Democracy Virus Tragedy

It has always been obvious that Covid-19 would impact people differently, straddling and then widening already existing divisions and inequalities. In the beginning of the lockdowns, when I wrote the previous posts, a mood of disbelief and confusion dominated. Now, several months into one of the most remarkably uniform radical policies in living memory, I am far from at peace. Clapping in the evenings and cooking have not filled in for the radical curtailment of democratic norms.

As commentators have pointed out repeatedly, this is not the first time that human societies have been faced with a viral threat. It is, however, the first time that many different kinds of societies have responded to the threat with states of emergency in the name of public health. This is unprecedented, and it is worth thinking about why, from China to Italy and France, nations of different histories and political traditions have nonetheless more or less agreed on extraordinary measures. 

The most tempting – because easiest – answer is to blame the virus itself. Under this account, many societies have acted aggressively because the disease the virus causes is so deadly that there are no other options. In other words, it is the virus that forces governments to act in a particular kind of way. 

There are many reasons to be suspicious of this kind of answer. For starters, it is incredibly common when it comes to environmental harms and their distribution. So-called natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, heat waves) are said to be responsible for killing and maiming communities, not irresponsible government policies. As Bruno Latour has shown in much more sophisticated fashion, appealing to nature as an arbiter of behaviour (‘I must do this because something in nature forces me to’) is a sure sign of a politics of imposed silence. Appeals to nature function to silence debate and to, indeed, naturalize political courses of action. 

In the case of the coronavirus, this is exactly what has happened. The argument that it is because of the virus itself that governments have invoked powers usually reserved for wartime situations functions to sidestep the necessity for democratic debate on the measures to be taken. It is remarkable just how little democratic oversight putatively democratic societies have demanded. And part of the reason for this lack of debate is that governments themselves, and most respectable media as well, have framed the situation in such a way that it becomes impossible to disagree with strict lockdowns without appearing heartless or careless. The virus made us do it!

So, if it is not the virus, by its own power, that comes with a lockdown included, then what explains the unprecedented measures we are living under? It must be politics, of course, and it is there that the current pandemic exposes not only class divisions, but the particularly contorted paths that class interests take. 

First of all, the lockdowns in place in much of the world are not universally applicable to all citizens. No government has acted to spare so-called essential workers from the risks of infection in the same way that they have acted to spare better off citizens. In Belgium, my home for the past 10+ years, white collar workers are safe at home while the country keeps running because of the labor of maintenance crews, cleaners, domestic workers, nurses, drivers, delivery personnel, agricultural workers, cashiers, factory workers, small shop owners, and warehouse workers, to name but a few. The framing of these people as the ‘heroes’ of the moment is condescending, seeing that most of them cannot afford to act in any other way (Amazon even sent out e-mails waxing lyrical about the abnegation shown by their ‘associates’…).

Second, it is curious that the language of emergency and crisis has, in the case of Covid-19, been so effective. Just last year, in Europe, many different levels of government (the local government of my neighborhood included) declared a state of ‘climate emergency’. The effect of this measure has been exactly zero. No police workers were deployed to fine drivers for unnecessary use of a fossil-fuel burning contraption. Nobody was asked to work from home in order to reduce different kinds of environmental impacts. Airline fuel was not taxed. And yet, this time around, and often in the same places that are also under a supposed climate emergency, the full power of the state has been deployed, with virtually no democratic consultation whatsoever. 

The idea that the novel coronavirus is so deadly as to obviously necessitate a hard lockdown is not borne out by the facts, nor by the thankfully diverse response within Europe. If we just focus on deaths from the virus, then indeed there are particular regions that, for reasons still to be understood, have been hit particularly hard. But the lockdowns have been national, deploying a blunt tool bluntly, without making any distinction between Milan and Palermo, though from the point of view of Covid-19 mortality they might as well be in different countries. Germany, for example, has taken a much more regionalized approach, commensurate with the actual situation on the ground and its inherent variability. In Asia, democracies that have had previous experience with viral threats have also managed to protect lives with reasonable and finer tools. 

The bluntness inherent in the French and Italian responses, for example, suggests a general incompetence of the ruling classes. Faced with something that they were not prepared for, they reached for the easiest, most direct, and most enforceable form of lockdown. Instead of following a reasonable plan that would adapt to changing situations, many European governments have re-acted. In so doing, they have also gone against democratic norms of consultation and have instituted legal regimes that have, at best, very shaky legal bases. 

The incompetence of many governments aside, what I find particularly striking – and of political interest – is the largely quiescent response of large swaths of the population. Many seem to have accepted the necessity of upholding the sacred universal of ‘saving lives’. The inherent worth of every life is unquestionable. But this same universal is also routinely ignored in other circumstances, most notably those related to poverty. Why, then, is it so important for people that otherwise ignore it, to heed it now? 

I think the clearest reason for the quiescence of large sectors of the population is the perception that the virus potentially affects everyone equally. This perception is wrong, but it is nonetheless powerful. It is also fuelled by the official responses that seem to only make sense inasmuch as the virus would be an equal threat to everyone. In other words, the general quiescence is connected to the feeling of fear. 

Perhaps nowhere is this better seen than in the extraordinary measure, adopted by many European nations, to shut down public schools. Rationally speaking, it is very hard to understand why the radical closure of schools would be justified by a virus that does not seem to affect children. For the most part, democratic societies have invested heavily in public schools, as they represent a crucial (if not the crucial) pillar of democratic politics. So why would people agree to keeping their children at home? What’s more, many parents are actively against opening schools up again. The feeling of fear again provides an answer. Absent such fear – aptly stoked by newspapers and politicians themselves – it is unimaginable that parents would agree to shutting schools down. 

This same fear has not yet been present or widely diffused in other kinds of ecological threats. Part of the point of declaring climate emergencies was to induce such general fear of the consequences of climate change, but it has largely failed. Part of the reason for this failure is that climate change is not perceived as universally applicable. It would be an activist dream for the threat of climate change to be seen as indiscriminate as a virus, but it is worth considering whether relying on the feeling of fear might be the best strategy for ecological politics, given our current experience. Is the model inaugurated with the appearance of Covid-19 a desirable template for future ecological threats?

The incredible way in which governments have pulled the break levers on the global economy might suggest that the current crisis should be replicated with other kinds of ecological threats. But the comparison between Covid and climate change is only so useful. Indeed, the idea that the economy reins supreme and that governments can do nothing to stop growth has been thoroughly debunked. But the unilateral, emergency decree nature of political action in a time of crisis has also erased the possibility of a democratic public sphere. Absent that, important arguments that might help us understand the nature of the threat we are facing are absent from the political scene. Paradoxically, crisis politics abolishes politics itself.

Yes, the novel coronavirus is deadly. Yes, it is more deadly than other comparable viruses or maladies. That notwithstanding, the virus does not come with an internal priority scale to be simply translated into politics. What we are living through are choices, and in the long run, when the virus is history and only the social ruins are left, this thoughtless, blunt, and undemocratic response will end up hurting European democracies further, having emboldened the fear of the very classes that are now so eager to stay home. Democratic societies should be able to live with tragedy, and withstand it, instead of contracting into perhaps temporary forms of authoritarianism as soon as the perceived interests of those that matter are challenged. We should be able to take care of the most vulnerable, instead of breeding mistrust and protecting the better off by default.

It is sobering to recall that fascism, of the historical and contemporary types, feeds on the fear of dominant classes. It also feeds on economic and social despair, which the response to the virus is sure to breed in all societies that opted for harsh, undemocratic responses. When the dust settles, people – often the same ones that now chastise everyone that dares question the dominant line – will turn on the politicians that they now praise. People will be asking why tailored and efficient methods, involving the consent of those targeted, were not taken. Why, in the name of an invisible war, were children deprived of their right to education. Why, given the relative mortality of so many ecological and social ills, was the prevention of Covid-19 deaths worth the deaths from premature heart failure, cervical cancers, and suicides. Why, when it’s all said and done, have governments acted as if the virus rained down from a different planet, as opposed to being produced right here in ways that are both predictable and preventable.

The danger inherent in the questioning to come is a fresh resurgence of fearful politics. Now, as societies are starting to ease restrictions in Europe, is the time to demand a sober and democratic politics. It is not too late for governments and people to recognize the effect that fear has played and adopt a stance that protects as many lives as possible while also protecting what makes public life worth living. It would also help to give up the fantasy that all risk can be insured against, no matter what. This virus is now part of our world, and it brings with it a certain amount of disruption that cannot be escaped. How to best care for the sick and most vulnerable, and how to allow most people to live with the risk, is what we should be talking about.

That way, when the next waves of infection inevitably happen, we might be better prepared to deal with them in ways that build solidarity in pain, as opposed to fear in isolation. 

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