It is difficult not to reflect in quarantine. For those of us who have not yet knowingly been infected, with all its restrictions, self-isolation is a time to pause, rest, reconnect with our immediate family and reflect. But reflection in this case is not merely a self-indulgent search for the meaning of life. Instead, for many of us, it is soul-searching under the Sword of Damocles (wondering when and if my time will come) added to the daily struggle of being detained in a confined space, whilst having to beat solitude or embrace cabin fever.
There has already been a lot of reflection upon the virus landing in Europe. It has forced us to consume less and spend more time with our immediate loved ones. The ozone layer is healing, the Venetian canals are clear and odour-free, and air-pollution has decreased considerably.
We are finally realising the importance of the jobs and sacrifices of real people, like doctors, nurses, carers and delivery-men. All of a sudden people’s attention is abruptly removed from celebrities, who only re-enter the scene when they are reported to have contracted the virus, before exiting once more, often after recovery. We have started to reconsider our priorities and revisit our values.
Before the Arrival of the Virus
Before the arrival of the virus, our continuous romance with technology fed us instantaneously, at the click of a button, with food, material objects, or access into the lives of people whom we only know through screens. We accessed enormous amounts of information, news and facts. We were within easy reach of our friends and family everywhere in the world. We also travelled more than ever before and we probably worked more than ever before and spent with equal ardour. But the prominence of the button surreptitiously distracted us from our limitations and vulnerabilities. It made us feel invincible and unconquerable. Until this coronavirus.
The Arrival of the Coronavirus
The fear of the unknown, the lack of control and the realisation that we are so ill-equipped to deal with this natural disaster, reminds us of our limitations and frailty. Suddenly, we no longer care for the material possessions or the holidays which we so desired but could not afford. Dare I say it, we don’t care for celebrities and how glamorous their lives are. We are forced to spend time with our spouses and children, perhaps more than we would have chosen under normal circumstances. We look at them, we talk to them, we live in the moment and then we realise that little else beyond that matters. But I fear that this may well be a knee-jerk reaction to the unquantifiable unknown which is also dictated by the current lockdown. I fear that when this storm has passed we may just relapse into our old and empty habits of not listening to each other, reaching out for the smartphone when needing a quick fix, occupying our free-time with mindless consumerism and falling into the trap of unknowingly overloading ourselves with voluminous data, most of which is irrelevant to our lives.
One Particular Change I Would Like to See
When this is over, there is one particular change I would like to see. And that is a revolution in our concept of celebrity. By that I mean we should fundamentally change what and whom we celebrate. Our button-dependency and material greed has led us gradually to forget our true values. It has also made the notion of celebrity much wider, more prevalent and prominent than it used to be. As part of our collective decline, we have built a cult of glamour and emptiness which we worship. We now even have a class of famous people, who are famous just for that: being famous. Nothing else. No tangible contribution to the society at large. They are the object of attention of millions of people who admire their looks and envy their lifestyles. Lives full of apparent glamour and decadent spending which are well beyond reach for most of us and incidentally likely to cause low self-esteem and misdirection in the young generation. Low self-esteem because the social or economic status would be simply unattainable for the majority of us. Misdirection because young people are lured into the world of a materialistic El Dorado which some people have acquired and which has little to do with hard work. Unavoidably, the cult of empty celebrity risks disabling the young generation from valuing the important things in life in favour of materialistic heaven and gossip.
What about hard work and the joy of achieving something big out of it? Even better, what if that hard work helps others? What about kindness and a sense of sacrifice for another? What about humility and restraint? What about the value of inner beauty? Why are those values and the people who exhibit them not being celebrated? Are they shyly hiding away in science, religion or economics magazines, whilst we are encouraged to aspire to a world of apparent perfection enabled by glitter, computer filters and plastic surgery?
The time has come for us to celebrate the things that matter and for modern celebrity status to give way to cerebral beauty and to inner beauty. The time has come for the mainstream media, the likes of Vogue, The Daily Mail, Grazia, Hello etc to take some responsibility and celebrate brain and kindness in the same way as they celebrate physical beauty and fashion. Without putting what matters at the forefront of our daily lives and re-educating ourselves away from emptiness and consumption, there is really little hope for the future of this country. Media are a powerful influence. It is their duty to look deep into their conscience and reconsider what and who should receive prominence in their publications. Entertainment is, of course, important. But perhaps the time has come for some conscious culling of minor or non-contributory celebrities and in their place to introduce a new category of celebrity: the cerebral and humanitarian kind. This change may feel counter-intuitive, but it is possible carefully to balance the commercially attractive with cerebral achievements. It would be a fundamental change which requires decisive action, but decisive action is what is needed even though the initial reception may be lukewarm, and the positive effects may not be felt overnight.
This process is in fact, not that difficult. For example, the Indian Vogue has already published in March 2020 an article into the lives of the economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo who, together with Michael Kremer, won the Nobel Prize in October 2019 for their ground-breaking work on alleviating global poverty. I am yet to see anything like that in the UK Vogue. The Mail Online reported the Nobel Prize ceremony as a Swedish Royalty event when incidentally, Esther Duflo, at 46 years of age was the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize and only the second woman to do so. But this is only one of the few examples that merited more attention from the popular media. There is plenty to celebrate here in the UK too in the world of science, health and education to mention a few.
We often speak about improving education in developing and least developed countries as a way to improve their quality of life and enable them to escape the poverty trap. But this virus has demonstrated that developed countries are just as much in need of education. Perhaps a different type of education but an education, nonetheless. Or to be more precise, a re-education on our core values: a celebration of familial love, of simplicity, humility, kindness and sheer hard work.
If we survive this virus without vast loss of life and economic depression, that will be an extremely good thing. But it will be even better if the revised way in which we value the world stays permanently.
About Albanian Institute
Albanian Institute is a contemporary art and cultural institution supporting, producing, and presenting the full spectrum of performing arts, visual arts, and contemporary culture.