Religion Can No Longer Claim Moral Superiority, and Six Other Lessons From the Coronavirus Crisis

The global coronavirus crisis is unprecedented in many ways – with the power of states unchecked, freedoms crushed and values distorted – but it's already possible to draw a few lessons from it

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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A laborer sanitizes the stones of the Western Wall as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, March 31, 2020.
A laborer sanitizes the stones of the Western Wall as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, March 31, 2020.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

When she wrote “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Hannah Arendt used a method of analysis that we may characterize as anti-historical: She refused to understand the present with analogies drawn from the past; she rejected used and worn philosophical categories to make sense of something entirely new. The book was a prelude to an inquiry whose basic question continued to occupy her until the end of her life: How should we judge the present? Her thought led her to agree with Tocqueville’s claim that in a time of crisis the mind “errs in darkness.”

The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented in many ways, but we can already draw a few simple lessons in the “darkness.”

Lesson No 1: We live in the shadow of a powerful state. More than 4 billion people worldwide have stopped moving around, working and socializing in an ordinary manner, and have done so without much or significant protest. These billions have willingly given up the most fundamental aspects of their freedom, even though, in fact, we still lack some key information about the epidemic that is responsible for the restrictions (for example, how many are actually infected, and thus what the real mortality rate is). They accepted confinement to their homes (assuming they had one), confirming the view of Thomas Hobbes (and others) that fear of death is the most powerful political passion and that we will always be willing to sacrifice our freedom for our security.

What the confinement of these 4-plus billion people demonstrated was the extraordinary power, worldwide, of the state and of the citizens’ capacity to show obedience to the state.

How do we know the state is extraordinarily powerful? Because of the ease with which it issued and was able to enforce absurd decrees and decisions. Israel forbade its citizens to walk further than 100 meters from home, while in France, with 10 times more people infected, people were allowed to distance themselves as much as 1 kilometer from their residence.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi confined more than 1 billion people to their homes overnight, without giving them any time to prepare, sending millions of migrant workers on the country’s roads, with many of them dying there. Israel allowed prayers in public but not yoga lessons in public. All these absurdities and inconsistencies show the tremendous power of the state and the obedience of citizens.

Neo-liberals had been trumpeting for the last 40 years their conviction that the state was too strong, inefficient, inflated and superfluous. Now, many of these same people were forced to reckon with the fact that only the state – not the market – could manage and save the situation.

After decades during which endless economic growth was the only criterion that mattered to planners, and was the key assumption that guided all the planners’ planning, the political and moral dimensions of human affairs came back in full force to the forefront of our societies, forcing the economic dimension to take the back seat. But the politics that has now taken center stage is new and unprecedented: It will be a politics of the conditions of life, and will increasingly have to deal with natural catastrophes – ecological and biological.

Residents exercise on their balconies following fitness trainers as a lockdown is imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Nantes, France, March 27, 2020.
Residents exercise on their balconies following fitness trainers as a lockdown is imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Nantes, France, March 27, 2020. Credit: STEPHANE MAHE/Reuters

The response to the coronavirus is a preview of what a politics whose aim will be to guarantee the conditions for life, will look like as the environment and climate become increasingly erratic and collapse.

But – and this is Lesson No. 2 – not all states exercise their power in the same way. The coronavirus crisis showed nations and countries in all the strengths and dysfunctions of their political regimes. Israel proved to be what we always knew: one in which civilian problems are cast as security issues. The secret services tracked common citizens and assumed responsibility for deciding which among them should be confined to physical isolation. It thus became clear that the Shin Bet security service had previously been collecting data about the citizenry, with the only difference being that it was now being done openly.

The United States showed how extreme its notion of freedom can be: Some states (like Kansas) elected not to impose a lockdown, because it conflicted with people’s right to gather in churches (a move that bore a strong resemblance to the call in Israel by ultra-Orthodox rabbinical leader Chaim Kanievsky, early in the crisis, not to close yeshivas), while other Americans vociferously demanded their right to shop.

The libertarian ethos that has been cultivated by the radical right during recent decades in the United States profoundly interferes with the management of a health crisis. Israel, on the other hand, closed its frontiers before the virus had claimed a single victim, while France left its frontier with Italy open out of solidarity, even as Italy was hemorrhaging deaths.

Illiberal democracies like Israel, Poland, Turkey and Hungary handled the coronavirus crisis like a Reichstag-on-fire moment, as an opportunity to suspend civil liberties, close the parliament and the courts, and curtail free use of the internet. But even strong democracies like the U.S. are teetering on the verge of anti-democratic authoritarianism, in the wake of the crisis. Other countries, such as Sweden, Holland or Germany, preferred to rely on social trust and counted on their citizens’ discipline to care for themselves and for others, handling the crisis with a combination of civic-mindedness and freedom. The policies had varying degrees of success, but Sweden is already being hailed as a model nation.

The virus is not only a biological phenomenon: It is first and foremost a political event, deeply reflective of the relationship between a state and its citizens. The lesson we may derive from this for the future is that only the combination of a strong democracy and the wide safety nets provided by welfare states have the luxury to defend the life of their citizens in a way that balances their freedom, economic survival and their health. Semi-liberal or illiberal democracies can be expected to take advantage of crises (health or otherwise) for undemocratic power grabs and further trampling of citizens’ rights.

Lesson No. 3: Neo-liberalism is really bad for your health. Neo-liberalism has steadily eroded public assets and even plundered states for the benefit of the rich. It is unsurprising that most neo-liberal leaders were the slowest to respond to the crisis. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Boris Johnson, the industrialists of Northern Italy: All of these initially promoted biological Darwinism – let the strong survive, which reflected their social Darwinism – whoever can fight and struggle will get ahead; whoever cannot will fall by the wayside. But, as they quickly found out, the modern state has formed a health-care pact with its citizens.

Even in the United States, where medical care is largely privatized and of limited accessibility to the poor and the working classes, citizens expect the state to be responsible for the management of a health crisis. Neo-liberalism has undermined this implicit health covenant between citizens and the state. The businessmen who are increasingly running politics think and act like businessmen: Public investment in non-profitable endeavors (like epidemic prevention) increasingly contradict a profit-oriented mindset (in 2018 Trump shut down the office in the White House responsible for the management of pandemic responses, and is now cutting funding that could be used to fight future pandemics).

People at an outdoor restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden April 20, 2020.
People at an outdoor restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden April 20, 2020. Credit: TT NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

Viewing the social field as a balance sheet in which economic benefits must exceed costs undermines the very notion of public interest and brutalizes social relations and leadership itself. Trump’s venomous and brutal style mirrors the cut-throat social philosophy of neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberalism has been very good for both the rich and the politicians who serve them, but it is very dangerous for the rest of us as it erodes public services, the very notion of the public good and the social contract between the state and its citizens. If the management of the current crisis follows the 2008 model (by principally helping and bailing out the rich) rather than the New Deal (helping all social classes, and especially the unemployed), the United States and possibly the world will collapse into a neo-feudalism that will lead to massive social unrest.

Lesson No. 4: Trust is hard hit. Most countries around the world were extraordinarily unprepared and lacked even the most basic medical equipment and supplies to deal with the coronavirus. This is first and foremost because globalization of their national economies made most countries dependent on China for their medical equipment. But beyond the mere question of equipment, leaders betrayed the trust of their citizens systematically.

Benjamin Netanyahu blatantly used the crisis to delay his own criminal trial. Trump called upon his white-supremacist base to oppose their Democratic governors in Minnesota and Michigan, and to break the rules of confinement. Brazil’s Bolsonaro attended an anti-lockdown rally.

Last but not least, Israel’s health minister, Yaakov Litzman, became a universal laughingstock when he violated the basic rules of social distancing his ministry issued, and predicted with glib certainty that the Messiah would provide salvation from the pandemic by the month of April. The same Litzman is suspected of taking bribes and of breach of trust related to other matters, for which he is likely to face trial. Yet, Netanyahu is so committed to this underperforming minister that he will place him in another ministry, one critical for economic recovery.

In many countries around the world, large parts of populations feel deeply betrayed by their leaders. We can thus say that the worst-hit places in the world will be those (like Israel) where the medical crisis generates both economic and political crises.

Will the health issue be grounds for citizens’ revolts around the world? The question remains open, but there is no doubt that mass unrest is one possible outcome of the crisis.

Lesson No. 5: The home is not so sweet after all. In times of war, the fear of death exists but we usually and normally confront it in the company of other people, we know who the enemy is, and we can draw on the large symbolic repertoire of heroism to fight the enemy. Yet, in the case of the fight against a disease, we are reduced to very small units, and sometimes entirely isolated from the rest of the world; there is no action to take and we have very few known symbolic repertoires to draw from. The weapon that may kill us is not one that is fired upon us by the enemy, but rather something that we, unknowingly, carry within ourselves and pass on to someone else.

Hundreds of mourners gather in Brooklyn, on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, a Hasidic Orthodox leader whose death was reportedly tied to the coronavirus.
Hundreds of mourners gather in Brooklyn, on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, a Hasidic Orthodox leader whose death was reportedly tied to the coronavirus.Credit: Peter Gerber,AP

This is why we have all become stuck in and around the home, in fear of something invisible that has caused the suspension of our relationships with others. But if we have learned something from the coronavirus, it is that the home cannot take the place of life out in the world: Production and consumption have become the main ways in which contemporaries create their own sense of value, socialize, and even forge intimacy.

Work is where we exercise our skills and derive a sense of purpose and value. Leisure activities are where we experience pleasure, play and the possibility of seeing and being seen by others. In confinement, we have learned that the home is bearable only when we can bring the public world inside via television, the internet or delivery services. Short of that, home, sweet home becomes something bitter, especially for the many who live in the cramped residences that were conceived post-World War II for the working and middle classes in urban and semi-urban areas.

Lesson No. 6: The value of work and of production becomes entirely inverted in such a crisis. There was a line circulating on social media about soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo making millions of dollars a month and medical researchers making a grim salary. The line, attributed erroneously to a Spanish government minister, suggested turning to Ronaldo or to Lionel Messi to develop a coronavirus cure. The joke pointed to the inverse relationship between value and prestige that characterize societies that are normally driven by consumption, celebrity and spectacle.

We owe our survival to people who work in supermarkets, in hospitals, people who clean the streets, people who deliver food, people who maintain the power stations and electrical lines. These are the people who have now become meaningful for our survival. Celebrities or financial wizards appeared in all the splendor of the emptiness of their work, as it has been the occupations that are normally invisible and lacking value to us that have sustained us all.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that our “normal” world has a deeply distorted scale of values. The people who have helped us survive, and who keep and maintain the social order, are at the bottom of the scale while those who are perched at the top of that scale have been, by and large, entirely useless in recent months.

Lesson No. 7. The relationship between secular and religious will never be the same again. Rarely have the differences between religious and secular people been so profoundly conspicuous as they have been reflected in the way the two groups have, respectively, reacted to and handled the crisis.

Evangelical Christians in America and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have little knowledge and respect for science, they maintain lives of great insularity, and by and large listen only to the recommendations of their clerical leaders. These recommendations were late in coming and seemed to have been issued only reluctantly.

Among Israel’s secular public, the young followed injunctions from the Health Ministry and made enormous sacrifices in terms of freedom and economic survival to help avert the deaths of older people. In the Israeli context, there has always been a kind of smugness on the part of religious people toward the “empty wagon” of the secular public. If anything, we have had a live experiment, and it has revealed that secular people are no less, if not more, capable of civic responsibility as the religious in the discipline they displayed and in the networks of volunteers they put in place.

This must remain a milestone in the self-consciousness and self-identity of secular people. The behavior of secular people during the crisis certainly suggests religion can no longer claim any moral superiority when it comes to making sacrifices and caring for others.

Many leaders around the world should not sleep soundly. Throughout history revolts and revolutions have occurred over much less.

Eva Illouz holds the Rose Isaac Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute. 

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