Community spirit under siege

The coronavirus-induced lockdown has many effects on us, individually and collectively, wherever we are. And we all respond in different ways.

There are many aspects of this situation that worry me. The idea that I might catch the virus myself does not even rank very highly on that list. (Maybe I have already had it? How would I know, if an infection can be asymptomatic, and I can’t test myself?) But of course I do not want to become a spreader of the illness, either.

As virologists run the show, and as there is a remarkable debate as to what counts more – lives saved from death or quick economic recovery – I find that my own interests are very different.

I tend to worry about people.

Vulnerable people. And their very real concerns.

Like those ‘key workers’ for example. Not expendable, yet vastly underpaid (and always threatened with job cuts). How do we care for those who care for us? I don’t just mean the lack of equipment. I mean actual, genuine care. Is there psychological support for them, for those who deal with nothing but suffering and death? How do we support them when it comes to their fears and anxieties over their own families and relatives? Somehow clapping doesn’t quite seem to cut it (though I am sure it is appreciated).

And how can we address the situation of those who find themselves locked in, into small spaces, with their families?

Christmas and New Year can be bad enough. And at least there are presents. But over weeks and months on end? It’s a social steam cooker experiment, about to explode on many occasions. What relief, what support is there?

What about all those who got laid off? And now can’t find a job? (And what if that happens to those locked in with their families?)

It’s a time bomb, potentially, and one that needs addressing just as much as medical help and the survival of businesses.

We often resort to imagery when we try to conceptualise our problems. And when things are hard and difficult and threatening, war imagery gets deployed (ha! see what I did there?). This may be unhelpful. This may be intellectually undesirable. But it’s a given.

Adam van Noort, Final Battle of the Siege of Troy

And with that in mind, I’ve started to wonder what ancient authors have to say about those affected by a siege – those who are locked in, with an enemy at the gates. How does one survive? How can we ensure that a dangerous situation does not become one in which our communities fall apart altogether?

One of the ancient authors who writes about sieges, Aeneas Tacticus, an author of the fourth century B. C. who has written several books on warfare and related issues (check him out here, for example), has a chapter on this topic in his sole surviving work ‘How to survive under siege’ – and his advice is this (chapter 14):

τὸ δὲ πλῆθος τῶν πολιτῶν εἰς ὁμόνοιαν τέως μάλιστα χρὴ προάγειν, ἄλλοις τε ὑπαγόμενον αὐτοὺς καὶ τοὺς χρεωφειλέτας κουφίζοντα τόκων βραχύτητι ἢ ὅλως ἀφαιροῦντα, ἐν δὲ τοῖς λίαν ἐπικινδύνοις καὶ τῶν ὀφειλημάτων τι μέρος, καὶ πάντα ὅταν δέῃ, ὡς πολύ γε φοβερώτατοι ἔφεδροί εἰσιν οἱ τοιοίδε ἄνθρωποι, τούς τε ἐν ἀπορίᾳ ὄντας τῶν ἀναγκαίων εἰς εὐπορίαν καθιστάναι.

It is very important that unanimity (homonoia) among the citizens in general should be secured for the time being by various conciliatory measures, such as the relief of debtors by the reduction or abolition of interest: in a very dangerous crisis even the capital sum owed may be partly, or, of necessary, wholly cancelled, as insolvent debtors are very dangerous adversaries to have sitting by, watching for their opportunity. Those in want of the necessaries of life should be amply provided for.

The reduction, or deletion, of financial worries comes first for Aeneas Tacticus – immediately followed by his advice to ensure provision of quintessential goods.

I guess that includes toilet paper? Our academic commentaries make no mention of that specific commodity, but I am sure that is what Aeneas Tacticus is talking about…?

I wish more of Aeneas’ work had survived. For he added ––

καὶ ὅπως ἴσως καὶ ἀλύπως τοῖς πλουσίοις ταῦτ̓ ἂν γιγνόμενα πράττοιτο καὶ ἐξ οἵων πόρων πορίζοιτο, καὶ περὶ τούτων ἐν τῇ Ποριστικῇ βίβλῳ δηλωτικῶς γέγραπται.

How this may be done fairly and without laying an undue burden on the rich, and from what funds such provision should be made, I have described in detail in my Ways and Means.

I guess we have to trust our respective governments to find those Ways and Means themselves. In the interest of us, as a community. (Ideally one that doesn’t regress to an isolationist state, for the virus – to the best of my knowledge – doesn’t understand the concept of national borders, either.)

Without laying an undue burden on the rich.

But that doesn’t mean no burden at all.

(Yes, looking at all those companies who cynically fire their employees right now. Or those who refuse to pay the rent for their facilities. All those who enjoy to privatise their profits and to socialise their losses.)

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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