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Philosophical Reflections on the Coronavirus

A series of contributions reproduced from SHARE magazine no.14

Valletta becomes a ghost town in March 2020 as the first wave of Covid-19 strikes.

Joe Friggieri

In direct contrast with Hume, Covid-19 offers a clear example of how an ought can follow from an is. Knowing how dangerous the virus can be, and how fast it travels, entails the moral obligation on the part of adults to protect themselves against it and avoid spreading it. No actions are purely self-regarding. As social beings, we form part of a community to which we owe a wide range of benefits and for whose well-being we should feel responsible. By taking the necessary precautions to preserve our own health, we are also at the same time minimising the risk of others contracting the disease through our actions or omission.

Prof Joe Friggieri is a professor of philosophy at the University of Malta and is also a poet, playwright and theatre director.

Mark Montebello

In a neo-liberal world which excessively exults individuality, in a globalised world which adulates everything American, the pandemic respectively demonstrated that our future depends more on cooperation than mutual estrangement, and that the United States is woefully fallible and is, to say the least, just one, not the world player. In other words, the pandemic might have put us in better perspective.

As a minimum, it halted the runaway of those who, forsaking the probability of change, just saw the future as an inevitable or obvious prolongation or extension of the present. In other words, more fragmentation, more individualism, more isolation; and more USA, more Western capitalism, more post-Fordism. The lack of imagination which this mind-set has plagued us with, the dearth of alternative ideas for the status quo, the very absence of politics, all of this caused the pandemic to surprise us.

Covid-19 exposed the unreality of a world to which we assigned a fantasised construction; it showed our pretended world for what it is; it reminded us, lest we forget, that what in the first place made us what we are as a human race, and that which will bring us through any hardship, was and remains the mutual aid we proffered to each other on an equal playing-field. The post-covid-19 world should hopefully reflect these revelations. They are, after all, the tenets that philosophy has always imparted, and for which innumerable minds have splendidly dedicated themselves for the wellbeing and betterment of humankind.

Terrible as it is, Covid-19 might prove to be our benefactor yet. Not by its havoc, of course, as with its admonitions. We only have to heed, as always.

Rev.Dr Mark Montebello is a philosopher, author and visiting lecturer at the University of Malta. He has set up various foundations including the Philosophy Sharing Foundaton.

Kurt Borg

Since antiquity, philosophy has suffered from a bad reputation: of being a fruitless activity, or of being gratuitous speculative thinking detached from the responsibilities and realities of everyday life. But this could not be farther from the truth. Humans have turned to philosophy in times of personal and social crises as a source of solace, consolation or inspiration. Humans have sought philosophy as a practice of the self, a mode of healing, a form of therapy, and a way of life. Especially in the present moment of the pandemic we are living through, philosophy can help us by being a reminder on various counts.

Philosophy is a reminder of our human, all too human condition, an embodied situation that subjects us to love and care or, conversely, to violence, illness, infection and forces that reveal our vulnerability and the limits of agency. Philosophy is a reminder of our being in the world, our being with others – with friends as well as strangers – that marks the fragility of social bonds and the precariousness of cohabiting the world. Philosophy is a reminder of our ethical ties with others, ties we actively seek as well as those which implicate us in the lives of others without our choosing. Philosophy is a reminder of the politics of life and death, whereby some lives are allowed to flourish at the expense of others for whom life is rendered unbearable, whereby some lives are more exposed to death than others, and whereby one’s breath can be extinguished by a lack of support and sustenance. Ultimately, doing philosophy in the present time of crisis is to apprehend what is at stake when we speak of care of the self and for others.

In an age when the vices of accelerationism, calculability and instrumentalism continue to plague us, the space for urgent transformative thinking and affectivity that philosophy promises can help us now as ever.

Dr Kurt Borg is a lecturer in Philosophy of Education at the Department of Education Studies, University of Malta.

Marta Obiols Fornell

All of us might have heard at some point the funny and bitter diagnosis about life as a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate. During this virus outbreak, it looks like death has become a reality among us. Death is constantly on the news as we watch in fear and anxiety with eyes wide open. Every day we ask: 'How many deaths or infected people have been reported today, here or in any other place? It seems like the virus has become 'the' enemy, in absolute terms.

I am just wondering if once the pandemic is over, we will be disappointed as we will still die of another health condition. This is not to imply that I do not take the current situation seriously. On the contrary, with the aid of philosophy, we can question what is going on, try to broaden the perspective, identify the enemy and see what price we are prepared to pay in order to be protected from our enemy. The question 'How do I want to live my life', should never be displaced from our horizon, even if it is not possible to live as we desire. At least, philosophy always offers us the chance to think about life and question it continuously.

Marta Obiols Fornell is a graduate in philosophy and ex-chairperson of the Philosophy Sharing Foundation. She currently manages the Arthall in Victoria, Gozo

Stephen Law

What has philosophy got to do with Covid? Here are some obvious answers. Philosophy involves taking a step back and questioning what we ordinarily take for granted. This can be a disturbing experience. In our day-to-day lives we live in a small bubble of concerns - whether or not to see friends, what to have for dinner, whether to buy a new car, where to go on holiday this year. Philosophy encourages us to massively expand the range of questions we are asking. We may find ourselves considering why there is anything at all, perhaps. Or whether robots could think and feel. Or whether there's life beyond death. Or what makes things morally right or wrong.

As Wittgenstein points out, pressing philosophical questions can cause a sense of intellectual vertigo. I thought I knew, I had an immaterial soul (or that I am an entirely material being). I assumed that I could justify my moral beliefs. I supposed I knew there was an external world and that there are minds other than my own. But then I read a little philosophy and suddenly these beliefs may be thrown into serious doubt. What I took to be the firm ground beneath my feet - the foundations of my worldview - can suddenly vanish leaving me suspended over a terrifying void.

Large scale threatening and destabilising events - such as financial crashes, pandemics, and huge natural disasters - can have a similar effect on us. They too can starkly confront us with life's bigger questions - about life and death, the meaning and purpose of our lives, our duties to others, and whether we are good or bad people. As a result of Covid, many of us who would have been focused on a pretty narrow envelope of perhaps quite trivial concerns suddenly find ourselves staring up at the ceiling in the middle of the night and fretting about these much bigger questions.

Of course, religion has traditionally stepped in to provide us with answers to such questions. Religions tell us what's morally right and wrong, how to lead meaningful lives, what we essentially are, what our purpose is. Religion gives us a clearly defined place the grand scheme of things. However, Westerners are increasingly finding the answers offered by mainstream religion to be implausible, and sometimes even immoral. So where else might we turn for answers?

The answer, of course, is philosophy. However, unlike religion, philosophy doesn't just tell you the answers. Rather, it gives you a tool kit so that you are better placed to figure out the answers for yourself. The philosophical toolkit involves applying reason calmly and dispassionately as far as we are able, of course. It also encourages good habits of mind - including not just believing what it would be most convenient or reassuring to believe, but trying to figure out what's true.

Philosophy also provides us with a vast resource in terms of ideas and suggestions when it comes to finding answers. There are philosophers who have some pretty interesting advice to offer when it comes to dealing with worry, stress, and disasters like covid, for example (the Stoics, most obviously). So, why not try a little philosophy during lockdown?

Dr Stephen Law is an honorary research fellow at Roehampton, editor of Think magazine and author of many books on philosophy.

Philip Larrey

The recent pandemic concerning covid-19 has taught us many lessons, on a global scale. What has provoked my thinking most has to do with the 'digital revolution'. New technologies are transforming so much of our lives every day. One technology, in particular, continues to capture headlines constantly, i.e., artificial intelligence.

Two realities emerge from the pandemic in terms of digital technology: one positive and one negative.

The positive aspect stemming from the pandemic has to do with the drastic increase in digital communication. Not being to meet personally or congregate as groups, we have been forced to communicate through digital means. The year 2020 will be known as the year of Zoom, Webex, Meets and so on. It will be remembered as the year in which Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon became the richest person on the planet. The digital giants grew even more because of the various lockdowns around the globe. Covid has taught us that “smart working” can (and will) replace so many dimensions of the normal work force: so much so, that we will probably never return to how things were before. Software companies are selling their physical buildings because they no longer will use them. Twitter has announced that all of their employees can work from home even after the state of emergency has been lifted.

The negative aspect coming from the experience of the pandemic has shown us the limits of digital technology. New technologies are not our present-day Messiahs. Just how a tiny, invisible clump of molecules wreaked havoc on the world boggles the mind. For all of our know-how and technological progress, an infinitely small virus taught us that we are still in the infant stage when it comes to biological organisms. Our finest minds and greatest scientists have not come up with an instant and effective cure.

Conquering this virus will take time, just like all things which are truly human. There are simply no quick remedies and effortless solutions. Our bodies are not biological machines: they are so much more and so much more complex. So many promises and predictions have not panned out, and we are forced to recognise our fragile, yet supremely unique, biological make-up.

Rev. Dr Philip Larrey is the dean of the Department of Philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University. His publications deal with the philosophy of knowledge and critical lateral thinking.

Alexander Gungov

If we take seriously Jilles Deleuze’s conviction that philosophy deals predominantly with concepts and is in charge of creating the universal concepts, this can shed light on the current covid-19 situation from a philosophical perspective. One of the most popular concepts since the beginning of the pandemic is ‘social distancing.’ It has acquired the rank of a philosophical concept determining our world outlook today. By social distancing is actually meant physical distancing. Apparently, keeping 2 m distance is a physical distancing.

However, do we really want to weaken our social ties and distance from each other socially? No, of course. Why is it called ‘social distancing’ then and not ‘physical distancing?' Just because it has become a philosophical concept, which touches the profound grounds of our thinking about society.

Only on the surface, it seems that members of society are human beings linked by social ties. Looking deeper, it becomes crystal clear that members of society are statistical units as I tried to show in my 2016 public lecture at the University of Malta. Statistical units (voters, creditees, taxpayers, protestors, Covid-19 transmitters, etc.) by their very nature are isolated because they are atomized; they are linked only externally by the area of statistics they pertain to. Speaking about social distancing we unveil the real status of members of society, their being statistical units.

The above conclusion is confirmed by yet another timely concept aiming at the philosophical essence of current globalized society, ‘self-isolation.’ Self-isolation is not simply staying under quarantine. Being self-isolated is a part and parcel of what today means to be a social individual. ‘Social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ are two mutually complementary concepts. It is paradoxical that taking care of individual society members and the society as a whole leads to exhausting their social substance and transforming them into a material for statistics reports. The solution of this paradox could be abandoning and overcoming the unilateral approach to humans as sheer biological bodies and restoring their status of social beings and human persons.

Along the same lines of thought, philosophy might turn out capable of bringing some hope during this pandemic. Discussing the Covid-19 discourse, which unmasks the statistical unit status of social individuals, we might succeed in starting pondering philosophically this problem and figuring out a solution to the present dehumanizing predicament.

Prof Alexander Gungov is a professor of logic and continental philosophy at the Department of Logic, Ethics, and Aesthetics, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski.

Francois Zammit

The term crisis, originally referred to the decisive moment of a disease, the point of recovery or tragedy. The term itself derives from the Greek word ‘krisis’ which means decision or choosing one possibility over another. Both of these meanings, decision and critical point, define the essence of our current state of affairs.

It is within this context that philosophy may play a pivotal role. Philosophy offers us the necessary critical and discursive tools to help us ask the right questions and to evaluate the discourse that surrounds the current pandemic. Through philosophical debate, we can ask ourselves what has led us to this situation and more importantly what lies beneath the decisions that were taken by those in positions of authority. Through ethical thinking and political analysis, we should ask the more difficult and pertinent questions.

However, the ultimate role of philosophy during these trying times, is to redirect once again the myriad of debates towards discussing the value of life. We have to bring back onto the national and international agendas the value of life as a main priority. Policies and measures taken in different places by different authorities have highlighted the precarity of the value of life. The covid-19 crisis has shown that economic inequality also translates in the unequal value ascribed to different categories of people.

It is therefore the role of philosophy to ask the pertinent and difficult questions, to diagnose the social malaises that have been further uncovered by the crisis and to evaluate the possibilities that lay ahead. Contemporary society is at a critical point and it is our collective duty to decide what potential future we want to strive for.

Francois Zammit works in the education sector. His research explores the nexus between the ethical and political within the structures of economic and political institutions.

Jean-Paul De Lucca

It was perhaps a fortuitous coincidence that the return to Malta of Mattia Preti’s painting of Boethius being consoled by Philosophy was announced just before the first Covid-19 cases were reported here. Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in a situation of confinement, as he awaited the trial that led to his execution. The long philosophical tradition of consolatio may help us find comfort and happiness in adversity, accompanying us through a time of introspection and appreciation of experiences, activities, places and so on.

Preti’s painting brings to my mind a very specific passage from the 6th-century text, where Lady Philosophy tells Boethius: 'If you expect to be healed, then it is necessary that you should uncover the wound' (bk 1, pr. 4). The fear of illness became very palpable over the past months, but perhaps even more deep-seated fears were exposed by the ‘yet unknown’ causes and consequences of the virus, which also showed us the limitations of medical science. Here too, a broad range of philosophical literature can help us think things through.

The depth of some wounds uncovered by the pandemic have little to do with the virus itself. Inequality, lack of access to rights and necessary resources, poverty, racism, loneliness, and exploitation are just some of the maladies that have harmed or killed more people than Covid-19 did.

If philosophy encourages us to think critically, then we should also be looking at how ‘crises’ are constructed and used to create situations where structural vices remain unacknowledged if not justified or even exacerbated. The more common usage of the term ‘crisis’ could easily conceal or excuse the inadequacy of systems, states, and policies. From a philosophical perspective, the pandemic is also a time for critique.

Giorgio Agamben – a philosopher who has been very present, and controversially so, in the debate over Covid-19 – reminds us not only of the dangers of the politics of crisis, but also that the original meaning of the word (krisis) denotes a moment of decision, of judgement and choice. In medical terms, incidentally, a ‘crisis’ refers to a turning point.

Philosophy in general, but also its specific applied branches, can certainly encourage and sustain important conversations that need to take place at a time when radical decisions need to be made on a personal level but also in the social, economic, political and other spheres. There is hope of healing - as Philosophy reminds Boethius – only if wounds are uncovered. Philosophy reminds that even a pandemic can be a moment of hope.

Dr Jean-Paul De Lucca is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Malta.

Claude Mangion

The question presupposes that: (a) we know what it is that constitutes the nature of philosophy and (b) that philosophy can provide help during the time of the coronavirus crisis.

Let me elaborate on these presuppositions in the hope that they can help in answering the question: with regards to (a) I find it best to consider philosophy as a practice. I use the concept of practice to point out that the idea of philosophy as a purely reflective or contemplative process limits unnecessarily the richness of the concept of philosophy; this way of thinking usually opposes reflection to more engaging or experiential ways of living. But I include both reflection and action within the concept of practice insofar as they operate along a continuum with both holistically combined within a person’s life.

With regards to (b) it is clear from the previous answer that philosophical practice can ‘help’ us live our lives in this time of the coronavirus crisis. I hesitate to use the word ‘’help’’ as I do not want to suggest that philosophical practice can prescribe to others how they should live their lives.

Rather, I prefer to think of the philosophical traditions that one can consult as providing a guide on how to live in this time. It is not the first time that have been crises (and not only health related ones) in the world such that many have sought guidance: I will mention two possible ways in which philosophy can help the person deal with the situation. There is the fatalist approach: in this case, one accepts that there is something much bigger going on and that we must be resigned to the situation. This is beyond our control and therefore getting anxious about it will not change anything: rather one must find a space within oneself and focus on those things that a person finds fulfilling. The other approach might that of indulgence: while following the instructions from the authorities, some might still find it possible to enjoy the pleasures – physical and intellectual – that life has to offer. For some, the crisis has intensified the search for and consumption of these pleasures.

But perhaps the best kind of guidance that philosophy can offer is transformative; by engaging with the philosophical tradition a person can transform his/her life into something that makes them bigger than the crisis that might overwhelm them.

Prof Claude Mangion is a professor of philosophy and the present head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Malta.

Robert Farrugia

I believe that genuine philosophy can make us both sincerely rethink our way of life and also highlight our fallenness condition as creatures depended on an ‘other-than-me’. This entails that we must understand ourselves as immanent beings already open and called for transcendence. As much as I love to think that these strange days can be a gift which makes us ponder on the essence of life, we must also use philosophy as a means to reach out with compassion, care and empathy to the suffering in the world and, as gracefully as possible, make sense of it.

It would be unfortunate if philosophy comes to be understood as an exercise of the mind alone, as if the one who is philosophising, is merely coming up with new ideas and solutions. Philosophy, in its original and truest sense, I believe, must captivate our full being, placing our hearts at the centre, and help us learn to abide there and think through it whilst never losing track of transcendence. In this sense, philosophy would help us live from the inside-out, understanding that we are together outwards as much as inwards. For philosophy ought to help us also come to terms with the pre-political realm as well! As Michel Henry, one of my favourite 20th century thinkers, would have it, 'the community is a subterranean affective layer. Each one drinks the same water from this source and this wellspring, which it itself is' (Material Phenomenology, 2008, p.133).

In these unfortunate times, one should also, of course, recourse to texts spanning from antiquity up till this very day which can really enlighten us on how to cope and live in dark times. I guess, what I would add here is that the philosopher need not be confined to texts that belong to the canonical corpus alone. The essential intuitions of philosophy can be found elsewhere: in poetry, literature and religious texts.

Robert Farrugia is a Phd student researching in the field of phenomenology and the intersection between philosophy, theology and psychology.

Ian Rizzo

The question mark is the most commonly recognised symbol of philosophy as it continuously urges us to question those concepts that humans take for granted. Beyond questioning, another valuable role of philosophy is to raise awareness of why certain developments have led to the situation we find ourselves in.

The case of the coronavirus has surely brought to the fore that the destruction of the natural habitat and the abusive treatment of animals for food production, have made it much easier for viruses to be transmitted from animals to humanity. As is the case with climate change, it remains a tragic fate to this day that most of humanity remains in denial with regards to such issues concerning the natural environment. Humans tend to toil continuously in their daily lives without ever questioning whether the present economic and political systems can be maintained.

Philosophy can be of valuable help in this coronavirus crisis because it can help humanity rethink certain concepts. In this time of crisis, serious reflections on the meaning and value of our life calls for a radical review. Only then, perhaps, can we become conscious of whether we really need to keep working long hours to feed our unrestrained material wants.

Perhaps by thinking about the meaning and value of life, humanity might appreciate the need to have a better work-life balance that would in turn slow down the depletion of the earth’s resources.

Naturally, a better work life balance does not mean leisure that seeks to escape from the existential angst of life through the pursuit of sex, drugs and booze.

Humans must maintain a healthy work-life balance by engaging in the enjoyment of the natural world, the pursuance of artistic and creative activities or any other activity that brings a sense of tranquility to the mind - the concept of ‘ataraxia’ that the ancient Greek Epicurus constantly referred to. If such a path could be pursued, humanity might be ready to accept different economic and political systems that are so crucial to safeguarding our planet’s resources. If we cling on to providential hope for the solution of such crises or remain plodding on with our busy and indifferent lives, we will eventually become our own gravediggers.

Ian Rizzo is at present the deputy chair of the Philosophy Sharing Foundation.

Marianne Talbot

I think the best way philosophy can help through the crisis is by distracting us! It can do this either by providing reading matter that we can get our teeth into, or providing a topic that is so interesting to think about that it keeps us occupied for hours.

The trouble with this recommendation is that the details will be individual-specific. The book that will occupy one person for hours will bore another person to tears. The topic that would interest one person might go right over the head of (or be far too trivial for) another. But to offer an example, I have occupied myself during lockdown with a question posed to me by my brother: ‘what do you think of Jordan Peterson?’ This is a Canadian psychologist who has gained something of a reputation as a guru to young people, young men especially. The difficulty with Peterson is that he is highly controversial – especially with respect to his views on feminism and socialism.

It is difficult to get to grips with what Peterson is actually saying given hugely different interpretations of his views offered by, on the one hand, his friends, and on the other his enemies. I have spent some of the time that lockdown has freed up for me reading Peterson’s books and listening to his podcasts, and also listening to podcasts and articles written by both his friends and his enemies.

I now feel able to answer my brother in a way that satisfies me. It doesn’t satisfy me as the truth about Peterson, but it enables me to offer an account of both sides of the story, and even to explain my own beliefs about his views and why I hold them (you’ll notice I am not sharing these with you – why would I rob you of the chance to form your own!).

So this is what I am recommending to you – find a controversial topic that you have often wished you knew more about – and set out to find out more about it. Do not neglect to consider each side of the story, and only start to consider seriously your own views when you feel in command of both sides of the story.

Dr Marianne Talbot is director of studies in philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education.

Maxim Cassar

Any crisis, of whatever nature, brings about disruption, confusion, fear and instability. This is more so if the crisis is not simply a personal affair nor a local or national disaster but a worldwide phenomenon as is the actual coronavirus pandemic. We all know that this is not the first pandemic to hit mankind; previous pandemics include the relatively recent Avian Flu in 2009, the Spanish Flu at the end of World War I which took between 20 to 50 million people and the more distant Black Death caused by the bubonic plague in the 14th century which decimated between 75 and 200 million people.

What is different in the case of the coronavirus pandemic is the fact that it is truly a global pandemic where practically no country or nation has emerged unscathed. Every person, group, society and nation, directly or indirectly, has been affected in one way or another. The question which thus arises is 'What can we do in the face of such a global phenomenon? Where can we seek help in such a difficult time?'

Without excluding the valid contributions which such fields as medicine, psychology, psychotherapy, counseling and others still can give and are actually giving, I would like to focus my attention on the contribution which philosophy can give in these rather unusual times.

Yes, the discipline which came into being in the West in the 6th century BC can, yet another time rise to the occasion and offer valid as well as practical suggestions and recommendations.

This is corroborated by many instances in the history of Western Philosophy where the discipline was of great help in shedding a beacon of hope in very dark and obscure times. One immediate effect which Covid-19 brought about is the fact that our lives suddenly changed; what was considered normal or a matter of routine did not remain so. We had to adapt to new conditions, new routines, new way of relating and communicating with others, be they relatives, friends or colleagues.

We have to admit that no one was prepared to face such a completely new situation and thus it is not difficult to understand the uneasiness, frustration and helplessness experienced by many people. In this regard, philosophy can help us by focusing attention on what really matters in life. We have to take stock of all our choices, activities and decisions and put aside all that is incompatible with what really is at stake in such a way that we set our priorities in the right way. Issues such as health, physical and mental well- being, solidarity, human resilience should be at the top of our priorities’ list. Social bonding, social cooperation and social responsibility have to lead the way through this pandemic if we want to see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. In this way philosophy can once again be the right remedy or therapy of the soul in these difficult and unstable times.

Dr Maxim Cassar is a lecturer in philosophy at the Giovanni Curmi Higher Secondary School. He is at present the chairperson of the Philosophy Sharing Foundation.

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