair this broken humanity because it has produced an avalanche of suffering. It is impossible not to feel crushed at the sight of Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on George Floyd. The deadly weight of that knee connects a long heavy past to an intolerable present. Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” is not just the muzzled speech of a victim but the insurgent wailing of a diseased humanity longing for an overdue cure.
That is Avicenna’s plea for sufficientiae, not simply to empathize and apologize, but to truly heal. The cure will come from our laboratories, but will its deliverance ever be sufficient?
Nabil Echchaibi is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He tweets from @nechchai.