Offline: Thinking the pandemic

The talk is now about data, not dates. But this pandemic has always been driven by facts. A rapid accumulation of evidence about the virus and the disease it causes. Layer upon layer of new information, repeatedly revising and reformulating our understanding. A steady stream of numbers, rates, and risks. Scientists and statisticians catapulted into the media to explain, expound, and explicate. Facts should indeed illuminate interpretations, guide responses, and optimise outcomes. But an emergencysuchasCOVID-19demandsmore—moments to think about what this pandemic means for us, to ask questions about its deeper impacts on our lives, and to reflect on its consequences for our future. Philosophers, not scientists, might be of more use to us if we are seeking informed contemplation. And a few are now thinking the pandemic.

Slavoj Žižek was one of the first philosophers to write about COVID-19. In Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World, he offered some provisional predictions. The pandemic would not make us any wiser. There would be no return to normal. It would be a mistake to search for a deeper meaning to COVID-19 (“it just happened”). Žižek wondered if physical distancing might “strengthen the intensity of our link with others”. A philosopher’s way of saying that absence might make the heart grow fonder. He was sadly wrong to suggest that the pandemic would precipitate the birth of a new global solidarity “based on trust in the people and in science”. On the contrary, COVID-19 has sharpened rivalries, weakened alliances, and intensified nationalisms. But Žižek was correct to suggest that “even horrible events can have unpredictable positive consequences”. The story of COVID-19 vaccines is one example. He now has a new book of reflections about the events of the past year—Pandemic! 2 Chronicles of a Time Lost. Several themes deserve discussion outside the philosophy classroom. First, the real nature of this emergency is, according to Žižek, a “crucial ideological and political battle” across three domains—the pandemic, an ecological crisis, and racism. “One should insist on the basic unity of the three domains”, he argues. This complexity is important for understanding the origins of the present crisis. There is no single cause that can entirely explain it. Our present predicaments arise “from the collaborative functioning of a system, but do not belong to any one part of that system”. Second, the pandemic arrived at a particular economic moment. He emphasises the “absurd capitalist crisis” that has ensued. Class matters here. The pandemic propelled into visibility what was already slowly becoming apparent— a new class of economically marginalised migrant workers, a “geo-social class”, which governments seemed to consider as surplus to existence. Žižek predicts that “new forms of class struggle will erupt”. He also believes that democracy under various forms of lockdown has been “de facto abolished” because the shared space of our communication and interaction is now under private control.

Žižek’s third theme concerns us as human beings: “we in the west less and less accept death as part of life”. And “we seem to be ready to sacrifice everything for bare life”. That determination to save lives at all cost seems to be diminishing. But the extent to which we will choose death over “bare life” remains uncertain. Fourth, he asks questions about the interface between science and politics. Scientists must take care not to overreach—“the claims of science should be limited so as not to pose a threat to human freedom and dignity”. He reminds us that science is itself divided about the correct approach to the pandemic. His examples are the USA and Sweden, whose authorities “decided to sacrifice thousands of lives to COVID-19, especially those of the old and ill, to maintain the economy and the appearance of normal life”. Finally, he looks ahead to future challenges. He is right to point out the “genuine conflict of global visions about society”. But I am less confident that “It will be a much more modest world.” And I very much doubt COVID-19 will prove to be “a catastrophe that will compel us to find a new beginning”. But whether Žižek is right or wrong is immaterial. What matters is that he is asking questions that should be central to our public discussion about the pandemic and our post-pandemic future. Yet they are not.

Richard Horton
richard.horton@lancet.com