How Covid-19 reminds us progress is not inevitable and disease is universal

The pandemic has made us question the assumption that science saves us from the inevitable rise and fall cycle of civilisation. 

We are living through an ancient problem in intensely modern conditions. A faith in progress dominates the otherwise competitive political discourses in Europe and North America. But now we have learned we are not distinguished from our ancestors by a psychological ignorance of what happens when all else is overwhelmed by disease.

Those in power have trusted that scientists will create a vaccine, and they have trusted central bankers to purchase and technically manage debt to buy time for the scientists. But in these actions, there also lies something harder to reconcile with the faith that history has a forward direction and life will improve materially for most people in the future.

Did any Western politician look at the events in Wuhan last winter and think that leaving a modern city deserted could be repeated here? Yet it was, and those in power stopped our way of life in its tracks.

The conflicts that pandemic responses have let loose cannot readily be absorbed. As after the 2008 crash, central banks’ asset purchase programmes will generate more wealth inequality, and centre-right and centre-left parties will prove inadequate vehicles for articulating the ensuing anger. Covid-19 carries extremely asymmetrical risks between individuals and, as these risks appear partially random, they only really map on to existing political divisions across the generations.

As for the damage done to livelihoods, it is also highly differentiated between the public and private sectors, and between those who can work digitally and those working in services and entertainment that depend on personal contact. Even though any number of citizens suffer from the severe restrictions in place, mainstream political parties have generally been reluctant to position themselves as anti-lockdown. Others will not be.

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Democracies struggle with conflicts over matters of mortality and the radically different ways that individuals and cultural groups live with it. Faith in progress as a modern response to human mortality is an idea much more implicitly contested than its pervasiveness in democratic vocabulary suggests.

For many, it is self-evident that political protests demanding a fairer future should not have been constrained by legal restrictions on assembly. For many others, that protesting was considered to deserve an exemption that church services and funerals did not was bewildering.

These conflicts can only deepen. Are we awaiting a vaccine because there are good reasons to suppose, as Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, recently said, that “science will in due course ride to our rescue”? Or, now the summer has passed, are we waiting because a huge amount of money rests on there being an effective one?

Trusting that the scientific method will yield ever quicker remedies, are we going to lock down each time a new zoonotic disease appears? Or, is this our one-off adjustment to the arrival of a world of emergent diseases, first predicted in the 1970s?

Of course, there will be no unifying answers, only deep disagreement, fuelled by …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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