In Lars von Trier’s movie “Melancholia,” the viewer comes to grasp, slowly, with a mix of terror and powerlessness, that the world is about to come to an end, colliding with the planet Melancholia. At the film’s end, the audience indeed watches, mesmerized and paralyzed, as that planet travels on a course to crash into Earth. Initially just a faraway point in the sky, it becomes an expanding disc, ultimately filling the screen, as it collides with our planet.
Today, as we are all engulfed in a world event whose full magnitude we have not yet grasped, and as I reached for appropriate analogies, I remembered the closing scene of von Trier’s movie.
I first read about a strange virus appearing in China in the American press during the second week of January, and it caught my attention because my son was due to travel to that country. The virus was still far away, like the distant disc of a dangerous planet. My son canceled his trip, but the disc continued on its inexorable course, slowly crashing into us in Europe and the Middle East.
We now all watch, transfixed, as the world as we knew it has shut down and the pandemic continues to unfold.
The coronavirus is an event of a magnitude that we struggle to grasp, not only because of its planetary scale, not only because of the speed of the contamination, but also because institutions whose titanic power we never previously questioned have been brought to their knees in a matter of few weeks. The primitive world of deadly plagues erupted into the sanitized and advanced world of nuclear energy, laser surgery and digital technology. Even in wartime, cinemas and bars have continued to function, but the normally bustling cities of Europe have now become eerie ghost towns, with their residents all in hiding. As Albert Camus put it, in “The Plague,” “all these changes were, in one sense, so fantastic and had been made so precipitately that it wasn’t easy to regard them as likely to have any permanence.”
From air travel to museums, the pulsating heart of our civilization has been shut down. Freedom, the modern value that trumps all others, has been suspended, and not because of a new tyrant, but because of fear, the emotion that overrides all others. The world has become, overnight, unheimlich – uncanny, emptied of its familiarity. Its most comforting gestures – shaking of hands, kissing, hugging, eating with others – have turned into sources of anxiety and danger.
Odd rules and rituals
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In a matter of days, new categories used to make sense of a new reality emerged: We all became specialists in different types of masks and their filtering power (N95, FPP2, FPP3, etc.), in the amount of alcohol deemed necessary to sanitize hands, about the difference between “suppression” and “mitigation,” about the different fatality rates suffered by St. Louis and Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and of course, we became familiar with the odd rules and rituals of social distancing.
Crises foreground existing mental and political structures, and at the same time they challenge them. A structure, whether economic or mental), is usually hidden from view, but crises have their own ways of exposing their patterns to the naked eye.
Health, according to Michel Foucault, is the epicenter of modern governance (he called it bio-power). Through medical and mental health services, he claimed, the state manages, watches and controls its population. Although Foucault would not have put it this way, we may say that there is an implicit contract between modern states and their citizens, based on the capacity of the former to ensure the physical security and health of the latter.
The crisis highlights two opposite things: that this contract, in many places in the world, has been gradually breached by the state, which has seen its mission instead as enlarging the volume of economic activity, lowering the costs of labor and facilitating the transfer offshore of production (among other things, of such key medical products as masks and respirators), deregulating banks and other financial institutions, and generally responding to the needs of corporations. The result has been, whether by design or by default, an extraordinary erosion of the public sector.
If Iran’s nuclear arsenal project can be closely monitored, there is no reason why we should not demand international monitoring of the sites and sources of potential zoonotic spillover.
The second obvious thing, visible to all, is that only the state can manage and overcome a crisis of such scale. Even the mammoth Amazon can do little more than ship parcels, and even that only with great difficulty in times like these.
According to Dennis Carroll, a leading world expert in infectious diseases, who for 15 years led the pandemic department at the U.S. Agency for International Development, this epidemic is not the first of its kind, but it is something we can expect with greater frequency in the future. The reason is what epidemiologist refer to as “zoonotic spillover” – the increasing transfer of animal pathogens to humans – itself caused by the increasing penetration of humans into ecozones formerly inaccessible. These incursions are driven by overpopulation and by intensive exploitation of the land (in Africa, for example, there is more oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations).
Carroll and many others (including philanthropist Bill Gates and epidemiologist Larry Brilliant) have been warning for more than a decade that previously unknown viruses will increasingly threaten human beings. But in the industrialized West, no one paid attention. In fact, in 2018, President Donald Trump closed down the National Security Council department responsible for dealing with pandemics.
Trump also famously derided the danger of the coronavirus, suggesting it was a Democratic hoax, and describing it as a “foreign virus” to bolster his trade war with China. The United States now has the highest number of people sick with the virus worldwide, paying the price for Trump’s criminal lack of attention to the importance of rapid action in combating the epidemic. But Trump was not alone: To some degree or another, both American and European societies lacked imagination, in that they were too busy, pursuing profit and exploiting land and labor whenever and wherever they could.
Haunted by ‘economism’
In a post-corona world, zoonotic spillover and Chinese “wet markets” will have to become the concern of the international community. If Iran’s nuclear arsenal project can be closely monitored, there is no reason why we should not demand international monitoring of the sites and sources of potential zoonotic spillovers. The business community all over the world may finally realize that in order to exploit the world, there will need to be a world.
But what is new about this crisis is how much it is haunted by “economism.” The British model for responding to the medical threat initially embraced (and subsequently abandoned) the least intrusive path of intervention, for the sake of maintaining regular economic activity. It opted to let nature take its course, according to the model of auto-immunization (that is, contamination) of the younger 60 percent of the population, even though that would mean sacrificing an estimated 2 to 4 percent of its population (this model was also adopted by Holland and Sweden).
In the Italian city of Bergamo and its environs, industrialists and governing officials demanded that workers keep working, even when the virus was already present. In Brazil, the courts ruled against President Jair Bolsonaro’s claim that the health of the economy could not be sacrificed for an imaginary threat to the health of the populace.
Germany and France, too, initially responded in a way that was similar to the United Kingdom, ignoring the crisis as long as they could, until they couldn’t anymore. As commentator Giuliano da Empoli put it, even China, which has an appalling human rights record, did not use “economism” as a yardstick for its fight against the virus as overtly as European nations did (at least initially and until it was almost too late).
The choice that has been laid in front of contemporary societies is unprecedented. Which do we choose to risk sacrificing: the lives of the vulnerable or the economic survival of the young? While the moral questions raised by this dilemma are genuine and profound (how many lives is the economy worth?), it also points to the ways in which public health has been neglected and been relegated to a place of lower priority than the health of the economy.
Trust as currency
It is with no small irony that the world of finance, usually arrogant and so often unaccountable, was the first to collapse, showing that the continued and unfathomable circulation of money in the world relies on a resource we all took for granted: the health of citizens. Markets feed on trust as a currency to build the future, and trust, it turns out, rests on the assumption of health.
Modern states have traditionally guaranteed citizens’ health: They built hospitals, trained doctors, subsidized medicine and built welfare systems. This health-care system was the infrastructure that made possible trust in the future, which was in turn a requirement for continued investment and financial speculation. Without health and a healthy public, economic transactions become meaningless.
Health was taken for granted, so much so that, in recent decades, politicians, financial institutions and corporations in the West converged in pushing for policies that severely decreased public budgets for services ranging from education to health care, ironically ignoring the ways in which corporations had been enjoying the fruits of public goods they never paid for. All of these depend on the state and are the indispensable public resources without which economic growth and profits could not occur. Yet, in France, as just one example, 100,000 hospital beds have been eliminated in the last 20 years (at-home care does not compensate for lost hospital beds).
It is with no small irony that the world of finance, arrogant and unaccountable, was the first to collapse, showing that it relies on a resource taken for granted: the health of citizens.
In June 2019, emergency room professionals in France protested budget cuts that they claimed were pushing a world-class health system to the brink of collapse. At the time of this writing, a group of French doctors are suing Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the former minister of health, Agnes Buzyn, for their gross mismanagement of the crisis (as late as March 14, it was business as usual in France).
In the United States, the wealthiest country on the planet, doctors are currently scrambling to obtain face masks to protect themselves (The New York Times has reported that paramedic workers are improvising masks out of coffee filters).
In Israel in 2018, the ratio of hospital beds to population was at its lowest level in three decades, according to a Ministry of Health report: 1.78 per thousand, down from 2.224 in 2000 and 2.68 in 1988 (in Germany it was 8.0).
The successive governments of Benjamin Netanyahu have spectacularly neglected the health system. There are at least two reasons for this: For one, Netanyahu is in his heart and soul a neo-liberal who believes in the redistribution of money from the public sector, via tax cuts and the selling-off of public assets to private interests. At the same time, he has channeled precious public resources to population groups that support him at the polls, contributing to massive shortages in the health care system.
The massive depletion of the public sector budgets are visible for all to see: Israel has the lowest levels of unemployment benefits in the industrial world. Behind the mixture of drastic measures and amateurism with which the corona crisis has been managed in Israel is a health care system that has been sorely neglected.
Netanyahu, and hordes of other politicians worldwide, have treated the health of their own citizens with an unbearable lightness, failing to grasp the obvious: Without health there can be no economy. The relationship between our health and the markets has now become painfully clear. In the Israeli context we may add the obvious: Without health there can be no army either. The security of the country is predicated on the health of its citizens.
The capitalism we have come to know in recent decades – which is deregulated, which penetrates all state considerations, which benefits the rich, which creates abyssal inequalities (among others in the health system itself) – will have to change. The pandemic is going to cause unfathomable economic damage, massive unemployment, slow or negative growth and it will affect the entire world, with Asian economies possibly emerging as the stronger ones.
Banks, corporations and financial firms must be made to bear the burden, along with the state, of coming out of the crisis and become partners in the collective health of their employees. They will have to contribute to research, to emergency preparedness, and to massive hiring drives, once the crisis passes. They will have to bear the burden of the collective effort to rebuild the economy, even at the price of lower profits.
Capitalists have taken for granted resources provided by the state – education, health, physical infrastructure – without acknowledging that the resources they were squandering from the state could, in a situation like this, ultimately be responsible for withholding them from the world which makes the economy possible. This must stop. For the economy to have meaning, it needs a world. And this world can only be built collectively, by the joint efforts of corporations and the state. While only states can manage a crisis of such scale, they will not be strong enough to get out of the crisis alone: Corporations will need to contribute to the maintenance of the public goods from which they have taken so much benefit.
Crises of this kind can generate chaos, and it is in the management of such chaos that tyrants often emerge. Dictators thrive both on fear and chaos.
Public fear always puts institutions in danger (the political monsters of the 20th century all used fear to strip democracy of its institutions). In Israel, despite the relatively low toll in human lives (so far), the coronavirus crisis has exerted a profound shock on its governing institutions.
As writer-activist Naomi Klein has relentlessly argued, catastrophes are often opportunities for elites to grab bounties and exploit them. Israel provides a striking example. Netanyahu has de facto suspended basic civil rights, closed down the Israeli courts (postponing for at least two months his own criminal trial). On March 16, the government approved the use of technological tools developed by the Shin Bet security service for tracking suspected terrorists for following the movements of virus carriers. It circumvented approval of the Knesset in the process and took measures that no other democratic country, has taken.
But Israeli citizens are used to obeying quickly and sheepishly orders from the state, especially when security and survival are at stake. They are used to security serving as the ultimate justification for erosions of the rule of law and democracy.
Fear of death
In the 5th century, B.C.E., Thucydides wrote about the plague that ravaged Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War: “[T]he catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”
In Thucydides’ eyes, the fear of death is stronger than any other emotion, including other types of fear. Certain fears contribute positively to culture and society – fear of God, fear of the law – while other fears can sabotage the social order, as can occur during a mass outbreak of disease. In the latter type of situation, he maintained, people can discard conventional restraint and the social order collapses. However, in Israel the public is displaying impressive restraint, while it is the leaders who have abandoned the basic norms of respectable conduct.
Crises of this kind can generate chaos, and it is in the management of such chaos that tyrants often emerge. Dictators thrive both on fear and chaos.
In Israel, such respected commentators as Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev see in Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis an example of just such cynical exploitation of chaos and fear. Thus, Israel is going through a crisis that has no parallel elsewhere in the world: Its crisis is at once a medical one, an economic one and a political one. In times like this, trust in public officials is crucial. Unfortunately, a significant part of the public has lost trust in its officials, whether in the Health Ministry or in any other branch of the executive.
What compounds the sense of crisis is the fact that the pandemic requires a novel form of solidarity, by way of “social distancing.” It is a solidarity between generations, between the young and the old, between someone who does not know he may be sick and someone who may die from what the first person does not know, a solidarity between someone who may have lost his job and someone who may lose his life. But it is also a terrible solidarity, one that lets people die alone, as we have seen in reports from Italy and the United States.
I, like millions of other Israelis, have been in confinement for many weeks now, and the love my children have showered on me has consisted of leaving me alone. This solidarity demands isolation, and thus fragments the social body into its smallest possible units, making it difficult to organize, meet and communicate, beyond the endless jokes and videos exchanged on social media.
Social intercourse has become vicarious. The use of the Internet has more than doubled; social media has become the new living room, the number of coronavirus jokes circulating on social media across continents is unprecedented, the use of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video has doubled, students of the world are now meeting with teachers and classmates via Zoom.
In short, this epidemic, which has made us revise all known categories of intimacy and care, has been a high holiday for virtual technology. I have no doubt that in the post-corona world, virtual and long-distance life will assume new significance, now that we have been forced to discover its potential.
We will survive this crisis, thanks to the heroic work of doctors and nurses and the resilience of citizens. Some countries are already tentatively emerging from it. But citizens will have to ask questions, demand accountings and draw the right conclusions. The bluff of neo-liberalism must be called out. The era in which each economic actor need worry only about filling his or her pockets with gold must end. It is the state that, again and again, has proven to be the only entity capable of managing such large-scale crises.
The public interest must return to the center of public policy. And corporations must contribute to this public good, if they want the market to even remain a frame for human activities.
This pandemic is a preview of what we may expect in the future with more dangerous viruses, and when climate change makes the world increasingly unlivable. Short of changing the relationship between private and public interest, there will be neither a private nor a public interest to defend. Contrary to some predictions about the resurgence of nationalism and borders, I believe that we have become aware of how distressingly interconnected we are, economically and in terms of health.
We will need international coordination and cooperation of a new kind, international monitoring of zoonotic spillovers, possibly new international methods for controlling and sanctioning the way nations handle such crisis (China’s silencing of the crisis until January was criminal, given that in December it was still possible to stop the virus from spreading). New international bodies have to be established to innovate in the fields of medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and epidemic prevention. Mostly, we will need a part of the vast wealth amassed by private entities to be reinvested in public goods. That will be the condition for having a world.
Eva Illouz is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem. This article first appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Le Nouvel Observateur.