What the COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals about the West and Its Prospects
It has been two years since we began to hear the first reports of a new virus in China. Infections then spread at a rate that seemed sometimes to outrun the rumours themselves. Within weeks, we all knew exactly what living in a truly globalized world can really mean.
In the time since, we have seen and experienced a great deal, much of which would have been—in the West at least—unimaginable as late as the end of 2019. There has been, of course, the rapid spread and subsequent ‘waves’ of the disease itself; we have seen people we know and love get ill, and in most cases recover, and in a relatively small number of cases, die. All of this seemed unimaginable before in the contemporary West. After decades of relative good fortune, many of us naively thought such phenomena were confined to our past, or simply to elsewhere. I remember how inconceivable it seemed, on reading the first reports, that society, in the quiet bit of rural England where
I lived, might eventually be disrupted by something happening in urban China. As with so much in our culture and politics in recent years, being inconceivable proved no obstacle to events, which rapidly overtook our capacity to make sense of them.
What was unimaginable in late 2019, but which has since come to pass, of course extends far beyond the advent and nature of the disease itself. Arguably the most remarkable, startling, and consequential things that have occurred have less to do with the disease itself, and more to do with how we—as a society—have reacted to it, and what our reaction has revealed about the nature of the West in general. There is an old adage that someone’s true character is revealed in crisis—we discover who we or others really are under pressure. The same logic can, perhaps, be extended to societies as a whole. In the last two years, we have certainly been a culture in crisis. This, though, is true in more than one sense. We have, of course, been a society attempting to handle a public health emergency. But the way that emergency has been handled has simultaneously thrown into sharp relief character flaws in that society, flaws that have infected the norms, culture, and body politic of liberal democratic society as surely as the coronavirus has our actual bodies.
As such, while we may view the pandemic as something of a public health apocalypse—a cataclysm that has severely disrupted our lives, and in some cases, ended them—we might also see it as an apocalypse in the other sense of the word—a revelation of what has previously been concealed. Arguably, the pandemic period has been both forms of ‘apocalypse’ simultaneously: a public health cataclysm, but also a revelation that our culture and politics are ill-equipped to respond to such a crisis with any of the qualities that the West, at least, has long presumed itself to embody: dispassion, reason, proportion, pragmatism, realism, calm, and a belief in the value of open and good-faith debate.
In discussing the pandemic, the science—the objective virology and epidemiology of the disease itself—is only half the story. The other story is the social, political, and cultural one of how we have subjectively reacted to that science. Perhaps because the latter story is about subjective values rather than objective facts, because those values are conceived rather than received, and because there are therefore few authorities to whom we may defer on questions of value—living as we do in a world which we are all expected to author on our own—this second half of the story has not been given nearly as much consideration as it deserves, and as we, as a society, should demand.
As is the case with all cultural crises, what we are really talking about is a crisis of trust, and therefore a crisis in our relationships. Specifically, the pandemic has not only revealed distortions in our relationship to key cultural sectors—be it science, the state, the ‘economy’, or the media—but also to the essence of our lives as relational animals: to our past, to our future, to one another, and ultimately, to ourselves. This essay explores each of these in turn.
- Our Relationship to Science
The first and perhaps most obvious distortion revealed by the pandemic is in the relationship between science and the broader society that is interested in that science. It is first important to note that the virology and epidemiology of COVID—the study of the nature of the virus, and the study of how it spreads in populations—has illustrated the power of science at its best, demonstrating what is possible when institutions and nations coordinate and dedicate sufficient resources to addressing a common problem which is amenable to genuine scientific enquiry.
However, while the science has generally been good, problems emerge when we attempt to go beyond the study of the nature of the disease, and how it spreads, and instead begin to consider the appropriate policy responses—and cultural changes required—to contain and curtail the spread of the disease, notably so-called ‘lockdown’ policies. This problem is captured in the general assumption that has lain at the heart of most mainstream discussion of the pandemic: the assumption that the policy responses are ones that only scientists can legitimately speak about.
In the last twenty-one months, it has been striking to see how few reputable voices have publicly questioned the dominant narrative about the proportionality of the ‘lockdown’ policies adopted by so many states during the pandemic. With the notable exception of Lord Sumption, who has written at least forty-two articles criticizing lockdown policies in the UK—published in outlets as politically diverse as The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Spectator, The Sun, The Guardian, Prospect, UnHerd, and Spiked!—it has mainly been left to provocateurs and professionally partisan writers and columnists to do so. This has been bad for the quality and dispassion of public discourse, as it has had the effect of politicizing what should have been a largely apolitical debate.
The crisis has revealed two problems with the public understanding of science. First, as with discussions of climate change, there has been an erroneous assumption that ‘the science’ is monolithic. This is not only wrong empirically, but is also a view that reflects a failure to grasp how science actually works, particularly the stochastic sciences which depend on modelling and projections, as when we discuss COVID and climate change. There are potentially as many models, with their subjectively selected and defined inputs, as there are epidemiologists. Scientists themselves know this—their fields are built on the creative tension of such aspective diversity. As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics wrote in a statement on COVID-19, ‘every scientist will tell you that science does not provide certainty (and is usually contested)’. 1D. Archard et al., ‘Statement: COVID-19 and the Basics of Democratic Governance’, Nuffield Council of Bioethics (2020), www.nuffieldbioethics.org/news/statement-COVID-19-and-the-basics-of-democratic-governance. Yet, to the general public, the perception remains that science is monolithic. This is simply wrong. There are, in fact, few areas of science that are so conclusive that there is no room for debate. Witness, for instance, even in fundamental physics, how physicists have spent the last four decades struggling (and failing) to reconcile, in relative and quantum mechanics, two proven yet irreconcilable theories. 2C. Powell, ‘Relativity versus Quantum Mechanics: The Battle for the Universe’, The Guardian (2015), www.theguardian.com/news/2015/nov/04/relativity-quantum-mechanics-universe-physicists.
To challenge the scientific ‘consensus’ is not heresy. Rather, it is simply—by definition—to show that there is not, in fact, a consensus at all. And furthermore, actual science is not threatened by challenge. Rather, it encourages it. The criteria of good science, since Popper, is not whether its conclusions may be verified, but whether they can be falsified. That is, the question scientists must ask themselves is whether it might be possible to establish an experiment by which one might prove a hypothesis false if indeed this is what it is. For science, friction—that is, good faith debate—is a source of illumination, not conflagration.
Second, and again as with discussions of climate change, there is the problem of assuming that science conclusions are necessarily a guide to public policy—with the implication that the scientific facts ought to, or even can, dictate our culture and values. This is the problem of what philosophers of science call ‘scientism’. If Science is a tool for use, scientism refers to when we think science is not just a tool to use, but a guide to fundamental ethical truths that can inform that use.
In a sense, real Science is simply a tool, with its relationship to society being analogous to a hammer’s relationship to a house. We use hammers to build a house. But a hammer cannot guide us in making a home. There are objective truths about engineering houses, as there are about the nature of COVID-19, or, indeed, the climate. But the question of what we want the houses we engineer to look like is not an objective but a subjective one. It is a reflexive question about us, not simply one about the material world, which is the only thing science can describe with any coherence or authority. And so it is when we begin to consider not simply the nature of COVID-19, but the nature of the society we want to be in the face of it.
As with climate change, when it comes to the pandemic, the science—the virology, the epidemiology—is no more than half of what needs to be discussed, and indeed, is only really the easy half, ending before all the difficult questions and problems begin, a difficulty founded in the fact that they are inherently subjective and societal, rather than objective and scientific. As with climate change, the reason we care about COVID-19 is because of its presumed consequence for society. For, as with climate change, ‘tackling’ COVID requires us to consider not just the science, but the societal trade-offs and compromises that will need to be made as we take the science into account. As Sumption has written, ‘scientists can help us assess the clinical consequences of different ways to contain the coronavirus. But they are no more qualified than the rest of us to say whether they are worth turning our world upside down and inflicting serious long-term damage. All of us have a responsibility to maintain a sense of proportion.’ 3J. Sumption, ‘Coronavirus Lockdown: We Are So Afraid of Death, No One Even Asks Whether This “Cure” Is Actually Worse’, The Times (2020), www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-lockdown-we-are-so-afraid-of-death-no-one-even-asks-whether-this-cure-is-actually-worse-3t97k66vj.
Throughout the pandemic, we have needed to consider which epidemiological model to adopt. But once this has been done, two more things have always been necessary. First, we needed to decide on a policy for responding to the disease: to let it run its course; to engage in ‘focused isolation’ of the most vulnerable people—namely the old, the infirm, and especially the old who are infirm; or to ‘lockdown’ entire populations regardless of their vulnerability to the disease. Once we chose a policy—and overwhelmingly governments chose blanket lockdowns, following the precedent set by China, the disease’s country of origin and an authoritarian dictatorship—we then faced a second question: how to strike the right balance between a concern for public health in a very narrow area, and a concern for every other element and aspect of society. As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has noted, there were important ethical questions to be considered, not least about ‘how we balance different interests (e.g. individual and collective; economic and social) and different risks (e.g. of COVID infection, and of poor health associated with poverty and isolation)’. 4Archard et al., ‘Statement: COVID-19 and the Basics of Democratic Governance’.
These considerations included, of course, our concern about other pathologies, be they biological, psychological, or social. It is clear that, in closing doctor’s offices, delaying cancer screenings, and foregoing regular check-ups of all types, many other diseases have gone undiagnosed; and that in locking down and isolating people, we have seen an explosion in domestic violence, alcoholism, depression, and self-harm. 5BBC, ‘Leeds & West Yorkshire Covid Lockdown: Children as Young as Eight Self-harming, Doctor Says’, BBC News (2021), www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leeds-56417014. And this is before we come to the trade-off between lives and livelihoods, which will be addressed below.
All these questions, the weighing up of trade-offs, are simply not questions science can answer, because they are fundamentally reflexive, philosophical, and cultural in nature—about who we are and what we value, about our priorities and our subjective views of what is, and what is not, an acceptable risk. In short, we realize there is more to these problems than simply the ‘objective’ facts of science. Questions of value are subjective, and demand political debate, not a polite consensus. Science can serve politics and subjective values, but it cannot dictate or reveal what that politics and those values should be.
Over the last few decades, we have seen the steady encroachment of this ‘scientism’ into the culture of the West. Again, this scientism is the presumption that science is not just a method or a tool, but a philosophy and an ethics in and of itself. In this crisis, we have seen the cost of the fallacy whereby we view science not just as a tool for a particular use, but a guide to more total—and totalizing—truth. Above all else, this crisis—and its emerging aftermath—has revealed the need to rejuvenate our faith in philosophy: the importance of keeping an eye on context, on the bigger picture, on the whole subjective, qualitative organism of society, rather than simply its more objective, mechanical, and quantitatively legible parts.
We constantly hear the lament that people and politicians are ‘ignorant’ of the science. For the most part, this is true. But it is hardly more surprising than that most people are ignorant of most areas of law, and hardly more problematic. Science and law are specialized areas of knowledge, and in their devilish detail, rather dry. Why would—or should—people keep up with it all? How, indeed, could they? What seems much more consequential than ignorance of scientific facts—for everyone is ignorant to some extent; the last true polymath probably lived in the eighteenth century—is having far too much reverence for science, in the sense of assuming it is monolithic, and alone able to guide us in crises of the sort we have lived through since 2020.
In time, we will perhaps look back at the pandemic as a time when we realized—the hard way, and perhaps too late—that there is a difference between a society that is served by a science that is cautious, plural, and which knows its place as a tool that serves a useful part in service of a broader societal whole, and being in the thrall of technocratic scientism—convinced, monolithic, and myopic in its hubris.
- Our Relationship to Government
Of course, the encroachment of scientism upon our lives is only a problem because it best describes the attitude and epistemological aspect that almost all governments have adopted during the pandemic. Thus, we have repeatedly seen governments declare that in their decisions and actions they have ‘followed the science’. 6T. Sasse, C. Haddon, and A. Nice, ‘Science Advice in a Crisis’, Institute for Government (2020), www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/science-advice-crisis_0.pdf.
This ubiquitous claim had the effect of simultaneously de-philosophizing and de-politicizing the policy-making process, which—in the final analysis—has the effect of dehumanizing it, too. This political manoeuvre, which acts to remove politics from the decision-making process, has had the (surely intentional) effect of disguising the fact that the decision to put whole populations under virtual house arrest, rather than enact targeted and well-funded isolation for the vulnerable, was not a scientific one at all, but an inherently political one. It is a manoeuvre that reeks of the cynical politics of minimizing electoral risk at the ballot box, at—quite literally—all costs. And it is simultaneously a politics which has not only constituted the least electoral risk to political parties in power, or seeking power, but also wildly increased what governments are able—and indeed, now expected—to do. In locking us all down, they have set a dangerous precedent for the state intervening in all our lives. The ‘justification’ has been that we are in a state of ‘crisis’. This was the same reasoning that inspired the Patriot Act after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in the United States in 2001, an act which encroached on civil liberties and expanded surveillance of private individuals. 7ACLU, ‘Surveillance under the Patriot Act’, American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org/issues/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance/surveillance-under-patriot-act, accessed 4 March 2022. And it is the same reasoning we see in the calls for government action on the ‘climate crisis’, intervening in, and imposing laws upon, ordinary people’s lives.
But even compared to these, lockdowns have been extreme. In fact, there seems to be little widespread awareness of just how unprecedented this policy of house arrest has been—and house arrest is what so-called lockdowns really are. As Lord Sumption has written, ‘during the COVID-19 pandemic, the British state has exercised coercive powers over its citizens on a scale never previously attempted […] it is the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of [the] country’. 8J. Sumption, ‘“This Is How Freedom Dies”: The Folly of Britain’s Coercive Covid Strategy’, The Spectator (2020), www.spectator.co.uk/article/-this-is-how-freedom-dies-the-folly-of-britain-s-coercive-covid-strategy.
Indeed, ‘Lockdown’ was, in the UK at least, initially rolled out not by law, but by decree, before any law was passed. 9Sumption, ‘“This Is How Freedom Dies”’. Some police forces declared they would enforce government advice before it was even made law. Furthermore, when laws were made, in their restrictions on liberty they were unprecedented in British history, with police being granted extraordinary discretionary powers to enforce lockdown regulations. In the words of Sumption, ‘even in wartime, [the British government has] never confined the entire population to their homes, 24/7, if they did not have some excuse acceptable to a minister’.10 J. Sumption, ‘Locking up the Elderly until Coronavirus Is Defeated Is a Cruel Mockery of Basic Human Values’, The Daily Mail (2020), www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8281007/Former-Supreme-Court-judge-LORD-SUMPTION-gives-withering-critique-Governments-lockdown.html. Even Parliament seemed rather indifferent to this. On 11 October 2021, two committees of the UK House of Commons—the Health and Social Care and Science & Technology Committees—released a report entitled Coronavirus: Lessons Learned to Date. According to the commentator Noah Carl, ‘the report takes for granted that lockdown was the right policy, and in fact argues that Britain should have locked down earlier in March of 2020’. It further made ‘no attempt to evaluate the scientific evidence on lockdown efficacy’, gave ‘no consideration to focused protection as an alternative strategy’, and showed ‘no interest in weighing up the total costs and benefits of lockdown’. According to Carl, the following words did not appear in the report at all: ‘cost benefit analysis, collateral damage, civil liberties, focused protection’. 11N. Carl, ‘A Response to the House of Commons’ Pro-Lockdown Report’, Noah’s Newsletter, Substack (2021), https://noahcarl.substack.com/p/a-response-to-the-house-of-commons.
This, therefore, is the second revelation of the pandemic: how easy it is for even the most stable and democratic governments to move away from the rule of law, and of just how little resistance, or even discomfort, this will raise in the general population if those intrusions are given some veneer of justification. For those of us still who believe in the ‘liberal’ part of being in a ‘liberal democracy’, it is a concerning development.
- Our Relationship to ‘The Economy’
When we talk of ‘lockdowns’, there are of course two things at issue: the reason for ‘locking down’—to protect us from COVID—and the externalities of lockdowns or the effect on the normal rhythm of life. This rhythm can be expressed and framed in numerous ways, many of which will be touched on later. However, perhaps the most obvious and easily measured theme by which we can do this is by examining what we term ‘the economy’. Throughout the pandemic, in arguments for locking down, there has often been a rather naive contempt for, or taking for granted of, ‘the economy’, attitudes that betray a staggering misunderstanding of precisely what is meant when we talk about ‘the economy’.
In the pandemic, we have often, heard variations on the idea that ‘life matters more than the economy’. 12M. Gak, ‘Opinion: Economy vs. Human Life Is Not a Moral Dilemma’, Deutsche Welle (2020), www.dw.com/en/opinion-economy-vs-human-life-is-not-a-moral-dilemma/a-52942552. But this phrase implies that we have forgotten what exactly ‘the economy’ refers to. ‘The economy’ is not some luxury, or affectation, or indulgence of the rich. ‘The economy’ is simply the name we give the quantitative abstraction of people’s lives. It is a phrase that—rather crudely—tries to approximate, mechanically theorize, and quantitatively value a ‘part’ of something that is, in truth, organic, whole, and qualitative: the experience of life itself. We all must eat, and sleep, and shelter. We work collectively to do this. Part of this collective effort is what we term ‘the economy’. Economy has another name: livelihoods. To juxtapose lives and economy does not sound nearly as absurd as lives versus livelihoods. The debate is not between the forces of morality and venality. It is between different, and equally important and valid, understandings of what the grounds for moral action are.
Perhaps the problem is that when we think of ‘the economy’, many are actually thinking of ‘finance’, and remember the venality that led to the banking crisis of 2008. All finance may be reducible to the economy, but of course not all of the economy is reducible to finance. As with so much in our fevered political culture in recent years, in the wake of this crisis, we might all do well to reflect on our rhetoric. In this case, the mantra of ‘lives over the economy’—i.e. the paradoxical dismissal of livelihoods in the effort to ensure no life is dismissed—is itself a great source of danger. It is a rhetoric that has led to a deafening silence on whether livelihoods are, in fact, something we can dismiss, or take for granted.
- Our Relationship to the Media
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen a misperception of science and scientists as omniscient guides to how we ought to live; a cynical use of this narrative by governments; and a warped sense of what we mean by ‘the economy’. Behind and indeed woven through all this has been a fundamentally flawed, or at least skewed, frame of reference: a belief that we are ‘all seriously threatened by the disease’, 13G. D. Smith, and D. Spiegelhalter, ‘Shielding from Covid-19 Should Be Stratified by Risk’, The British Medical Journal (2020), www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2063. which has led—again, in the words of Noah Carl—to ‘levels of personal fear being strikingly mismatched to objective risk of death’. As he provocatively writes, ‘people overestimating the risks of COVID is [a] much bigger problem than people assuming it’s “just the flu”’. 14Carl, ‘A Response to the House of Commons’ Pro-Lockdown Report’. The vector for this fear has, of course, been the mainstream media, which has, arguably, engaged with the science as if it were both monolithic and a guide to action, and, further, failed to rigorously and dispassionately scrutinize government policy, question the mantra that lives matter more than the economy, or point out when the government has moved the goal posts in perpetuating lockdown policies.
Examples of when governments have moved the goal posts are quite easy to find. In the UK, the original and stated purpose of lockdown, when it was announced on 23 March 2020, was to ‘push down the curve’, in order to allow time for hospitals to raise their preparedness so that they would be ‘able to cope with peak hospitalizations’, 15Sumption, ‘“This Is How Freedom Dies”’. and/or to spread the impact on hospitals. In either case, the goal of lockdown, at a time when no one knew when if ever a vaccine might become available, was not to protect people from ever contracting COVID. Rather, it was to ensure there would be sufficient time to build up the infrastructure to ensure hospitals were not overwhelmed, and that the demand for ventilators never outstripped supply.
Yet, even when these goals were met, society remained fearful of any later surge. Some countries went further, adopting the goal of ‘zero COVID’—a peculiar ambition given that the pandemic is global in a densely connected world, with the implication that once borders reopened the disease would inevitably spread, as it repeatedly has. We have seen little real scrutiny, or even questioning, of these sorts of decisions, and the media has been particularly poor at pointing out when the goal posts have been quietly moved.
These are only the things that the mainstream media has not done. Yet there are also dispiriting things it has actively been doing. Chief among these is driving the politicization of the debate on the proportionality of lockdowns. One would think that discussing the proportionality of lockdowns would be an apolitical activity—that everyone has an interest in a dispassionate, good-faith debate. And yet, and as with the climate debate and its so-called ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’, the COVID debate has similarly divided into two caricatured ‘camps’. Indeed, as soon as the politically polarizing figure of President Trump expressed doubt about the proportionality of lockdowns, anyone ‘anti-lockdown’ was instantly tarred as a Trumpist. It then became nearly impossible to find, let alone explore, nuance in the debate.
All this was drearily predictable—reflecting the polarization that is so typical of our politics in the social media age. We see this polarization everywhere, of course. And while polarization is not new, what is new is the form it takes as we sink deeper into our social media echo-chambers. Where once, in a pre-digital age, we typically had to reconcile our different perspectives with the same facts, now, with social media siloing people into entirely separate ‘epistemic communities’ with their differing sources of information, we each believe we have our own facts, rather than opinions upon the facts. Logically, we therefore believe the ‘other’ camp is made up not simply of people with different subjective perspectives, but of people who are objectively wrong. By extension, we assume they must either be liars, or manipulated by liars.
In all these ways, the pandemic has confirmed how problematic our relationship to the media landscape is. We knew this before, of course. But in the pandemic, we have seen the true cost of this, as the corporate media has endorsed and encouraged actions which have immolated economies, eroded accountability in government, and furthered the sense that scientists are a form of secular priesthood. Where priests were once seen as having exclusive access to the mind of God, these new priests robed in white coats are held to have a privileged access to not just the facts, but to the truth—the values and culture we ought to hold in light of the facts. Far from pushing back against these worrying cultural trends, the major media outlets appear to have embraced and accelerated them.
- Our Relationship to the Past
The pandemic has revealed how our relationship to science, government, the economy, and the media is far less edifying, and far more problematic, than we might previously have presumed. This, however, is not all the pandemic has revealed. There have also been the startling disjunctures and disruptions in how we relate to our general collective culture itself, and the people who have, do, and will embody and live that culture.
When we talk of the nature of the pandemic, the discussion has mainly been to do with the objective statistical risk presented by the disease itself. This is useful, but it belies the importance of another factor in determining the policies governments have adopted: our culturally relative attitudes to risk, and our subjective views of what constitutes an acceptable level of risk. It is worth asking: in our culture, are we perhaps a historical exception in our attitudes towards death, and risk, and loss? Perhaps we might consider whether, in attempting to preserve the belief—unique to the late twentieth and early twenty-first century—that with the help of science and rationalism we can control our individual fates, we risk sealing our collective one as an aspirational society? What cost—tangible or intangible—is in the end acceptable, to avoid being confronted by our limits as a society, and as moral actors?
Central to this debate is the status of death in our culture. And central to understanding that status is an understanding of how it has changed, and how historically exceptional our current zero-tolerance for mass mortality in fact is. As Sumption has written, ‘however valuable “saving lives” may be, it is not the only valuable thing […] there is more to life than the avoidance of death’. 16Sumption, ‘Locking up the Elderly’. Faced with poverty, war, violent crime, the circle of life and disease, mortality was a constant concern and preoccupation in the lives of even the wealthiest people, until the early twentieth century. Before sanitation and welfare; before volunteer armies, long distance ballistics, and drones; before Peel’s police; before antibiotics, Fleming, and modern midwifery; before epidemiology and microbiology, death was a spectre haunting the lives of everyone. It was in part the very basis of religious faith itself—being the best defence most people could muster against the vicissitudes of fortune, and the ultimate misfortune. It is no coincidence that, historically, faith contracts as control over our fate dilates.
Today, our predominantly secular public culture reflects the general belief that we have replaced fate with fact, and a general sense that death has become less a matter of theology, more a matter of technocracy. Whereas in the past the stories told were of miraculous survival against the odds, today the stories we tell are of death against the odds. Where once the exception to be explained away was survival, today the exception to be accounted for is death. Why did it happen? What mistake was made? Who is responsible? In our technocratic, risk-averse culture, we have so systematically inoculated ourselves against risk, that death—on the road, in the air, at the front, while at work, or in the ward—has become a morbid curiosity demanding explanation, that we may identify the error in the cultural code to be corrected, so that the death in question is never replicated.
But this attitude to death is the historical exception, not the rule, and in this current crisis, it is crucial that we realize our attitudes to it are shaped by the exceptional period we have just lived through, since the end of the Second World War. Near the beginning of the pandemic, the sixty-five year old Maria Shriver—Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ex-wife—said that her generation had ‘seen a lot’ in their lifetimes. This is true only to a point. The baby boomer generation—those most at risk from this pandemic—have, as a cohort, certainly seen the most of any generation in human history, given their lifelong freedom to travel, access to telecommunications, and longevity. But have they actually experienced the most? Have they experienced pandemics, wars, cataclysms on par with those that blighted the lives of their ancestors? Clearly not. Their attitude to risk has been frozen by fortune, not forged in fire. This idealist frame of reference could have cataclysmic consequences in the current crisis.
The pathologizing of death and sanctifying of life above all else in our culture—a culture which glorifies youth over experience, the individual over the collective, longevity over meaning—has led to a deafening silence on the question of whether we should, in fact, be seeking to mitigate the virus at all costs. The focus, as a result, has been on how to do this: as noted, governments claim to be ‘science-led’ in their efforts, a claim that implies there is no discussion of values to be had. But ultimately this is a question of values and philosophy, not science. What we have learnt through this crisis is that many of the most exceptional values of our age—individualism, the rule of the market, the globalization of everything, not least supply chains—are in fact exceptional in a much more prosaic sense: they are revealed to be fair-weather ideas. They are interesting ideas for easy times. But in interesting times, they sit uneasily.
Perhaps most uneasy of all is our collective attitude and orthodoxy toward risk. For decades, there has been the gradual and inexorable—some would say viral—spread of risk-aversion across the culture. Sector by sector, year by year, the lawyers have shaken their heads, and drawn—in red ink—the circle of acceptability more tightly. In an attempt to limit the quantity of risk, we have seen a great sacrifice in quality of experience. As the paperwork has grown, and as the concept of liability entered into the calculus of all we do, we have seen the dwindling of everything from the school field trip, to what is acceptable speech; from the time police, teachers, and doctors can dedicate to their primary duties, to the number of people who can afford to set up new businesses, still less make a success of them.
The current crisis likely marks the end to all of these trends, which have increasingly dominated human society for half a century. The emergence of the virus itself undermines the long-term practicality of global outsourcing and supply chains; the collective nature of our vulnerability and mitigation efforts in the face of the outbreak dissolves the figment of the bounded individual; the sudden necessity of the nation state reveals the market to be no panacea in a pandemic. And taken to its logical extreme, a culture of risk-aversion is itself revealed, paradoxically, to be one of the greatest risks we face, with its potential costs being systemic and devastating for both the society and economy, both globally, and in the long-term.
And yet, this culture of risk-aversion is what we are living in, and it seems to be as determinative of our actions as the nature of the disease itself. We often hear the term ‘zero COVID’, which has echoes of ‘net zero carbon’ in admonitions around climate change. But another way to see both these stated goals is that they are really expressing an interest in ‘zero risk’—an absurd idea once stated so plainly. This culture of risk aversion—the pathologization of the existence of any risk itself—has become so normalized that we hardly realize how strange it is in fact. But that culture is there, and as the pandemic has revealed, it is not without unintended consequence in a crisis. Paradoxically, the growing belief that the presence of any risk is pathological may prove the most lasting and consequential disease for the health of the body politic.
- Our Relationship to the Future
While revealing we have lost perspective on the past, the pandemic has also revealed that we are losing perspective on the future. Specifically, we are losing perspective on our obligations to future generations. We fail to see that, in sporadically shuttering the entire economy for indefinite periods, and closing all schools, and suspending virtually all of life as we know it, we might, in the long term, do more harm than good.
It may indirectly and in the long-term be killing more people than the virus, similar to how the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a spike in deaths from suicide and stress-induced alcoholism. 17M. G. Field, ‘The Health Crisis in the Former Soviet Union: A Report from the “Post-War” Zone’, Soc Sci Med, 41/11 (1995), 1469–1478, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8607037/. It has almost certainly destroyed much of our collective culture and economy—and doing vast qualitative and permanent damage to the socio-economic fabric of society. 18D. Harari, and M. Keep, ‘Coronavirus: Economic Impact’, House of Commons Library (2021), https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8866/. It is important to remember that the words ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are themselves simply short-hand terms for describing the rich soil of traditions and norms that we have sedimented over decades, centuries, and even millennia of time. It is from this soil that new traditions and norms can naturally grow.
Like trust—which it is essentially a manifestation of—culture takes all of history to build, but it can be lost almost in an instant. In the cause of protecting a minority of a retired generation, who, in the West at least, are already the healthiest and longest-lived of any in human history, we have risked retiring the very concept of retirement as a norm and expectation for future generations of the majority. The very idea of state-backed pensions is a relatively recent invention—from the late nineteenth century. Already straining state finances as populations age, the policies adopted during the pandemic—which in 2020 alone increased global government debt 13 per cent to a record 97 per cent of GDP 19M. A. Kose, F. Ohnsorge, and N. Sugawara, ‘Navigating the Debt Legacy of the Pandemic’, Brookings Institute (2021), www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2021/10/20/navigating-the-debt-legacy-of-the-pandemic/#:~:text=The%20pandemic’s%20debt%20legacy&text=In%202020%2C%20global%20government%20debt,to%2063%20percent%20of%20GDP.—will have only brought forward the day when the system may be declared unsustainable.20 OECD, ‘COVID-19 Crisis Adds Pressure to Private and Public Pensions Systems’, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2020), www.oecd.org/pensions/COVID-19-crisis-adds-pressure-to-private-and-public-pensions-systems.htm.
- Our Relationship to Each Other
Behind all these revelations about the true nature of our relationships to our institutions and the broader culture, there are more fundamental revelations—about how we relate to one another, as human beings. The overall narrative of the pandemic has been that lockdowns are justified because they are anchored in a principle of selflessness—of prioritizing the wellbeing of the society over ourselves. Yet, it seems arguable that, in fact, precisely the opposite is the case.
In times of war, societies send off their healthiest and youngest adults to fight, and to risk and often meet death. As a rule, and if the cause is a necessary one, we tend to accept and understand the need for sacrifices. We do so because we recognize that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, which is our very culture. We understand we are all but threads woven into a greater collective tapestry of meaning—what we call ‘our way of life’. Society, in a sense, is akin to the Ship of Theseus—our sense of collective identity may remain even as the people who animate and perform it throughout their lives come and go. In times of crisis, we understand that the societal whole is greater than the individual parts.
Yet, during the pandemic, we have constantly heard that the opposite is true: that there is nothing more important in life than the avoidance of death. We have been told that we must sacrifice our collective culture—our arts, our jobs, our economy, indeed everything qualitative and experiential that is part of life and living—in order to minimize individual deaths. Far from locking down being a selfless act for the greater good, it would seem equally arguable that locking down is a selfish act to the greater, collective detriment, particularly when there was the (cheaper) alternative of targeted protection for the groups who were vulnerable. 21N. Carl, ‘What Would a Focussed Protection Strategy Have Looked Like?’, Noah’s Newsletter, Substack (2021), https://noahcarl.substack.com/p/what-would-a-focussed-protection. From a scientistic (as distinct from scientific) perspective, lockdowns have perhaps been selfless. But from a humanist perspective—from a social rather than exclusively epidemiological perspective—it has arguably been the epitome of a selfish culture.
- Our Relationship to Ourselves
But in all these actions, what the pandemic has revealed most fundamentally is not only an impoverished, technocratically partial world view, but also a deeply shallow and fundamentally warped view of ourselves, and of our very nature as human beings. Specifically, the whole handling of the pandemic has revealed that we fail to understand two things that are most central to our lives as human beings. First, and as already noted, that living cannot simply be defined by negation—as the avoidance of death. Second, that to live is precisely to be embedded in a dynamic network of relationships. We are, as everyone from evolutionary biologists to psychologists has shown, the ultimate relational animal. It is no coincidence that solitary confinement is widely believed to be the harshest punishment short of full-fledged torture—because people who run prisons know that we are social animals, and it is a form of invisible torture to isolate someone. Indeed, the UN considers solitary confinement of more than fifteen days to be torture. 22A. Hart, and K. Cabrera, ‘Why Some Experts Call Solitary Confinement “Torture”’, Texas Standard (2020), www.texasstandard.org/stories/why-some-experts-call-solitary-confinement-torture/. Similarly, far from not understanding relationships, sociopaths understand them all too well—they know our need to trust people, to build connection, to see the best in others—and they exploit these tendencies.
Society—and ‘the economy’—are merely, again, short-hand abstractions for the networks of relationships that make up not just our activities, but our very sense of self. We gain the words we know, the thoughts we have, the accents we cannot lose, and the very feelings we experience, as a consequence of exposure to others.
There is an odd paradox of contemporary culture, which is that those who believe themselves to be the publicly ‘good’ people—that is, those trying to improve the world, be it through climate action advocacy, or advocating for lockdowns—seem to so often do so in a manner that specifically discounts the importance and centrality of relationships in our lives. And yet, those they disparage as ‘heartless’, because they question the orthodoxies around slogans like ‘zero COVID’ or ‘net zero’, often ask these questions precisely because they understand that such uncompromising policies risk rending the social fabric itself, tearing the very tapestry into which all our individual threads are woven.
It is worth noting that the flawed priorities of well-meaning people—of denying the centrality of relationships and the qualitative in our lives, and privileging the material and quantitative—is evident in almost all areas of contemporary society. It is, of course, particularly evident in the admonitions of big business, and transnational corporations in general. For years, we have seen our elites—in the North American model of capitalism—measure value in purely quantitative terms, with little to no regard for the place or role of business in the community. For decades we have seen elites espouse the virtues of a rational order—of moving businesses overseas to save money, and damn the social consequences of eviscerating communities of their livelihoods. It is not personal, they will say, it is business. We must be rational. And by the way, this may not feel just today, but it will be in the long term, they say. The market will correct. The market will be a rising tide, and this will lift all boats … in time. For the destitute communities in the provinces of England, or in the ‘flyover’ states of the USA, it is not clear that time ever has or ever will come, as opioids take hold in the vacuum of meaning, purpose, and dignity in the wake of lost industries. 23C. Graham, ‘Understanding the Role of Despair in America’s Opioid Crisis’, Brookings Institute (2019), www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/how-can-policy-address-the-opioid-crisis-and-despair-in-america/.
The pandemic has simply revealed the full scale of this misanthropy, this view that everything qualitative and particular in our lives—our traditions, our routines, our relationships, our sense of normality, our loves, and our capacity to cope with loss itself—is discountable, and of less importance than removing all risk from life itself. This imperative implies a dystopian understanding of human existence, for it sees our lives as a negation: lengths of time in the future, in the service of which all risk must be ironed out, rather than breadths of experience in the present, which necessarily must involve positively stepping into the unknown. Even though we can see so many other distortions that have been revealed through the pandemic, it is this that seems to me most alarming, and most personal. Indeed, it is precisely because it is so personal that it is so alarming.
There are interesting, eerie, and arguably very revealing parallels between the pattern of public concern around COVID and the public concern around climate change.
Both are conceived as existential threats that require us to completely upend our societies or risk mass mortality.
Both are issues where high grade science has metastasized into high street scientism—where we have begun to believe that science can be a guide to our values.
Both have seen governments claim more moral authority in efforts to control and dictate our lives.
Both are ideas that take ‘the economy’ for granted, assuming it is something in and of itself, both inhumane and cold, and separate from our actual lives, rather than simply an abstraction for describing elements of those lives, for institutions.
Both have seen the debate in the public domain politically polarize, a polarization that is at once evident in, and driven by, the media landscape, which is increasingly a vector for governing orthodoxies, rather than a tool by which we may challenge them.
Both ignore the lessons and culture of the past, and fail to critically assess our current phobias and moral panics through a comparative historical perspective.
Both topics are discussed in light of a stated and presumed empathy for future generations, even while the policies enacted will do more to harm the prospects of future generations than the issues themselves.
While both lockdown policies and calls for climate adaptation and mitigation policies are made in the name of considering the interests of the collective, both are actually—or at least arguably—quite selfish.
Both betray a view of life that does not value the living of it, free from abstractions and generalities and technocratic oversight and interventions on our lives.
Both entail a view of us as things, not people, and discount the intrinsic value and necessary role of non-quantifiable, subjective, cultural, and traditional activities in our lives.
It is perhaps no coincidence that we have seen two so similarly structured phenomena overwhelm and re-orient the general culture in a few short years—an era that we might call the social media age. Indeed, we seem to have now entered an age where the new hysterias and irrationalisms are not dissolved by science, but are rather fuelled by a blind faith that science holds all the answers. In fact, we might even argue that Scientism is the new faith. And it is Old Testament stuff—fire, brimstone, plagues, and judgement.
In the bowels of this new faith, something important has been forgotten: science is a tool for use, not an answer to what is true in the general sense of how we ought to live. We need to use it wisely. If we do not, we risk using science—our greatest achievement—as a justification for our manias, at the cost of the thing that is most hard-won but so often taken for granted: the rhythm of our normality.
In the sad wake of this crisis, we ought to continue to respect science. But we must cease to act with the breathless deference and scientific reductiveness that has been the growing trend over the last few decades, a trend whose cost has been revealed in this pandemic. All these trends, of course, foreran the pandemic, and have simply had their cost thrown into sharp relief by it, in that they are exacerbating the disastrous consequences of a natural hazard. This apocalyptic revelation is, perhaps, something that can be leveraged to stimulate broader reflection on the philosophical norms of our prevailing culture, with a view to changing them. Not doing so would be the real source of the apocalypse we ought, in liberal democracies, to fear.
In the current crisis, it does certainly seem we are seeing the revelation—not least through its consequences—of much that had previously been concealed, albeit sometimes in plain sight. This is hardly unprecedented. It often takes a crisis to help us realize which of our ideas and orthodoxies are in fact fair weather ones, and unfit for the purpose of aiding us, as a society, when we face up to—and try to face down—our collective problems and challenges.
So what is the solution, if we are to inoculate ourselves as a society against the excesses of scientism, and if we are to make sure that we do not react to sudden crises in ways that, far from solving our problems, create greater ones? It would seem to me that the most useful thing we might do, going forward, is to educate ourselves to think more rigorously in the face of ideological contagions, or narrow and reductive thinking, or the presumption—most of all—that science is not just a tool to be used in the service of our values, but can instead be a guide to what our values should be. If the apocalyptic revelations of the pandemic can lead to this, we might avert some future self-inflicted cataclysms after all.
- 1D. Archard et al., ‘Statement: COVID-19 and the Basics of Democratic Governance’, Nuffield Council of Bioethics (2020), www.nuffieldbioethics.org/news/statement-COVID-19-and-the-basics-of-democratic-governance.
- 2C. Powell, ‘Relativity versus Quantum Mechanics: The Battle for the Universe’, The Guardian (2015), www.theguardian.com/news/2015/nov/04/relativity-quantum-mechanics-universe-physicists.
- 3J. Sumption, ‘Coronavirus Lockdown: We Are So Afraid of Death, No One Even Asks Whether This “Cure” Is Actually Worse’, The Times (2020), www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-lockdown-we-are-so-afraid-of-death-no-one-even-asks-whether-this-cure-is-actually-worse-3t97k66vj.
- 4Archard et al., ‘Statement: COVID-19 and the Basics of Democratic Governance’.
- 5BBC, ‘Leeds & West Yorkshire Covid Lockdown: Children as Young as Eight Self-harming, Doctor Says’, BBC News (2021), www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leeds-56417014.
- 6T. Sasse, C. Haddon, and A. Nice, ‘Science Advice in a Crisis’, Institute for Government (2020), www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/science-advice-crisis_0.pdf.
- 7ACLU, ‘Surveillance under the Patriot Act’, American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org/issues/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance/surveillance-under-patriot-act, accessed 4 March 2022.
- 8J. Sumption, ‘“This Is How Freedom Dies”: The Folly of Britain’s Coercive Covid Strategy’, The Spectator (2020), www.spectator.co.uk/article/-this-is-how-freedom-dies-the-folly-of-britain-s-coercive-covid-strategy.
- 9Sumption, ‘“This Is How Freedom Dies”’.
- 10J. Sumption, ‘Locking up the Elderly until Coronavirus Is Defeated Is a Cruel Mockery of Basic Human Values’, The Daily Mail (2020), www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8281007/Former-Supreme-Court-judge-LORD-SUMPTION-gives-withering-critique-Governments-lockdown.html
- 11N. Carl, ‘A Response to the House of Commons’ Pro-Lockdown Report’, Noah’s Newsletter, Substack (2021), https://noahcarl.substack.com/p/a-response-to-the-house-of-commons.
- 12M. Gak, ‘Opinion: Economy vs. Human Life Is Not a Moral Dilemma’, Deutsche Welle (2020), www.dw.com/en/opinion-economy-vs-human-life-is-not-a-moral-dilemma/a-52942552.
- 13G. D. Smith, and D. Spiegelhalter, ‘Shielding from Covid-19 Should Be Stratified by Risk’, The British Medical Journal (2020), www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2063.
- 14Carl, ‘A Response to the House of Commons’ Pro-Lockdown Report’.
- 15Sumption, ‘“This Is How Freedom Dies”’.
- 16Sumption, ‘Locking up the Elderly’.
- 17M. G. Field, ‘The Health Crisis in the Former Soviet Union: A Report from the “Post-War” Zone’, Soc Sci Med, 41/11 (1995), 1469–1478, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8607037/.
- 18D. Harari, and M. Keep, ‘Coronavirus: Economic Impact’, House of Commons Library (2021), https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8866/.
- 19M. A. Kose, F. Ohnsorge, and N. Sugawara, ‘Navigating the Debt Legacy of the Pandemic’, Brookings Institute (2021), www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2021/10/20/navigating-the-debt-legacy-of-the-pandemic/#:~:text=The%20pandemic’s%20debt%20legacy&text=In%202020%2C%20global%20government%20debt,to%2063%20percent%20of%20GDP
- 20OECD, ‘COVID-19 Crisis Adds Pressure to Private and Public Pensions Systems’, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2020), www.oecd.org/pensions/COVID-19-crisis-adds-pressure-to-private-and-public-pensions-systems.htm.
- 21N. Carl, ‘What Would a Focussed Protection Strategy Have Looked Like?’, Noah’s Newsletter, Substack (2021), https://noahcarl.substack.com/p/what-would-a-focussed-protection.
- 22A. Hart, and K. Cabrera, ‘Why Some Experts Call Solitary Confinement “Torture”’, Texas Standard (2020), www.texasstandard.org/stories/why-some-experts-call-solitary-confinement-torture/.
- 23C. Graham, ‘Understanding the Role of Despair in America’s Opioid Crisis’, Brookings Institute (2019), www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/how-can-policy-address-the-opioid-crisis-and-despair-in-america/.