Coronavirus: An Unprecedented Crisis, Or Just A Blip In Our Progress?
The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 has had an unimaginable impact on the lives of billions of people across the globe. Through reflecting on what is happening in our lives, attempting to describe the movements and processes of our condition, we can learn more about the virus’ effects. We can also understand ourselves better, and our place on planet Earth.
Coronavirus, COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2, and previously, 2019 novel coronavirus. Names we have all come to know like the back of our hands in recent times. In some cases we refer to it as ‘coronavirus,’ whereas the official Government narrative in New Zealand opts for the more technical but less noticeably virus-related ‘COVID-19’ when referring to the same thing.
Coronavirus would seem to sit up there among events which we could call ‘major events.’ It is one that we have predicted we will be remembering for many years to come, one that we believe will have an influence, will be a factor in the back of our minds, and a bill that will remain unpaid for decades. How did we come to grasp this event, this pandemic, and are we more able to face it than we were in the face of, for example, a terrorist attack in the United States, or a global recession?
Our ability to name this virus, and the fact that we have already developed the terminology necessary to refer to it would indicate that the global outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 was not entirely unexpected, yet not completely expected either. We knew that there could be another global disease outbreak – the very eldest among us may remember the Spanish Influenza pandemic that swept across the globe between 1918 and 1920. Some 90% of the population in Western Samoa contracted the virus, and in New Zealand around 9,000 people died of the disease. History books will tell us about the Black Plague that ravaged Europe in the middle of the 14th century. An estimated 30-60% of the Eurasian population died as a result of the outbreak: half of the population of Paris perished. Throughout our turbulent global history, we have fought and dealt with pandemics and the spread of diseases more generally. As our cities have developed along with our ability to understand the world, we have become more able to grasp what causes disease, how it spreads, and the different types of disease, to be able to cure or at least stop their spread. Even the yearly mutation of influenza which spreads across the globe is estimated to infect up to 15% of the global population. Pandemics and disease are not new.
Given this, what is it that makes this so-called coronavirus particularly special, or different, to the other pandemics, or other diseases that we have endured? Or is it simply that we have forgotten that we are subject to the forces of nature, believing ourselves to be safe from the clutches of deadly disease with the development of modern medicine?
We are able to grasp what this virus is, and can study the mutations and replicatory parts of the virus with increasing clarity and certainty. We know what it is that is attacking us: we can even make it synthetically in a laboratory. According to the WHO, the virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The disease that this virus causes, which is what is accompanied by the well-publicised symptoms in humans, is called COVID-19 or coronavirus.
Public communications regarding the virus itself do not seem to be so clear-cut, however. If we were to follow these basic naming guidelines, we should be ‘Uniting against SARS-CoV-2’ and not against ‘COVID-19,’ as we have little control of the development of the disease inside a human host once it has been contracted. Contrast this ‘uniting’ communications approach to military street patrols in some countries, aimed precisely at creating fear to restrict movement and control the spread of the virus. The WHO recognise the motivations behind this naming approach:
From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations […]. For that reason and others, WHO has begun referring to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus” when communicating with the public.
In New Zealand we have opted for COVID-19 to refer to the whole situation, completely eliminating all mention of virus, pandemic, flu, or other such ‘potentially triggering’ words. We have gone for the most abstract, and arguably the easiest on the tongue. It is as if, if we ignore the fact that coronavirus is a virus by removing all mention of such, and not even discussing, as the WHO recommend, “the COVID-19 virus,” we will make its impact less noticeable, we will be less affected by it, and we will repress the real danger. Or, from the perspective of public relations, perhaps it is done so that we remain as calm as possible in the midst of a global pandemic; by making the threat an abstract and technical-sounding thing, it might just lie outside the realm of commonly identified threats. If we weren’t unwilling to recognise the real threat brought to mind through the use of the word ‘virus’ in our communications, we would perhaps be saying “Unite against the COVID-19 virus” and “Help stop the spread of the virus.”
We have so far discussed how the COVID-19 virus has been “marketed” to us. For clarity, we must distinguish between three different things: the actual event, the impression we form of that event, and the presentation or interpretation of the event. It’s important to recognise that we have a thing which is a virus, that is circulating throughout many communities around the globe, and we have at the same time an impression of such a thing. Our interpretation and possible manipulation of this event is separate, and whilst we should be cognisant of the interpretation in our reflections, we must remember that in discussing it, we will not be discussing the event itself. To discuss whether we call it a ‘virus’ is not to talk about the event of SARS-CoV-2, rather it is to discuss the interpretation and presentation of this event.
One of the things that makes this outbreak particularly noteworthy is the flow of impressions about the actual event, this flow of scientific information, that is enabling us to understand what is happening. The media have kept us updated, but also engendered, on a large scale, certain emotions through their use of specific language. Many opinion articles however also use this terminology, as well as messages in advertising and discussions on the streets. We should look into what our interpretation of this event is, to get a better idea of how it is being understood amongst New Zealanders.
The words most frequently used to describe this pandemic, especially from New Zealand, are unprecedented, and crisis. We are told that this is unprecedented, that we are facing a crisis, a global health crisis, an economic crisis, a political crisis… What does it mean for something to be unprecedented, and what is a crisis? Do these concepts accurately reflect what we are describing, or do we not have the conceptual tools to describe what is happening around us? Further, where does the conceptual authority and power lie? Have we given conceptual control to the media, and are therefore relying on the media’s desire to sell newspapers to form our own interpretation of the event?
Let’s begin with the term unprecedented. I think this tells us a lot about what we think the magnitude or scale of this event is. As an adjective, something that is precedent is something that is previous, anterior to something else. An event that has happened before, one might say. In legal and more technical language, a precedent can be set when something happens in the past to act as a guide, a rule, or an expectation of how to treat the future. The New Zealand legal system functions based on precedent: once a judge has made a ruling on a new type of case, this is used as a guiding rule in the verdict of future, similar cases.
Thus something that is unprecedented is not only something that has not happened before, not been seen before; it is also something that we have no tools to interpret: there has been no precedent set previously as to how to interpret this event, we do not know what to do with it or how to understand it. It is, in other words, entirely new. But to whom must this event be entirely new? For most of us, we have not lived through the Spanish Influenza; yet many of us have lived through the swine flu, bird flu, and Ebola epidemics: albeit if we have seen them from a distance and not personally been in the places in which these viruses have been circulating widely. It cannot be that a virus circulating throughout multiple countries is in itself unprecedented: we have in fact seen it before. We thus ask the question: to whom must something be without precedent, for it to be considered unprecedented? Is it that an unprecedented event must be new to those currently living, or to all of humanity, a single culture or group of humanity, or simply to the groups of people who are using the world to discuss this time? To ignore historical precedents makes no sense: these events happened to our ancestors and have impacted and influenced the trajectory of social and economic development for centuries.
One rather cynical of the West might argue that this use of the term ‘unprecedented’ is the West’s attempt to inflate itself, ignoring the tragedies of other nations’ epidemics in previous years. It is thus unprecedented for rich Western countries to be overrun by a disease in the 21st century. Perhaps this is a symptom of a contemporary Western consciousness, one that seems to be the topic of much criticism of late in debates on human rights and colonialism in particular. The notion of ‘contemporary consciousness’ assumes that after the development of ‘modern’ man we would follow naming convention and end up in the era of ‘contemporary man;’ and also assumes that modern man has undergone a significant enough change to develop into something recognisable and nameable as such: questions we shall not dwell on here for lack of space to discuss such matters. Another characteristic of this contemporary consciousness is, emerging from modernity, viewing ourselves as individuals who are separable from all else, and who also possess the greatest form of importance as beings in this world. It is a kind of anthropocentrism where we put ourselves at the centre of our worldviews, with the greatest importance. To claim that the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak is ‘unprecedented’ would therefore be to say that we as the generation of humans born largely between 1940 and 2019, have not seen an uncontainable worldwide outbreak of disease that has impacted economic systems, foreign relations, mental health, and more.
There are consequences to this anthropocentric view (or rather, more correctly, a Western anthropocentric view, as I’m sure many countries in Asia are not as ‘shocked’ by this event as we are in New Zealand, for example). Not only are we unwilling to discuss the influence epidemics of swine flu and Ebola (being the most recent memorable examples) that have had profound effects on countries living outside the Western bubble, this mindset also points to a very short collective memory regarding our history. One should not, I think, need to have lived in 1918 to have at least some idea of the impact of the Spanish Influenza on the world, as the narratives and historical records we have will tell us much about this pandemic. We have, according to this interpretation of our use of the term ‘unprecedented,’ become so absorbed in our own immediate affairs that we have forgotten the trials of those who came before us, and not thought to look at their experiences to inform our own. We could blame this on the “short memory of the media” but this forgets that we ourselves are the ones creating the content in said media.
What other reasons, besides there being a global outbreak of a virus, could cause us to discuss this event as being unprecedented? Could it be the global death rate? Sadly, death on this scale is not new even for those who live today: we have become almost immune to hearing of massacres, mass killings, war, poverty and disease killing large numbers of people on a global scale each year. Is it, perhaps the economic damage – unemployment, recession, etc.? Or the fact that so many people have been placed in strict lockdowns in their countries? Or is it more specific? Something with regard to the role of science and data management? The fact that this interruption to the project of globalisation has shown some anti-globalisationists a future without large-scale international trade, and the imposition of law and order by international organisations, along with the enlargement of local movements and ‘support local’ campaigns? Or perhaps something else entirely?
Economic recessions, as many of us are aware, are not new either. In the 1930’s we experienced the Great Depression – times of hardship experienced in many countries across the globe. Between 2007 and 2009, we experienced the ‘Great Recession’ (what makes these events Great is another question entirely), where GDP growth declined across the globe, the stock market collapsed, and many of the people in the world’s highly developed economies suffered greatly as a result. In 1987 as well, the global stock markets collapsed, and a lot of wealth was lost through this crash (at least, for those who had invested in the stock market). As a result, certain stoppers were developed to prevent such a crisis from happening at that scale again. These rules now mean that if stocks fall by a certain degree over a short period, the stock market will be effectively ‘paused’ for a pre-determined amount of time to prevent prices from falling further. Previously, the largest halting of a stock market was in response to the 9/11 attacks where the New York stock exchange was stopped for almost a week. When the COVID-19 virus wreaked havoc on the Dow Jones (a US stock exchange market), these stoppers were used a record three times in response to falling prices. Interestingly, Tech Crunch labelled this as unprecedented.
Are the economic effects of the coronavirus disease thus unprecedented? In terms of scale, there are many things that have not happened before (since we began recording the economy in this level of detail). The magnitude, the numbers we are seeing are nothing like what many countries have experienced before in this current economic and political system. However, part of something being unprecedented is that it is actually new, that we do not yet have the tools to deal with it, name it, control it… As these mechanisms to halt the stock market show us, as well as the prevalence of unemployment benefits across many developed economies, we do in fact have the tools to deal with these economic issues because they have happened before. The budgets, the measures, the easing and rate changes, all tools that we believe will help us weather the storm. They are not new: the scale might be, but I think this does not enable us to say, on economic grounds, that the effects of the COVID-19 virus are ‘unprecedented.’ Perhaps we might say ‘great’ or ‘huge’: but they most certainly do have precedent, and we are able to understand and manage and very often reduce the damage of them.
There are two parts, just like with an event and its interpretation, to an economic analysis, however, and it is in this second part that I am no so qualified to pass judgements. As for the economic effects, these are measured and can be interpreted. With regards to the economic response, however, I am not so sure. It is likely that the same analysis would apply: we have seen rescue packages, we have seen businesses being bailed out, we have seen unemployment benefits; just not at this scale, not to this degree. Given what we have said about the meaning of ‘unprecedented,’ one might need to ask an economist whether we could really call the economic response to the effects of the coronavirus disease unprecedented.
Let’s briefly look at the idea that the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus is unprecedented because of the scale of the lockdowns in place. It has been estimated that half the world’s population (more than 3.9 billion) have been placed into confinement or lockdowns, or given a curfew of some form. The practice of confinement is most certainly not new, with records from the early 15th century suggesting that Italian city-states were imposing quarantines for those infected with the Black Plague. In 2002, with the SARS outbreak in China, whole villages were sealed off from the rest of the country to curb the spread of the virus. These efforts largely worked to control the virus’ spread, with minimal casualties in other locations. Many countries had to adapt legislation with the current pandemic to enable them to issue lockdown orders. In New Zealand, for example, the lockdown was ruled illegal for the first nine days. Was it thus unprecedented that such a large number of people have been in government-imposed isolation? Not really. There has been a precedent set with previous viruses, we have the tools and the mechanisms to order such restrictions on freedom and to mandate the use of forms in France, for example, for citizens who wish to leave their homes. What makes this pandemic particularly different is, once again, its scale. We have set a precedent previously on a global scale for mechanisms of quarantine, but we are not used to hearing of so many people placed in such quarantine.
Another interesting angle as to why this pandemic could be deemed unprecedented is to look at the role that data and science have played in dealing with the outbreak. In many countries, New Zealand especially, public servants and scientists offered up all the information they could, to then, in tandem with politicians, decide how to deal with the outbreaks. In response to an event with which we did not create, and that has been imposed upon us by forces of nature, I don’t think we have seen this role for science and data collection previously. We have seen global tallies of infection rates, deaths, and recoveries for Ebola for example; for coronavirus we also have information about how fast the virus is spreading in each community, the different strains of the virus that are circulating and mutating, and much more. How this data is informing Governmental decisions - especially in Western countries - and their ability to make fast decisions does seem to be quite new. This data is proving invaluable to the management of the pandemic on a global scale as well, and allowing countries with similar scales of outbreak and control over this outbreak to create tourism bridges between their countries. This is possible because we know that it is, for example, just as likely for someone to catch the virus in many countries of the European Union– and thus these countries can viably agree to open their borders again. New Zealand and Australia are further from this similarity, and thus it is much harder to form a travel ‘bubble’ with Australia. To be clear, once again, this single factor is not unprecedented: we have developed places and tools for science to work with Government in order to manage the country. We just have not seen such a public role for science to this degree with a global pandemic before.
Finally, the global pandemic has shown the inability of our international organisations to bring countries together to unite in their response to the virus, and endorse proven, or at least somewhat scientifically valid approaches to containing the virus and curing the disease. President of the United States, Donald Trump, made a statement to the rest of the world when he pulled the country out of the Paris Climate Agreement, stating to other countries that ‘we in the U.S. live in a different world to the rest of you. You, you believe climate change will cause severe consequences; us, we believe that we’ll be fine. We can keep going, and you can stop if you want. We, essentially, are on a different planet to the rest of you.’ This rhetoric has continued, with the U.S. continuing to isolate itself in the response to the global pandemic. President Trump began by suggesting that we could inject ourselves with bleach to kill the virus within us, then told the nation he was taking the antimalaria drug hydroxychloroquine in an attempt to avoid catching the virus. The United States is now opening up for business, despite the fact that their transmission rates are not showing signs of slowing, and case numbers do not exactly seem ‘under control.’ Trump’s consistent message throughout has been: we, here, are fine. This virus will not and cannot take us out. We are stronger.’ The rest of the world has however succumbed to admitting the effects of the virus and generated a kind of public fear towards catching and spreading the virus, thus acting as a moral barrier for many to avoid breaking the regulations in place. No such moral barrier has been endorsed or developed by the President of the United States.
Sweden has also distanced itself from the rest of the world in purporting that a lockdown was not necessary, and that herd immunity amongst healthy individuals was the best way to tackle the virus. The country’s officials, informed by scientific data and a largely technocratic approach, made this decision, and, if they had been able to keep the virus away from those who are most vulnerable (the elderly, those with poor immune systems) then we may be applauding Sweden at the fact that they had a relatively low death rate, and would not experience the severity of a recession in the way many other wealthy countries are. They have chosen a different approach, but with that has come a humility to admit that they have made grave mistakes in part of that response. No such admission comes from the United States, who largely still seem to believe that the virus they are fighting is very different to the one that the rest of the world is trying to contain.
Perhaps the best reason for this pandemic being without precedent, is that these factors have never before occurred together, on a global scale. We have seen recession without virus, we have seen virus without huge lockdowns and interruptions to global trade, but never all these major factors at once. Similarly, we have seen that we have many, many, small instruments to deal with these factors individually, but we do not have the ability to deal with these factors together, in a coordinated manner. We cannot both attempt an economic recovery, whilst simultaneously keeping many people in isolation. This is largely because of the degree to which we rely on other countries to do business, generate income, and keep people employed in exporting sectors and tourism. In New Zealand, we cannot return to previous levels of economic activity and employment without the involvement of many other countries: yet we are not yet ready to allow them in, and they are not yet ready to openly welcome us, with many fearing a second wave at the end of 2020 (in the European winter). As many New Zealand commentators have pointed out, being the best at responding and having the strictest quarantine might have stopped the virus, but it will not help us in the economic recovery.
We have the tools and the measures to deal with each of these factors individually, but we have never before had to deal with a global pandemic, and a global recession, and a global interruption to trade, and an increase in dissent towards political regimes (which I will discuss later). We have a World Health Organisation, to manage health crises on a global scale, but they can do little for a global recession. We have the United Nations who can help with questions of justice and peace, but they can do little to stop the political forces and conjectures of the likes of Donald Trump. Inevitably, the globalists will, as the world begins to reflect on the impact of the virus, call for even greater measures of control and global coordination. What form this could take, and whether these global organisations are necessary, or even desirable, is too much of a question to consider here, but it is, I think, a question we must prepare ourselves for. Especially given that the political role of the United States in championing truth, democracy, freedom, and human rights is coming to look more like a farce.
Let’s spend a short time reflecting on the other major word we have been seeing in relation to the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2: crisis. Do we have a crisis? Again, it depends who is asking the question, and on what scale we want to consider this as being a crisis. New Zealand, to be clear, never had a ‘coronavirus crisis.’ We were never overwhelmed, we were never so short of PPE gear that our medical staff had to improvise and risk their lives with an overly rampant and out of control virus in our communities, and we at all times had control over who and what entered the country through our borders. There was of course the potential for a crisis to develop if we had not acted, but restrictions were put in place and we were never in such a crisis.
What is a crisis, anyway? In one sense we can consider a crisis to be something that overwhelms us, that we are unable to deal with or cope with the circumstances at a particular moment, and where things could either end up really bad, or quite alright. The other sense of crisis refers to a turning point in which all future events can be traced back to and end up being determined by this event. In New Zealand, it would seem that we tend to overdramatise the first sense of crisis, believing we are unable to cope and might not make it when in fact there was very little chance of this, given the knowledge of people in the country’s top health jobs, as well as a relative delay of the virus arriving at our shores. The second sense of crisis seems to be almost forgotten when we speak of a crisis, or the actual origin of the crisis is misplaced: with the virus itself, and not with the severe measures taken by the Government during the lockdown period.
What we have is what could be termed a ‘self-imposed crisis.’ The severe restrictions New Zealand put into place to protect the health of its citizens have created an economic recession, an attitude of fear and uncertainty amongst the majority of people, and an absolute uncompromising strictness when it comes to how we deal with cases of the virus now that we have spent time without any community transmission. Through these health measures, which are new for New Zealand (we have never been in a nation-wide lockdown), the country’s economy was projected to contract by around 15% between March and June (according to real-time GDP calculator gdplive.net), resulting in the typical effects of recession: unemployment, companies going bust, increased government spending for welfare payments, and the line between poverty and security becoming more like a tightrope than a plank for many families.
Yet interestingly, the outlook from New Zealand seems remarkably positive. On June 30th, Finance Minister Grant Robertson is reported to have been pleasantly surprised that the economy is recovering faster than expected, with “ANZ chief economist Sharon Zollner agree[ing] the "bounce out of lockdown" had been faster and more vigorous than widely expected.” Zollner notes that the recession coming from our closed border is only just beginning to show its effects, however. We might just be in for a bumpy ride if we decide to continue to keep the borders closed. This, to be clear, is a decision that we have the space to make: we have the choice as to how isolated we want ourselves to be, and how we manage arrivals. This ability to choose the extent to which we are an isolated state reinforces the idea that this is a ‘self-imposed crisis,’ rather than a crisis imposed by the virus itself, a force of nature which we have very much under control.
This is very much unlike places such as Europe where the extent of the crisis runs much deeper. In Europe, the crisis was, and in some cases still is a public health crisis first and foremost, with hospitals unable to cope with the sudden increase in patients and not enough protective and breathing equipment, for the public to safely continue their necessary shopping and working movements. This health crisis has lead them into another crisis, an economic one, which looks to be much worse than anything seen before. The European Central Bank is responding with measures that, in the opinion of economist Oliver Hartwich, is like a band-aid for the Eurozone:
“All these interventions are papering over the cracks in the European economy, but they are not solving them. They are putting the crisis on hold and only delay the inevitable, which is a painful readjustment of the eurozone.”
The most important take away from thinking about how this event, one which, as we will soon conclude, can be considered a major event, is that when we consider the nature of the ‘crisis’ that we think ourselves to be in, we must think about what it is that is imposing this state of crisis, and whether that is of our own doing – i.e. our actions (or those of the Government, for which we, through representative democracy, all have a responsibility for), or whether it is in fact the virus itself which has caused a situation of crisis. What that crisis could be has been well reflected upon in the discussion of whether this pandemic is in fact unprecedented.
Thus, to conclude this first part of the discussion, we can ask: to what extent are we in the middle of a ‘major event’? Jacques Derrida asked this question in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States in 2001, and I think we are in a position to ask the same question once again. We have thought about how the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 can be considered unprecedented, and thought about some key questions regarding whether it is a crisis, and what or who is responsible for such a crisis.
The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 is, in my view, a major event. It is the first time that we have experienced a global recession in connection with a global pandemic and a global interruption to trade. It is the first time that we have been able to visibly see the effects of the U.S.’ distancing itself from the world that many other countries are inhabiting (we cannot yet see major effects of climate change for the majority of those in Western countries), in the form of deaths from bleach injection, and growing, largely out of control virus spread in certain states. More than half the world’s population has been placed in some form of quarantine. It is a major event because future announcements, decisions, and relationships will refer back to this moment in history as creating a decided break from ‘before’ to ‘after.’ This is an event that we will remember for some time, despite the short memory of much of the media. This is also an event which, for many millennials and Gen Z’ers, marks their chance to tell those who say that they haven’t yet experienced a recession or financial hardship, that they do in fact know what a global ‘crisis’ is like.
II POLITICAL FRAMEWORKS, LOCAL AND GLOBAL
We can now say with some degree of certainty that the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 is a major event, and with that status being conferred, it is worth looking into what the political implications, questions, and developments are that have come with this crisis. Not on the microscopic level of policy details, implementation and effectiveness, but on a more ideological and global level: international projects and goals, the apparent rise of localism supporters, and the nature of international relations.
We had already seen the beginnings of the self-induced distancing that the United States embarked upon through its decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. The country has made the implicit statement to the rest of the world that the challenges it is facing are different, and will have different effects on Americans, and they have made clear that their “Planet Earth” is different to the one most other countries recognise. They do not need to fight climate change in the way that we do, and with the same urgency that we recognise, because they do not perceive there to be a valid threat to their nation’s interests – their people, their economy, their livelihoods, their future.
The United States only continued this trend in their response to the virus, with many of President Trump’s media appearances in the wake of the realisation that this would be a major event taking the form of a political epic; hour upon hour of denial of the real threats, ignorance towards the validity of the responses that other countries believed necessary, taking the opportunity for a grand self-promotion. Later, the President suggested, to the disbelief of many of his scientific advisors, that we could inject ourselves with bleach to remain safe; he also admitted to taking the unproven anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in an attempt to stave off the virus. These are some of the most widely publicised questionable statements from the country’s leader, but we must wonder what effect this has on international politics.
Many believe that because the United States has assumed the place of ‘leader of the free world’ (which by the way, we did not really confer on them – they styled themselves as this, and we snuck in behind with a little bumper sticker showing our support), their stability in this position keeps international relations between large opposing powers at bay. The reason, for example, that China doesn’t attack New Zealand to get fresh water if they have run out is, the theory states, because the United States and United Kingdom (New Zealand’s allies) would attack China in response. The stability of the country that assumes global dominance would be, therefore, incredibly important to maintaining not only stable global international relations, but also New Zealand’s security as a nation.
However, this view is not without many opponents, and with the increased movement towards cooperation and integration across many sectors, there is increasing appetite for a close relationship between New Zealand and both the United States and China. How this would play out in the event of a war we cannot be certain. Auckland University’s Professor Sir Peter Gluckman has noted “These relationships [with the U.S.] will always be critical. We should use less traditional vehicles for relationship building such as science and culture and we need to enhance our cultural understanding of China, particularly across Government. We do not have to choose between the major powers and we should not do so.”
Beyond the theory of international relations, there is something more fundamental which we must address: the type of planet we believe we are inhabiting. If the United States believes that it is on a completely different planet, we must take this seriously. Perhaps the actions (or lack thereof) on climate change and the responses to the COVID-19 virus are a sign that they will not necessarily jump to New Zealand’s rescue in times of serious national crisis. As they have made clear, their world is vastly different from the one we believe to be inhabiting, and our common dangers have radically different effects on American soil.
What is the framework or paradigm that is being challenged by these actions? Not only is it one of international relations, it is also that of the project of globalisation, which I believe to be one of the most important questions we should now be asking ourselves. Will the West’s project of globalisation be able to continue as it was pre-Covid-19? What disruptions have we seen and what changes in perspective are we seeing now that could threaten this goal? And is it a worthy goal in the first place?
To answer the final question, we should split globalisation into two types: plus and minus. This idea comes from French philosopher Bruno Latour, who notes that globalisation-plus is the type of globalisation that allows the likes of healthcare, medicine, and education to be exported across the globe to raise living standards and the general quality of life for billions of people, whilst at the same time allowing multiple and diverging viewpoints. Globalisation-minus is the ideological and cultural exports that are destroying indigenous knowledge systems, and homogenising cultures to generate a global monoculture. The process of globalisation – shifting from the local to the global, as Latour says – should mean that we take more opinions and worldviews into account. Instead, however, we are seeing globalisation-minus, where “a single vision proposed by a few individuals has been imposed on everyone.”
The effect of lockdowns and rebuilding campaigns are beginning to show that this project of globalisation-minus has gaping holes – with one of the largest coming from the country that has done most of the cultural exportation in the name of democracy and freedom. If the globe had followed the United States’ lead in dealing with the outbreak, we would not be in such a good position as we are today (most notably for Europe and Asia, but not ignoring the terrible situation still developing in South America). It is because of these diverging opinions and perspectives and worldviews that we have been able to develop different responses, learn from each other, and find a way forward that uses best practices but doesn’t ignore cultural differences in each country. This could be because we have already reached the point of no return, with cultural colonialism meaning that we are so similar as to readily accept the same approach to fighting the virus. I think however that this, whilst it has some truth, is not necessarily the case, especially in New Zealand.
In New Zealand, we took an approach that was very similar to most other countries. We also, however, heard the voices of Māori and Pasifika peoples who wanted the rules to show a trust towards their cultural practices, giving their leaders the responsibility to make modifications in culturally appropriate ways so as to retain the social and cultural value in society throughout the period of lockdown. New Zealand is incredibly fortunate to have a divergent worldview from the Western neoliberal narrative, to remind those of us who have been ‘globalised’ in the minus-sense that we do not just need people of different races who all think the same around the table, but also that we need different and competing worldviews. The strength of the voices of those fighting for, and questioning the Government in New Zealand about the cultural appropriability of the response has, I think, strengthened our understanding of the reasons why globalisation-plus can be a good thing.
We have so far looked at the cultural level of globalisation-plus and -minus, but what about the economic context of globalisation? An increasing number of campaigns have been instructing us to ‘buy local’, ‘support our local businesses’ and more. We must ask what exactly we mean by local here. Does shop local mean going to the Countdown in your village because the managers are New Zealanders, when in fact the company is owned by Woolworths in Australia and some of the profits from each shopping trip likely see their way overseas? Or, does it mean shop at one’s local independent butcher, baker, fruit market, etc. for one’s goods; where local ownership literally means the lady ten doors down? To what extent is The Warehouse a local company: is ‘local’ nation-wide, regional, or community-based?
Either way, if we continue to believe that we must only buy products that have been produced in New Zealand, the cost of living in this country will increase enormously. This is because of what we learn from the economic concept of efficiency. If we cannot efficiently produce enough potatoes to supply the needs of New Zealanders, we import them from another country who, because they are able to grow potatoes more cheaply than we can, are able to sell them to us, and we buy them for a lower price than what we would pay for those grown here. When New Zealand isn’t competitively efficient in the production of certain goods, and we begin to only buy New Zealand-made versions of these products, we risk increasing the cost of living for everyone. This is because, in theory, when we no longer buy imported potatoes, this sends a signal to the potato-importers, who subsequently import less potatoes. However, New Zealand potato farmers cannot simply increase their production by 20% overnight, if many more of us decide overnight to purchase only NZ potatoes. It takes a while to produce potatoes, so in the meantime there will be a shortage of New Zealand potatoes, and thus prices are likely to increase. Next, the land used for asparagus will be used for potatoes as farmers can get more for their NZ potatoes, meaning we end up with an asparagus shortage… This is all very textbook economic theory.
What does this ‘shop local’ campaign mean ideologically for globalisation? If we successfully change our habits to the point where it’s no longer so desirable to have French wine and Japanese seaweed, we will see a reverse in increasing global trade projections. The idea that the world can become one large market with many consumers desiring things from around the world suddenly morphs into many independent markets, with consumers trying hard to support only their own local producers. Countries such as the U.S. will continue to get richer as their businesses gain access to more consumers in developing countries like Nigeria and India, whilst New Zealand’s ‘shop local’ will not result in increased incomes as the leaders and politicians desire. Or, we might realise that endless economic growth and ever-higher incomes don’t make that much sense anyway, and decide to reform our economic foundations.
If we take an inward turn and become concerned with our own supply chains and not global ones, this could impact the viability of global organisations like the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, and more. We may find ourselves asking (and the U.S. has already asked this), do we then need these organisations? On the level of health, do we need the World Health Organisation to coordinate a SARS-CoV-2 response globally (which it doesn’t seem to have the authority to do, but may in the future)? The United States, for instance, doesn’t seem to think so, after making the decision to defund the W.H.O. All these questions sit in a distinctly global framework.
On the one hand we have changing global positionings, and a questioning of the function, value, and authority/reach of international organisations and legal bodies. We could, if we decided to (but who would ‘we’ be, exactly? Most likely the world’s richest countries) choose to coordinate and strengthen these global organisations, so that we have tools in place to manage global health crises and world recessions and information crises, at the same time. On the other hand, we have increasing movements, largely by citizens themselves, against these global goals, supporting local businesses and producers, being more aware of our local communities. We could also, if we so decided (again probably the willingness of rich countries plays a large role in such a decision) turn inwards as countries of the same earth, and leave the already-closing doors of international cooperation and trade to shut further. Both options seem somewhat unlikely.
What is remarkable is that these two options are such polar opposites to each other. There will come a time, however, when we have to make these decisions, and there will be loud calls from either side: both the local, and the global, pulling the two poles further apart and challenging any kind of unified approach of international cooperation. Both options are just as unviable and unlikely, and we thus might be heading for an ideological battle where both options are not going to achieve the flourishing we are all, at base, looking for in our lives.
There is one big hurdle which I see in the idea of global development, which we are beginning to realise on a massive scale. That is the fact that there is simply not enough resources to enact the project of any kind of ideological globalisation whereby everyone can have the same standard of living as those in the U.S., New Zealand, Germany… New Zealand’s overshoot day in 2020 was May 5th. That’s the day where we have used all the resources that we should have used over the period of the whole year, to live sustainable lives. Instead, every day past this date, we are using up resources from future generations and thus robbing them of the ability to a sustainable life. As a globe, we currently need 1.6 Earths to be able to sustain the level of consumption and extraction of natural resources that we are now using. There simply is no world in which we can all live like those in rich countries are now living.
It is impossible to go back to the local that we had before. Technological advances, international trade, and our appetite for tourism mean that we won’t end up being seen to ‘go backwards’ and lose the things that we enjoy and have gained through the processes of globalisation. Inefficiencies, lack of choice, and dependency on other countries in all sectors – even local education – means creating a new ‘local’ is also unlikely. It is impossible to reach the developmental goals of those supporting globalisation, just as it isn’t particularly desirable to have a homogenous global culture lacking difference and diversity in fundamental worldviews. Because thus far we’ve seen more globalisation-minus than globalisation-plus, reversing the negative effects already forced upon many countries means a global approach probably will not be well received by all those who inhabit the globe. Globalisation must be accepted by all nations for the idea to work: if not all of us want it, then continuing to fight for a global pole will lead to battles both materially and ideologically.
What the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 has brought to the forefront of many of our minds is this precise fact: we cannot go back and we cannot go forwards, towards what we thought we were going to. We can shop local to recover businesses, but not to the point of stopping international trade. We can promote globalisation but only through using less resources, not more. The polarisation of the two most widely considered options for progress have been shown up as inadequate. We need, now more than ever, to think deeply about how to solve the challenges that we face. We cannot continue on the path we were on; we cannot go back. We also cannot just think that we are stuck with nowhere to go. Human beings are some of the best creatures at adaptation, and it’s a shame that we don’t value visionary intellectuals enough to have very many of them in the first place, and we struggle to bring true diversity into real, actionable discussions to rethink a viable way forward that sits at a different pole to both the local and the global. For this to happen, our twentieth-century concepts must be reconfigured to match a vastly altered world.
III THREATS: WHO CAN BLAME THEM?
Globalisation is over. Many of us are now coming to realise this. Governments of Western countries have been singing in chorus about this goal for the past 50 years, however it is now defunct. Who can blame those who say that we have been lied to by our leaders, when we have been sold a goal, a vision for the future, that is not viable due to a lack of resources, and that is not desirable because it has ended up squashing a diversity of worldviews? Who can blame those who are angry and disillusioned with their Governments, these same Governments who have led people to extract resources, carelessly and dangerously, and led the planet into a crisis almost entirely of our own making?
Who can blame the globalisationists, the economists, for holding on to the concepts which have served to develop the world to the highly structured and technical one we inhabit today? Who can blame them for fighting back, for arguing for a pragmatic approach that uses the instruments of their trades that were developed in the twentieth century to address a greater level of industrialisation? Who can blame them for believing in global goals, global cultures, global governance – things that bring us close together?
Who can blame the politicians, the ones who have led us through this development of neoliberal politics and capitalism, swayed by the influence of swing-voters and ultimately stuck because of the lack of fresh political ideology to reform their nations? Are they at fault for believing in the fact that we could become rich and developed nations, and for (in New Zealand) getting us to that point, albeit by exploiting environmental resources, largely without being aware of the impact they were having? Is that lack of foresight the responsibility of the politicians of yesterday?
We could, at this point, suggest that the majority of us have become victim to the concepts and structures that were developed in the previous century, to allow this much-coveted development to occur. Our concepts, instead of being value-based and pointing us towards specific and desirable goals, have instead become analytic concepts, with the abstract goal of an undefined ‘progress’ slotted in for those who ask about it.
We cannot be devoid of responsibility, and it is clear that there are ‘threats’ from all sides, against all sides, and to which all sides are hoping to mobilise their forces of power to defeat. The disenchanted citizens who no longer believe in the legitimacy and direction of their governments are destroying 5G towers, holding protests in the streets calling for the defunding of the police in the United States, and fighting against pension reforms in France. Yet these same Governments and the technological and business interests that lie behind the big policy decisions perceive these so called ‘conspiracy theorists’ to be attacking a notion of truth and the validity of their establishment, by using social media platforms in a way that threatens the possibility of maintaining peace and justice in their countries. Governments are fighting what they see as the threats of disinformation and misinformation and lack of information and information-overload. Yet another group of people, those who generally believe in their Governments and the direction the public space takes, see both the Government’s increasing use of force, and the increasing radicality of those who oppose their Government as being conflicting forces disrupting the peace of their country. They try to discuss truths with each other but end up realising that their friends have now become distant, have joined a side, and at once must avoid argument by ‘agreeing to disagree.’
We must be silent, yet at the same time we must speak out against injustice. We must not become polarised, yet at the same time we must believe in something, follow someone. We must be an individual with difference, yet at the same time we must develop our collaborative skills and share ourselves with our communities. We must pay our taxes whilst at the same time not having enough money to pay our rent. In Western liberal democracies, the contemporary human, it would seem, treads a precariously balanced tightrope of choices and values and goals on a daily basis that is not leading them towards a resolute way out.
In the previous section we discussed the frameworks that were at stake, and the paradigms that are beginning to become apparent as we enter into a stage of paradigm shift in our history. Globalisation and age-old localism are incompatible yet unachievable alone, and thus we must seek a new way forward. I do not think that it is the virus itself that we see as the biggest threat at the present moment. Yes, the virus is ravaging economies and lives across the globe, but something has clicked in the minds of many people regarding the nature of their societies and governance structures, their relationship to the natural environment, and more. What, therefore, given the scary space of the world that we inhabit, are the threats that we are afraid of in our development towards a new future? And how has the pandemic of the COVID-19 virus brought these to light?
Space must now be given to something mentioned previously but not yet analysed: post-truth and fake news. This seems to be one of the biggest concerns from all sides of the spectrum towards the abundance of information we can now access via the internet, and print media. Conspiracy theorists are worried about the fake news of the Governments regarding 5G, vaccines, the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the new laws brought in under the cover of lockdown, abortion reforms… The digital supporters and scientists are worried about what they call ‘misinformation’ regarding new technologies and modern medicinal solutions. Those who don’t particularly take either side are worried about having to actually take a side now: because nothing they read can be taken for granted, nor can be assumed to be unbiased and an accurate account of something previously called ‘the truth’.
What is the truth? It’s quite an abstract concept, despite seeming to be fairly simple. Most of us claim that we possess the truth about something, and that we have found a belief in something that we ‘know’ to be unshakeable. This belief is about, most often, a particular state of affairs in the world: we have the truth when we have found out what something is, how it works…
There are two major and questionable disciplines that have been raised to the level of unquestionable truth, without perhaps having such firm foundations for this award: economics and the natural sciences. We believe that the scientific method gives us the truth; not, perhaps more accurately, that it is a way for us to frame our understanding of the world and make measurements and observations based on this. Science is not reality, science is a way of looking at and understanding reality; yet many have forgotten this. As German philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote, we have forgotten that we have forgotten that it was us who created science. We no longer, at a public level, reflexively contemplate the presuppositions of science as a general discipline, and often only the professional scientists themselves are aware of the limitations of their discipline. Furthermore, scientific and published studies can now be ‘bought’ by private interests. For example, tobacco companies in the late 20th century created enough ‘information’ to confuse the public as to whether it was, or was not, unhealthy to smoke cigarettes. Scientific results can also be falsified and approximated by unscrupulous scientists, who are just as susceptible to confirmation bias as the rest of us. By elevating a particular discipline that provides us with a reference framework for looking at the world to a discipline of truth, and then realising that it is corruptible, we have led ourselves down the certain path of being disappointed when it doesn’t live up to our expectations of delivering us ‘the truth.’
This second discipline has come to be known as the most scientific of the social sciences: economics. Arguably, economics is gradually bearing greater responsibility for the direction of societal progress and thinking on a national and a global level, despite its realm traditionally being restricted to the management of households, resources, value and wealth. What economics doesn’t seem to often reflect upon is whether the concepts it is using are relevant, correct, and valuable in themselves to act as guides for our collective economic management. Take, for example, the idea of market equilibrium in graphical form. All those who have taken economics with the classic textbooks know that at its core, economics is about the management of scarce resources. Yet, in the diagram of supply and demand, one is presented with never-ending upward supply curves, seemingly able to go on producing goods forever. The assumption at the base of the theory, and the theory that supports it, do not fit together. One need only read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics for more extremely palatable critiques of the economic theory we have carried with us into the 21st century. One of the underlying points that Raworth makes is that we often take these models of the world as the world itself, rather than a simplified or representational image of it. The models therefore cannot be said to bring us directly to the truth: they are not reality itself, but an attempt at explaining it. Likewise, these models are often static, when in reality the processes of the earth are incredibly complex and dynamic. Raworth suggests that new economic models need to be developed to be able to portray this complex world, but we must not, at the same time, forget that these are models and not the world itself. What we receive from economics is merely a model of the real world we are still seeking to interpret.
Many centuries ago, and most especially in the Middle Ages, the truth in European societies was received through religious practices. Truth was a divine concept that we accessed through theological resources such as the Bible, logic, theological thinking, and discussions with theological representatives such as priests. Let us not forget that today the very basis, the very framework, upon which we evaluated the ‘truth’ has changed: and it may change again. The truth is not such a stable concept as we might like to think, and whilst this may perhaps be a destabilising idea, it offers up many new avenues for consideration. Scientific knowledge is not the only type of knowledge: we have other types of knowledge including indigenous knowledge which is just as ‘true’ as that which we now publicly laud.
Given this understanding of truth, it is not really possible for there to be a period of ‘post-truth’ as many claim. The truth has always been of concern, but what we consider as the truth has, and will continue to change: Just as the methods that we believe to lead us to truth will change as well. What has changed is the fact that the truth has gone from a singular, shared conception of reality, to an incredibly individual and personal concept. Now, everyone has their own ‘truth’, and we can interrupt potential arguments by recognising that we have a different conception of reality and avoid discussing these respective ‘truths.’ I would be very cautious to call what I think I know to be truth, especially when it seems many of our concepts are failing us; however, there doesn’t appear to be a general willingness to discuss the world at this level.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has elevated this definition of truth to new heights through social media. Through the online ‘bubbles’ created by Facebook newsfeeds, we gather only a certain type of information when we log on, which reinforces the preferences that we already hold. It thus makes it very easy to develop a community of people who believe in the same ‘truth’ and create, share and interact with content that is solely from this perspective. In the days of book publishing without the internet, publishers had strict control over what would be published, and what would be read by individuals who did not personally know the author. Social media has changed this: anyone and everyone can create and publish their work to an audience.
However, we are increasingly seeing the large media companies like Twitter and Snap blocking, banning or adding warnings to content that they class as false, yet Facebook is squarely against this position, wanting to keep its platform open and largely unmoderated. Through this, a globally recognised ‘plandemic’ theory has been developed, where thousands of people in many different countries are in support. The ability to gather information in support of this theory mimics the supposedly scientific process we have developed for knowledge production, and there are even documentaries providing testimonials and supporting evidence. The ‘scientific’ approach is not yet clear on the point at which the virus was transmitted between animals and humans, though many believe it was likely to be at a market in Wuhan. What these many theories have done is exactly the same as what the tobacco companies did in the late 20th century: create enough evidence and enough reasons to doubt the truth of the ‘official story.’ One need not discredit it entirely, it is enough to simply show that there is enough evidence to doubt the general belief of the origin of the virus. We have become so used to vested interests, to being lied to, to being campaigned to and advertised at, that to simply ask ‘which seems more plausible?’ or ‘which has the best evidence?’ would be to ignore the ever-present worry of: what if this piece of evidence, or this event, has been fabricated beyond my knowledge and outside of my control?
This pandemic has given those who are disillusioned by their Governments and the society in which they live the chance to develop their beliefs and find new evidence to support what they believe. They have, in all fairness, been lied to by their Governments regarding the viability and desirability of goals like globalisation, and have gleefully lived resource-intensive lives before becoming aware of the implications this has had on the planet, and in many cases, will have on their children and grandchildren. Their Governments are slow in the face of climate change, or just deny its existence all together, and social and wealth inequalities are rising rapidly in high-income Western countries. The majority of those classified as conspiracy theorists or simply anti-government petitioners are middle aged, and grew up when the current systems were, under their own criteria, in their golden age. They were sold the concepts and the titles and the slogans of development which the ‘new age’ we are in now has come to reject, redevelop, or simply cast aside as we work to fix the major issues in our societies. This is not to say, of course, that we have not made great gains over the past 50 years – we have. And those who are clinging on to the concepts of their youth are the ones who are trying to save their somewhat sinking ship as the world changes around them.
Venerated health-based fiction author Vernon Coleman produced some videos outlining what he believes is the mass extermination of the elderly throughout the world, all based on one fact: that sick, untested patients were being sent to care homes across the world because of a lack of space in hospital facilities. This was all, allegedly, in an attempt to reduce pension payments, save healthcare costs, and bring the balance sheet back to neutral by reducing the number of elderly people. The Times of India, The Sun, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the NY Post, and many more UK and US news agencies have reported on this strange directive to send possible COVID-19 virus patients back to care homes. There does not however appear to be evidence for the same thing happening in every country around the world, as Coleman suggests. Recently, many officials did admit that the directive was a wrong move made when we did not know as much about the virus as we do now. For people such as Coleman, it comes all too late, as much of the ‘damage’ has already been done.
When watching this video, one is struck by the fact that Coleman is, himself, getting on in years. Has he, perhaps, taken a misfortunate decision made due to a lack of space and growing pressure on medical facilities, and turned it into a malicious attack on the world’s elderly: an attack on a group in which he is a member? Could this be his way of dealing with the fear that coverage of the virus has developed amongst the elderly populations? Coleman, born in 1946, grew up as the European Project was in its infancy, and as the dreams of global cooperation and development were taking over the economic agendas of Western countries. He then witnessed the global recession in 2008, the Brexit campaigns in 2016-2020, and now the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, amongst many other global events, where the promises of his leaders have not lived up to the reality that he, and many others, are living. Perhaps this realisation regarding deeply political and economic issues has been carried over into his beliefs regarding a healthcare outbreak, one which is arguably much more of a matter of life and death, on a larger scale? Or, perhaps Coleman is correct, and there is a plan to eradicate elderly and avoid paying pensions which appears to have infected Governments the world over.
With the same piece of evidence, we can rationalise and come to vastly different conclusions. We can defend these Governments, we can explain Coleman’s decisions and rationale from the little we can gather about his life, or we can follow his “logical conclusion” and take it to be the ‘truth.’ But which one shall we pick? And how can we decide? These are the questions that we are coming to face with the erosion of the value of the truth, because in actual fact, it doesn’t really matter which one you pick: unless you willingly have open discussions about it and are ready to change your mind in the face of stronger argumentation or evidence, or unless you are a global leader or media representative (in which case your decision is probably already made before the question was asked), what the truth is here has ceased to be an issue of importance. Before reading this article you probably hadn’t heard of Coleman’s theory, and upon reading it, you likely either had suspicions of Government actions in which case this would seem more likely, or you believed in the scientific and political narrative of the pandemic, in which case this seems like nonsense. And if the topic does come up in conversation, it will likely be put in the ‘agree to disagree’ basket and the matter will be settled there. The truth, in this case, has lost its importance. If we are not willing to change our minds, nor willing to discuss potentially confrontational topics, how can we still maintain that the truth matters? What would one do if one found the ‘real truth?’
With the theory of mass elderly executions, we will never know: Governments will never be questioned on this matter because the judicial systems we have in place will not take such claims seriously, unless there was compelling, first-hand evidence of such decisions being made from within Government. I doubt such evidence can, or will, be found.
What we are seeing in all these areas, with all these problems, is an interconnected system responding to a range of problems in the ways that we have available to us, and using the same systems and measures that we know are not working. Our overarching faith in the scientific method and in science being able to solve all of our problems has meant that we believe that to tell a story of ‘truth,’ one must present it in a scientific way, with evidence. Evidence, in 2020, is largely circumstantial, can be fabricated, and is often unreliable (or requires verification) if found on or around social media networks. Globalisation need not only be of goods and services: the globalisation of the scientific method and a mechanical approach towards planet earth is also a kind of cultural and epistemological colonisation for those who have not yet adopted this model.
Lies, untruths, rebellions, cultural and epistemological colonisation, failing governments… these are all not new. Throughout many millennia in humanity’s history, our ancestors have seen this all before. The questions we are asking now are the result of a changing paradigm, as we realise the unsustainability of our position towards the world.
Let’s pivot 180 degrees and look at the question of threat from a different perspective. Previously, we looked at internal threats to our systems, our goals, and our progress. Now let’s look at our place on planet Earth. The outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19 has resulted in many of us reconsidering our view that we have ‘control’ over nature, or that we are able to simply move about and act as we wish, without the forces of nature taking over and destroying the systems and societies that we have. We have been reduced to the earliest of humans, we are no longer ‘safe’ in thinking that we have dominance over natural systems, and we have realised just how fragile the things that we previously took for granted actually are.
This reminds me of a theory of anxiety by Hans Blumenberg, a German philosopher. Blumenberg conceives that as humans moved from the caves in the jungle out into the open savannah, they came to realise that threats could come from anywhere, at any time. The open horizon, instead of the protected single entry to the cave, became their danger zone, and it became impossible to know where dangers could be coming from at all times. We came to develop a condition of anxiety through this situation: we didn’t know where the dangers were coming from, so we had to be alert at all times. In the pre-COVID-19 21st century, there was a sense of invincibility about much of our actions: climate change was coming, but we had no idea when and many thought of it as too big of a threat to be able to take meaningful action; we extracted minerals and resources from the earth at some of the greatest rates ever in our history; we went about thinking that we owned the key to the universe, and that science was telling us, and would predict for us all the threats that we needed to be aware of, so that we didn’t have to think of or find these ourselves. The ‘hard thinking’ of anxiety and threat detection was no longer the job of the everyday citizen, rather this duty had been outsourced. We trusted those who were doing these prediction jobs that they would let us know if there was something that we needed to prepare for.
After the shock of the virus rapidly spreading throughout the world, we are coming to remember that natural systems are just as much a ‘threat’ to our survival as they always have been. This job of threat detection can be outsourced, but we cannot rely on the same systems to protect us from these threats. We are realising that as a species we are intricately embedded in the natural fabric of systems that make up planet Earth, and that any attempt at removing ourselves from this, or believing that we are outside of the Earth, and able to dominate its systems, is false. The threat of nature has prompted a lot of people to become more self-sufficient in their food production for example, with raw ingredients like flour and baking powder quickly disappearing from supermarket shelves entirely for the better part of two weeks. We are slowing seeing a turn to smaller-scale projects, enterprises, sustainable business practices, and more. All things that, strangely enough, were stopped when the British colonised New Zealand, in favour of large scale agricultural and industrial projects.
This local/global chasm discussed above is only growing because of the reminder from the COVID-19 virus outbreak of the threat that nature poses towards us. We are not above or outside of nature’s systems, and thus we must work with these forces to engender our continued survival. Yet, how do we do this? Can we run a large-scale technological society by growing our own food and sharing in community enterprise? Such a local-extreme often leaves an abundance of technology largely unnecessary and superfluous: if we have local connections and worked together to grow and develop our resources, we don’t really need to communicate often with others in different places; Zoom and an encyclopaedia would probably suffice. But then we must provide space for the myriad cultural activities, sporting events, digital spaces, etc. that we have developed, and once again we see that such small-scale thinking cannot be the solution for everyone. We are, I am sure, at the precipice of a great global (and admittedly mostly Western) paradigm shift, but I’m not certain we actually know where it is we are heading.
IV ZOOMING IN: WHAT HAPPENED TO INDIVIDUALS
Zoom is not the only new kid on the block. Contactless processes, online learning, social distancing, working from home, working less hours, losing your job, having a mortgage holiday, not going overseas… these are all things that seem to have become part of the
‘new normal.’ At least for the time being.
The changes that have been enabled in lieu of the pandemic are vast and wide-reaching, most particularly for the technology industry. Almost overnight, pushes for certain technologies to be adopted began, but the scale of uptake was so large that even the manufacturers of these very technologies couldn’t cope. We have looked outward at the societal and political changes, but what has happened to the most basic unit of the liberal society: the humble individual? How has the COVID-19 virus changed things on a much smaller scale?
Instead of looking at the pandemic and its effects in terms of the local/global axis, it’s also important to consider alternate ways of looking at the same issues. By doing this we can realise the limitations of our viewpoints and learn new things about the world. One of these levels that is most noticeable to us, and that has been most impacted, is the level of the individual. COVID-19 as a disease has, for some, facilitated the development of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, especially throughout the time that we were in lockdown. This is not limited to young people either: many elderly who were on their own through this period are also noticing the effects.
Every interaction when we are alert regarding COVID-19 spreading is a potential-transmission interaction, and this kind of interaction is of course nothing new. Each interaction during the winter flu season is the same, yet the presence of such dangers at the forefront of our consciousness is not so great. Especially in New Zealand, due to the Government’s advertising campaigns, we could not forget about the spread of the virus, and the global pandemic. We could not go online without being reminded that our interactions were dangerous; that our breaches could be punished, that we were putting other people at risk by leaving home. Staying home was saving lives, and who would want to be accused of inadvertently killing their neighbour’s grandma?
The very space that heralds the ability for modern individuals to express themselves, namely, the internet, became a vehicle through which Government, business, and groups of all kinds could communicate and spread messages both with political and medical intent, as well as express feelings, thoughts, changes, and general news to other individuals. This space was taken over by a message with singular intent: stay home, save lives; be kind, stay calm. The news we read, the posts we saw, were all about staying home: no matter whether they were official Government posts, or posts from your friend about what she was up to in her flat.
We saw rising numbers on a daily basis, with charts and graphs and maps to visualise the spread of the virus. We listened to updates on cases and community transmission and clusters and kindness and police and breaches and punishment. These terms, though now somewhat nostalgic and unnervingly familiar, will remain part of our collective consciousness for the generation to come.
Now that we, in New Zealand, have seen both emergence of community contagion and the return to normal with almost no internal restrictions, we have had a chance to find new routines and different practices. Despite the differences and the ‘new normal,’ most things, when we look at the country from a bird’s eye view, seem to be quite similar to how they were before. Our decisions might have changed slightly. Our relationships might have changed as well. The fundamental principles seem to have remained in place; the guiding ideas behind policy and politics and everyday life seem to have remained embedded just as before: some more prominent, others less so.
We do seem to have anticipated a situation of doom, however. Forecasts of 11% unemployment of a month ago, have been revised to a maximum of 8-9%. The predictions from the ‘experts’ were severe and wide ranging, but the real effects on individuals haven’t immediately turned out to be as bad as predicted. Despite on a societal level there having been global pandemics previously, individuals faced with the first pandemic of their lives develop these traumata because they haven’t dealt with or seen such a situation before. With our lack of understanding as to how to treat this pandemic, we imagined doom scenarios, we planned for the worst, and, supported by messages invoking fear, we likely subconsciously built in this doomed future into our predictions. These messages, this fear, this anxiety: this is all part of a trauma experienced on both the societal and individual levels. Inside each of us now lies an expectant and all-knowing trauma, one which knows that one day there will be a virus that is worse, that is more deadly, and that will stop us in our tracks once again, and where we will once again have to resurrect our doomsday scenarios.
To understand just what the effect of the COVID-19 virus, the lockdowns, and the related changes to life have had on individuals, we will look closer at this trauma. There are two kinds of temporality exposed in the trauma caused by the spread of the virus, the trauma of the immediate present, to which our only defence is self-isolation; and the trauma to come, to which we can only place our trust in systems of governance and scientific developments to protect us. Each of these traumas works in a different way, and has a different effect on the consciousness. The trauma to come launches when we contemplate the future, or are forced to question the choices we are making in relation to this future, whilst the present trauma arises when we pass just a bit too close to someone, or when a café doesn’t take contactless payments and we’re forced to touch the buttons on the keypad.
These traumata result in the symptoms of anxiety and depression that we will inevitably see increase in sometimes unnoticeable ways in the coming months, in places and people that were not previously aware of these conditions and the way that they manifest themselves through various physiological symptoms in the body. First, let’s understand these two traumata: the trauma to come, and the trauma of the immediate present.
Imagine that you are living in the middle of the desert, in a tent. This tent offers you protection from the sun, when you are inside it, but when you are inside, you cannot see whether there are dangerous animals approaching you. You cannot see outside, so you end up confronted with a dilemma: how do you see and anticipate the dangers on approach when you cannot see outside, yet also need to be protected from the sun? There could be a snake immediately outside the door to the tent, and when you go to check the dangers, you could be bitten immediately. In many cases, this thought would generate a response of anxiety at our inability to prepare for the unknown danger to come. This is exactly the same as the anxiety felt as a result of the future potential pandemic.
It could be helpful to think of the pandemic as a danger that has come onto our collective horizon, but that we process and deal with differently. For some of us, we ignore the danger and continue our lives with minimal disruption; for others the disruption is so great that it cannot not be dealt with. It is overwhelming. When we were in lockdown, this danger on the horizon that we could see was less of a danger to come. We could have caught SARS-CoV-2, but we were not living in the expectation of an unknown further threat; rather, the danger was immediate and present. At every interaction with another person, there was a possibility that a virus could be transmitted between two people, with at least one of them most likely being asymptomatic, and thus no one knowing of this transmission. Each interaction had a potential to be deadly not just to the participants, but to future participants as well.
This trauma of a potential future threat is the trauma to come. It has as its object something that we cannot know anything about (because it lies in the future), and that as individuals we can do nothing about should it arise. We must look to our Governments and our institutions to protect us should such an event arise: yet we can never really be sure when this anticipated danger will occur. It is a trauma on the mind of the individual, that he or she is largely powerless against. Our reliance on global systems of food production, security, money flow, and medicine mean that were these things to be stopped entirely in an utterly unprecedented lockdown, we would be lost. We may wonder if this is as bad as it will get: viruses may not get more deadly and the ability of modern medicine to develop cures and vaccines will only get stronger in the coming years. It is these exact questions that are part of the temporality of this new health-based trauma, the trauma of a virus threat to come.
This trauma will most likely manifest itself in a generalised anxiety, in a worrisome mood in which our brains ask questions of the future, prepare for the worst, and develop contingency plans to deal with a threat that we know could come. Except here, the work that can be done by the average individual of a city, with very little connection to his/her own food sources and supply chains, is in fact very little. The preparation is vague, it is without the knowledge of what exactly we are preparing for, and it is in the face of this large, unknown and unidentifiable threat, that the condition of anxiety arises.
We can split this trauma into its mental nature, and the identifiable physiological symptoms it engenders. Sigmund Freud, the German pioneer of psychanalysis, discusses the nature of the condition of anxiety in a way that helps us to understand the major physiological symptoms of the trauma to come of this virus anxiety. Freud breaks anxiety down into two stages: preparedness for anxiety, and generation of anxiety. Preparedness for anxiety is where we ready ourselves for a fight or flight response, either approaching and attacking a danger through confronting it, or fleeing from the danger to avoid this confrontation entirely. In the case of our confrontation with a potential danger, that of a further outbreak, or lockdown, for example, we cannot fight it because it lingers on the horizon of the future. Nor can we flee from it unless we are completely isolated from the rest of humanity.
This inability to prepare, and to deal with a threat, thereby heightens the generation of our anxiety. To be clear: in every situation where we have identified a danger, we generate an fleeting anxiety, which means, if necessary, we can generate a fight or flight response. Most of the time it is dealt with in a swift and effective manner, and we are not subject to major physiological effects, like increased heartrate, tension in the nervous system, and more. When we cannot deal with the danger that faces us, the danger of a future virus, we generate anxiety, and through this generation we come to expect to be anxious when we consider the future with a pandemic. We train our brains, because they are unable to prepare or deal with a future threat as large and as concerning as a future pandemic, to expect to be anxious when we contemplate this thought, and thus generate the very anxiety itself.
Asking questions, extreme wondering, and guessing about the future are all ways of attempting to deal with the trauma to come. Once a traumatic situation has been experienced once – once we have felt the effects of anxiety as a result of being unable to confront and deal with the potential danger of a future virus outbreak – we are more likely to be confronted with the repetition of the same traumatic response again in the future. This is because we come to expect these questions and symptoms, which thereby generates them.
The other type of trauma, the trauma of the immediate present, is something that is felt in a way more akin to the condition of fear. It is likely not anxiety that you felt during lockdown when someone came just a little too close for your liking. This is because there was a very immediate and present threat to your own personal wellbeing, and this identifiable threat lies outside of you (as opposed to the trauma to come, where the threat is within you yourself in your inability to escape/deal with the danger of a future pandemic). This fear is often felt as an aversion, skipping a heartbeat, anger, distress… The immediate trauma manifests itself as fear, and always occurs as a reaction to a specific external threat.
The causes of the trauma in the immediate present are exacerbated, in New Zealand in particular, as a result of the aggressive and unavoidable Government warning messages, and the way that a ‘narking culture’ has been encouraged by the Prime Minister. We are encouraged to look down on fellow citizens not following the rules, report them, and expect them to be punished. To those who have legitimate reasons to leave the house, or who simply want to go to the supermarket, the trauma of the immediate present rears its head when they leave the house, anticipating that they are doing something they should not be, and that others may see them and punish them for doing so.
When we do go to the supermarket, we have to touch things. We also have to talk to people, be close to people, and rely on others following the rules for our own safety. The best protection from such threats was to stay home and not leave the house at all, but for many this was either not possible, or not desirable. We became able to identify potential threats immediately and act accordingly, by wearing masks, using hand sanitiser, walking around others with a wide berth, and more. These responses are ways of dealing with the trauma of the immediate present, in a functional way. For some, however, this trauma was not so easy to deal with, and situations such as the above became ones in which the person became dysfunctional. Worry, a racing heart, immediate alertness, and a readiness to act, or respond, often in dysfunctional or irrational ways, are all ways that we felt the trauma of the immediate present.
I would venture to suggest that we have all felt both these traumas, in the form of anxiety and fear, over the past few months. Some more than others: either in greater degrees, or with greater frequency, but felt all the same. The question that then arises is, what has this done to us? What is the result, the effect, the outcome, of experiencing a series of traumata together?
This is much less easy to define than our above description of the nature of the traumata. We could look at this question from the perspective of the institutional concept of ‘mental health:’ what will people’s mental health be like in the coming months, years? Mental health we must remember contains the term ‘health’ which is both a relative and complex term. Mental health has a variety of different influences, factors, conditions, and measurements. This means that everyone who has felt some anxiety or fear during the lockdown has not necessarily ended up with ‘worse’ mental health. Likewise, we all deal with trauma differently, and it will not always manifest itself in the same way in all people. Sometimes, experiences such as this strengthen the resolve of a person, and develop resilience. Other times, they can seem to be insurmountable conditions. I think it is appropriate to reserve judgement on this question, as to whether mental health has deteriorated, because we should not assume that experiences of anxiety and fear are wholly negative ones.
What about tackling the question by looking at the awareness or prevalence of mental health issues amongst our populations? Perhaps, through more people experiencing noticeable anxiety and fear, we are more willing to recognise such situations that act as triggers for these conditions in other people, and help them out? Again, it is very difficult to comment, because some people will ignore and dismiss these experiences, or deal with them without realising that they have; whilst others will want to talk openly about how they feel. It is likely that those who are already open about issues regarding mental health have remained so, and those who do not feel to be impacted by it are equally sure of their position.
Long-term, we could look to other events that generated traumata on a mass scale: wars, issues of race and representation, gender equality: these situations are not without historical precedent. These events leave lasting impressions in the minds of those who experience them, and very often leave scars that are passed down through generations to come. Just what the scars of the traumata of the COVID-19 virus will be, it is too early to tell, but they will no doubt remain with us for some time.
Back to the original question: what has happened to the individual? Aside from an analysis of the practical situation of our citizens, which you can easily find on many other media sites, we have learned of the nature of the traumata developed in many, if not all of us, throughout the period of lockdown. We have thought through the take-over of the internet space by messages of security and safety, the feelings of anxiety and fear which are the manifestations of these traumata, and the impacts that this could have on mental health. These are, of course, mere hypotheses - what will validate them is the reader him or herself, asking, does this reflect how I felt, or still feel?
V THE ROLE OF PHILOSOPHY
Whilst to some it may seem mildly (or wildly) preposterous to suggest that philosophy can, and should, play a role in our political situation, our response to a global pandemic, and in our understanding of the human condition, I would like to discuss this question regardless. We have seen the meteoric rise of microbiologists, epidemiologists, and other scientists, pushed to the front of the media’s attention for their clarity and certainty at a time when politicians are focused both on the country’s safety and the safety of their own jobs. But where does the discipline sit that has, in some way or another, defined and described human progress in the Western world for the past 2,000 years?
One of the most important tasks for any philosopher, and one that is often overlooked by many ambitious thinkers and writers, is simply a correct, clear, and coherent description of the state of affairs. We must first understand what it is that is going on, what we are talking about, what we are referring to, before we undertake other endeavours such as analysis or justification. This deceptively simple task of description is no easy feat: and it cannot simply be reduced to a table or graph representing us with statistics on a particular problem. Often these graphs are averages, or a representations of a larger whole which is much more diverse and contradictory than the data would like to make out, and requiring linguistic explanation and/or raw data to express these nuances.
It is common among philosophical discussions to begin by gaining at least some level of conceptual clarity, and making sure that the terms we are using are clear and agreed upon by those in the discussion. This both enables future discussion, by providing a clear foundation upon which others can make their points, and it also provides an understanding of the concepts themselves, which can lead to insights into the event at a different level than the one that is being discussed. Description is by no means solely a philosophical activity: scientists must be clear on what it is they are investigating, sociologists must set the boundaries of their experiments and think about their assumptions. Philosophy merely does this on the level of words and concepts first, before proceeding to discuss what these concepts are used for and refer to. The sciences however go straight to the physical reality they are analysing, to make definitions in terms of this reality itself.
Of course, any discussion of what philosophy does, how it does this, and what it should be doing, is in itself the very act of philosophy which often defines the discipline. To have a theory of what philosophy is and how it should be done brings any writer one step closer to being considered a ‘philosopher’ rather than someone who does philosophy; the two in my mind not being the same thing. It is thus that I proceed with this discussion on possible roles for philosophy, not attempting to provide any specifically normative claims as to what philosophy should be doing, but rather opening avenues in which a philosophical approach, and the abilities associated with philosophical thinking, would enhance our collective ability to deal with the situation that is upon us.
The first consideration must, I think, be in regards to sorting the misinformation from the information, and indeed providing this very description of what, in fact, is really going on. Media outlets are often very quick to dramatise and over-exaggerate every update and development in the hope that they will be the first to break a leading story of general public interest, and thus direct readership to their news sites. Often this approach leads to a lot of speculation and opinion being injected into supposedly unbiased reportage. The approaches of slow journalism movements are one antidote to this tendency, in which we can read more balanced and reflective accounts of what has actually happened, in which we get closer to having a correct description of the situation. In this way, slow journalists are undertaking a philosophical activity when they seek this (albeit often only temporal) distance from the event at hand, to provide a more nuanced insight into what is occurring.
Philosophy, in this sense, can be referred to as an act, a method, a procedure of reflection that helps us to take an informed and intelligent distance to the event we are considering, and allows us to attempt to describe it with more nuance and reflection than we would often see in mainstream media. This would give us not only a more balanced and less sensational idea of events of both national and global importance, but it also often removes speculation and guesswork and puts us more squarely on the path to accuracy. This is the first way in which a philosophical approach could improve our discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic, through this act of description.
The second way is precisely what I attempt to do throughout these chapters, and that is to reflect upon the conceptual changes and provide some clarity over and above the detail and data-oriented analysis which we can read often online. This is an act of thinking on a larger scale, across different disciplines, about what is happening. There is no other discipline which by its very nature is concerned with all other disciplines to be able to complete its actions. Philosophy as an action or behaviour must become integrated within the changes and updates occurring in all other fields of study and research, if it is to remain with any relevant purpose. That is not to say that philosophy should accept what is happening in these domains, but it must respond to what is happening, and cannot bury its head in the sand and interpret only Aristotle and Augustine.
It was Blaise Pascal who provided a very clear conceptual distinction between two different ‘minds’ or esprits in French. To him, these were l’esprit de géométrie and l’esprit de finesse. The esprit de géométrie is concerned with large, conceptual things, whereas the esprit de finesse understands the nuances and the smaller, finer details. In the esprit de géométrie we understand logical reasoning and make scientific thoughts, combining and understanding a large number of propositions without confusing them, whereas the latter contains intuitions and things more hidden and nuanced to the mind, and is capable of considering small numbers of principles at a time.
We have somewhat transformed this understanding in contemporary epistemology, with respect to the distinction between the understanding and explanation. One can have an intuitive and nuanced understanding of something, but one must have multiple wieldy concepts to be able to explain something to someone else. The pertinent part of this Pascalian intrusion however is the distinction between fine and large; between big and small, between explicit science and intuitively understood reasoning. Pascal notes that both the l’esprit de geometrie and l’esprit de finesse are needed for a great intellect, and philosophy can offer this kind of balance in understanding and explanation, in both nuanced and large-scale explanation, simply because those who write philosophical works are aware of this (somewhat created, but still real) dichotomy between the two.
The third consideration I would like to make here concerns what Jacques Derrida noted as the purpose of philosophy after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. While this is a lengthy quote from the French philosopher-deconstructor, it is necessary to understand his point clearly.
[Philosophers will give] A response that calls into question, at their most fundamental level, the most deep-seated conceptual presuppositions in philosophical discourse. The concepts with which this “event” [9/11] has most often been described, named, categorized, are the products of a “dogmatic slumber” from which only a new philosophical reflection can awaken us, a reflection on philosophy, most notably on political philosophy and its heritage. The prevailing discourse, that of the media and of the official rhetoric, relies too readily on received concepts like “war” or “terrorism” (national or international). […] 
[…] I would be tempted to call philosophers those who, in the future, reflect in a responsible fashion on these questions and demand accountability from those in charge of public discourse, those responsible for the language and the institutions of international law. A “philosopher” would be someone who analyses and then draws the practical and effective consequences of the relationship between our philosophical heritage and the structure of the still dominant juridico-political system that is so clearly undergoing mutation. A “philosopher” would be one who seeks a new criteriology to distinguish between comprehending and “justifying.” For, one can describe, comprehend, and explain a certain chain of events or series of associations that lead to “war” or to “terrorism” without justifying them in the least, while in fact condemning them and attempting to invent other associations. One can condemn unconditionally certain acts of terrorism (whether of state or not) without having to ignore the situation that might have brought them about or even legitimated them.
In the first paragraph, Derrida is discussing what philosophers should do not ‘for the world,’ but within their own domain. Many of the concepts that we had been using to understand terrorism (in this case) were outdated, and the event on September 11 challenged these ideas. He speaks of the fact that philosophy must essentially ‘update itself’, especially political philosophy, to take into account a changing reality outside of these philosophical concepts. It is only through this ‘updating’ of concepts that philosophy will be able to confront and deal with and ultimately understand the events that are occurring. In the case of this pandemic, we are not necessarily forced to comprehend the concepts of health crises in new ways; rather we should be looking at this virus as a further step towards a shifting political scene at a global level, and ensuring that the concepts we are using are capable of dealing with this shift. This is a challenge that I think, at present, is not going particularly well. We are struggling to deal with the power that large companies have over Governments, we are struggling to put environmental reform into law and make changes that are necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, we are struggling to see where our place as New Zealand will be, if the east-west axis shifts in favour of China, and the U.S. follows its current trajectory towards becoming increasingly unstable. More conceptual insight, more revision of the terminology and its level of appropriateness to the reality we are facing will undoubtedly help us to navigate a changing global political scene.
In the second paragraph quoted, Derrida makes a comment on the aforementioned distinction between comprehension and explanation, and adds a further concept: justification. A philosopher of the times to come cannot be content with simply providing an explanation and showing that he has understood what is going on. He must also justify what has happened, he must trace its origins back to the causes, the historical injustices, the points at which irreversible changes occurred which have led to the events that we are now experiencing. A philosopher must understand that it is possible to justify something whilst also condemning it; that it is possible to both explain and understand something without thereby implicitly endorsing it. This very ability is something we are sorely missing at the moment in analysis and opinion, published particularly in liberal media. Audiences seem to struggle to dissociate a discussion of an event or problem with casting a value judgement on the events that are occurring, and this is to the detriment of both their understanding of the issue, and the airing of different perspectives on a particular issue. It is possible to do both, and as Derrida demonstrates in his discussions post 9/11, one can in fact condemn acts of terrorism whilst also analysing the role the United States itself played in training and providing weapons to those who eventually attacked them. Philosophers must both look for justification, and maintain their right to pursuing conceptual correctness and clarity. There is a role of activism here that Derrida is suggesting should be part of a philosopher’s toolkit.
It is this activist role that I would like to pick up on and speak about more. What should a philosopher advocate for? Recently, in Western liberal democracies, simply remaining silent on an issue has become an opinion in itself, and not commenting is considered by some to be just as revelatory as making a comment. Take for example the common notice in Black Lives Matter social media posts that ‘staying silent is equivalent to endorsing the aggressor,’ and that it is not possible to have no opinion: everyone must, in lieu of their being a human being, have an opinion and a stance on the issue. Whilst this perspective may be representative of a particular set of supporters of the issue (I would hesitate to characterise these ideas as representative of the whole movement), it is still one which we must deal with, one which has politicised silence not only for politicians but also for the everyday citizen who wishes to have a nuanced position on the issue. She who does not post about social issues is one who doesn’t care and isn’t interested in the welfare of others. Or so it would seem.
In this context, a philosopher could be the advocate simply for discussion itself. A philosopher could be the one noting that there are multiple perspectives to both social and political issues, and that those who hold different points of view clearly all believe themselves to be holding a correct conception of the truth. The philosopher may not in this case be the arbiter of truth, but rather the facilitator of discussion, the one that asks the questions, opens the floor to multiple people being heard (or remaining silent without judgement), and who has the keenness of observation and the ability to draw out nuanced perspectives amongst the broad generalisations in the sphere of public opinion.
The philosopher could be, as Derrida suggests, the one who demands accountability from those who hold conceptual authority, from those who define the terms that we are using and set the framework for the nature of the public debates that we hold. The philosopher is not she who holds a definition of truth, but rather she whose role it is to elicit a clear response to questions of meaning, framing, and direction from those who are deciding these things. This need not necessarily be the Government, either – often, now that we have social media, the people who arbitrate the conceptual direction of movements and societal progress in general are common citizens themselves, or work as thought leaders in their relevant fields. Just as often, these initial messages are misinterpreted and reinterpreted to take on new meanings and take movements in a different direction to what they were initially intended.
If we are thus to demand accountability, to whom exactly should we be asking questions of meaning? Or does it even still matter who we are asking? Without a doubt it matters that we retain conceptual clarity and that our concepts are fit for purpose, but it has become increasingly difficult to pinpoint who is in charge of defining these concepts, or even if there is a singular authority over them, as our collective trust of global institutions subsides (most especially in the United States). When it is clearly the Government that have called an act of violence ‘terrorism’, we are sure that it is those same Government officials that we should ask about what we are classifying as terrorism and why. When it is a more complex situation, like the Black Lives Matter movements, it is perhaps also the role of the philosopher to figure out who has conceptual authority, and direct meaningful questions to them. And if this is impossible to determine, then to open the question up to those participating and organising the movement, so that we remain able to discuss and analyse our world with concepts that are able to meet the reality we are facing.
The COVID-19 virus has acted as a motivator in the necessity to undertake the work described above. It has brought to the fore of our attention the problems that we are facing, the differences in approaches and in viewpoints which are in tension, and the potential solutions that we are currently considering. It has shown us just how needed these philosophical attributes are to our collective thinking, and to the future of our communities.
One should be careful here to not put the ‘weight of the world’ on the shoulders of a philosopher, either. These philosophical behaviours, or habits, are not only the purview of philosophers alone; rather, all those who have a role beyond bureaucratic or administrative duties, such as those in public communications, science, business, and more, should be aware of and to some extent adopt the kind of thinking that is discussed here. Derrida notes that he expects that philosophers and public intellectuals more generally will no longer simply be ‘philosophers’, but also scientists and politicians. Those in other disciplines need not ignore the practice of philosophy, as it can help them in their own endeavours as well.
Alas, the role of the philosopher is not just to cut through the chaff, the messages to ‘be kind’ and to ‘stay home, save lives.’ Philosophical behaviours can be adopted to both be descriptive and analytical, and also to be an activist for certain things. What is sure is that the philosophical conceptual toolkit of the twentieth century is in dire need of some rethinking, but what is less sure is whether we have the collective acumen, as well as the public will, to perform the necessary conceptual shifts to take us towards a future that lives up to the principles we are coming to hold as most important.
Is SARS-CoV-2 unprecedented? No, not really. Is it a crisis? Perhaps. Has it changed everything? No, but it has reinforced or accelerated changes that were already happening. What is the real threat, coronavirus or conspiracy theorists? Depends whether it’s a threat to the establishment or to public health, or both. Has the lockdown caused anxiety everywhere? In some cases, yes, but anxiety can also be a positive thing. What can philosophers do about all this? Think, first of all, and think in terms of justification, and be the ones to ask important questions.
We could end this conclusion here, having answered quite simply all the complex questions that were posed in these essays, but that would be silly. Why? Because that would be to ignore what these individual symptoms show about the condition as a whole: what they show about our western liberal democratic society, and our reaction to this global pandemic.
It may seem strange to turn to geological concepts at this point, but they provide the perfect introduction to this conclusion. Approximately 12,000 years ago, we entered into the geological period called the Holocene. This was predated by the Pleistocene, which began some 2.6 million years ago. These geological periods mark the state of the planet during certain epochs in geological history, and have been defined based on consistent and common characteristics of the nature of the rocks and soil in the Earth’s crust during each stage. Some ecologists are now arguing that we have entered a new age: the Anthropocene. This Anthropocene is the age in which the determining factor of geological development and the geological condition of the planet is the action of human beings. Before, we lay outside of the geological systems, or influenced them in negligible ways. However through the tonnes of plastic in the sea, fusing itself to rocks and becoming part of animal remains found the world over, we have fundamentally altered the ‘natural’ direction and development of the Earth’s systems, to the point that this constitutes a new geological era.
This perspective places the human being as the centre of meaning in its control and functioning of the Earth in the past 100 years. Humans have not only been destructive, but they also have the power to modify and change the forces of nature in almost unalterable ways. Previously, the ‘forces of nature’ were a system independent from our actions and our development. The Anthropocene would seem to be a continuation of a certain kind of Western thought, displayed also in Christianity, where human beings play the central and essential role in the meaning of the universe.
This attitude has become so widespread that we have begun to see ourselves as capable of changing the very make-up of the Earth’s systems. We have begun to put ourselves in the centre of all our theories and frameworks in the Western world, and have thus embarked on a great inflation of our place, our role, our meaning, and our purpose in the overall ecosystem of planet Earth and the solar system that we inhabit. We forget that we are – and always have been – part of this very system. When we acted 4,000 years ago and cultivated food, the Earth responded to restore a balance in its systems. Now when we are putting millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Earth is responding to these changes in a similar way. We are natural, and we often forget this.
This prescient anthropocentrism we are seeing is becoming ever-more present as we move through and process our reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back to chapter one, we saw how the term ‘unprecedented’ was used without reflection to refer to the ‘crisis’ that this virus has caused. Upon looking back at history, only some 100 years, we can see that global pandemics are not new, lockdowns are not new, and that there has in fact been a precedent set before. What we are experiencing may be new for most of those alive today, but it is not without precedent, it is not something that has never happened before. However, our collective memory has shortened to the point that we no longer readily recognise the fact that this is not new to humanity; instead overdramatising the effects of the pandemic and its ensuing ‘chaos,’ or overdramatising the value of our current reality – we must remember the Black Plague killed up to 60% of Europe’s population, and definitely destroyed their economic market. It might be terrible, yes, but we have faced much, much worse, and with much less knowledge about the nature of the danger. The contemporary human of a Western liberal democracy seems to see their troubles and their strife as unique and never before seen, they seem to place their own ability to change things and their own importance at the centre of their worldview, ignoring thousands of years of evolution and human progress which has allowed them to reach this place.
Chapter two discussed the fact that certain countries like the United States have told us that they simply live on a different Earth to the one most of us recognise as inhabiting. Climate change does not exist for them, they can extract resources in an unsustainable manner and deny there are and will be further negative effects for people in their own country, and in low-lying neighbouring countries. Again, we have reached a point where we can both affirm and deny the effects of our own actions on the planet: we can decide whether or not we are causing a catastrophic climate disaster, or whether this is all an overreaction. The human being is at the centre of the world and the single species able to decide whether to save the fate of the planet, or not. In fact, it is likely not the planet we are saving, but ourselves. We place on ourselves the responsibility of a saviour, as the sole determining factor of the viability of the livelihoods of future generations. Admittedly, the climate crisis could in fact be a cause of this anthropocentric worldview to enlarge, rather than another symptom or effect of it. This however does not ignore the fact that we have placed ourselves in a position of huge responsibility with both the ability to carry on as normal, and to make drastic changes to the way we live.
In chapter three, we looked at fake news, the end of globalisation, the rise of the propagation of conspiracy theories, and the power of the lie. Very similarly, our ability to knowingly lie and deny the reality of photographs, or of our eyes even, in ways that are public and are more powerful than telling the truth, can only mean that we have come to see ourselves as able to either confirm or deny reality not based on what it is, but rather on what we think it is. What we believe is more important than what actually is the case. Anti-government theories can propagate because those who hold these beliefs ignore all evidence to the contrary; they believe that if Facebook takes a post down it is precisely because it is true, not because it contains false information. We, not the world around us, are the only ones who are able to know what the truth is, and it is something that each individual possesses for themselves.
Chapter four looked at the traumata of lockdown and the virus in terms of a trauma to come, and a trauma of the immediate present. Chapter five discussed the role of the philosopher in understanding and discussing the pandemic, in terms of the ability to both describe and justify events without letting our value judgements cloud our analysis, as well as the activist role that philosophers could play. Here, I admit having the very bias I am exposing: as a critical reader, one must also look at what I have not asked. I did not wonder, when writing these chapters, whether the unit or axis that was also important to understand was that of nature vs. city, with the increase of bird life in cities, the question of the livelihoods of animals in captivity and on farms, the ability for poachers to be prosecuted during the lockdowns, the laws passed by governments regarding environmental actions throughout a time when people’s attention was on their health… I asked how this has affected us as humans, and what a particular set of skills or behaviours could bring us, that we were lacking. Even from this point of reflection and distance, I still maintained that it was us, human beings, that were the focus of understanding and the key players in solving the virus crisis.
One might argue that if we were not in such a close contact with wild animals in wet markets, we might not have had the kind of species-transmission that was believed to have started the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. We might think that instead of scaling up all our concepts, instead of increasing our attacks on nature in an attempt to reverse climate change, we should instead take a step back. Such retreating practices already exist: adopting natural regenerative practices, not spraying fertilisers and chemicals onto the land, and allowing it to regenerate itself within the natural systems and native plant life already growing on it. We might ask whether the land management knowledge of the Aborigines in Australia could have led to fewer fires starting across the country, instead of aggressive commercial farming practices. We might ask ourselves whether it is perfectly natural and sensible to give legal rights to a river, like is the case with the Whanganui river in New Zealand. Instead of scaling up our efforts and being larger players in the world, perhaps what is left for us to do is to scale down. After all, doing nothing, staying home, and not moving beyond our front fence is the best way for communities to rid themselves of the COVID-19 virus. We might realise that we are never going to escape the systems of life and the ecosystems of the planet. We are inside the very ecosystems we are discussing: we are nature itself.
After completing this reflection I regret that I didn’t discuss this more fully throughout the essay. But conclusions are the place for final thoughts and reflections. I hope I have opened up this question in your mind. Have we, as a species, been so self-absorbed that we fail to recognise and learn from events in our own history? Are we so narrow minded as to miss the fact that we are ourselves part of the ecosystems we are trying to adapt, control and modify to our will? Have we lost the plot when we are denying reality as it appears to our eyes, or have we always been doing this – only now it is more obvious?
I am keenly aware that with the same five chapters, each reader can, and will come to a different conclusion. For some, the conclusions I have drawn may not necessarily be anything like you were imagining. For others, this may echo a sentiment or a thought that you have had, but perhaps not yet expressed. This is normal, and good. The fact that so many different conclusions can be drawn from the same analysis points to the complexity of the issues at hand, and to the necessity for us to discuss these things at every opportunity we get.
Derrida, Jacques, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides—A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. pp. 85–136.
Hartwich, Oliver. “Making Sense of the European Central Bank’s Pandemic Interventions,” on NZ Initiative. Published 29 June 2020. https://nzinitiative.org.nz/reports-and-media/opinion/making-sense-of-the-ecbs-pandemic-interventions/
Jahanbegloo, Ramin. “Life lessons from the history of lockdowns” on LiveMint. Published 27 March 2020. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/life-lessons-from-the-history-of-lockdowns-11585312953744.html
Kennedy, Ian. “Rules for Stopping the Stock Market.” On Sapling, published 29 March 2017. https://www.sapling.com/5807156/rules-stopping-stock-market
Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity, 2018.
Pullar-Strecker, Tom. “Finance Minister Grant Robertson in no rush to commit unspent Covid funds,” on Stuff. Published June 30 2020. https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/121983515/finance-minister-grant-robertson-in-no-rush-to-commit-unspent-covid-funds
Sandford, Alasdair. “Coronavirus: Half of humanity now on lockdown as 90 countries call for confinement” on Euronews. Published April 3, 2020. https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/02/coronavirus-in-europe-spain-s-death-toll-hits-10-000-after-record-950-new-deaths-in-24-hou
Shieber, Jonathan and Danny Crichton. “Stock markets halted for unprecedented third time due to coronavirus scare” Published March 17, 2020. https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/16/stock-markets-halted-for-third-time-as-heavy-selling-trips-circuit-breakers-due-to-coronavirus-scare/
University of Auckland. “New Zealand’s place in the world: The impact of COVID-19.” On The University of Auckland, News and Opinion. Published 20 May 2020. https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/news/2020/05/20/new-zealand-s-place-in-the-world-the-impact-of-covid-19.html
World Health Organisation. 2020. “Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it.” Accessed 26 June 2020. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-%28covid-2019%29-and-the-virus-that-causes-it.
153News.net. “Your Government Wants You Dead.” Presented by Vernon Coleman, published 28 June 2020. https://153news.net/watch_video.php?v=6KUR18H71OO7
 World Health Organisation. 2020. “Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it.”https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-%28covid-2019%29-and-the-virus-that-causes-it Accessed 26 June 2020.
 Kennedy, Ian. “Rules for Stopping the Stock Market.” On Sapling, published 29 March 2017. https://www.sapling.com/5807156/rules-stopping-stock-market
 Shieber, Jonathan and Danny Crichton. “Stock markets halted for unprecedented third time due to coronavirus scare” Published March 17, 2020. https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/16/stock-markets-halted-for-third-time-as-heavy-selling-trips-circuit-breakers-due-to-coronavirus-scare/
 Sandford, Alasdair. “Coronavirus: Half of humanity now on lockdown as 90 countries call for confinement” on Euronews. Published April 3, 2020. https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/02/coronavirus-in-europe-spain-s-death-toll-hits-10-000-after-record-950-new-deaths-in-24-hou
 Jahanbegloo, Ramin. “Life lessons from the history of lockdowns” on LiveMint. Published 27 March 2020. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/life-lessons-from-the-history-of-lockdowns-11585312953744.html
 Pullar-Strecker, Tom. “Finance Minister Grant Robertson in no rush to commit unspent Covid funds,” on Stuff. Published June 30 2020. https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/121983515/finance-minister-grant-robertson-in-no-rush-to-commit-unspent-covid-funds
 Hartwich, Oliver. “Making Sense of the European Central Bank’s Pandemic Interventions,” on the NZ Initiative. Published 29 June 2020. https://nzinitiative.org.nz/reports-and-media/opinion/making-sense-of-the-ecbs-pandemic-interventions/
 University of Auckland. “New Zealand’s place in the world: The impact of COVID-19.” On The University of Auckland, News and Opinion. Published 20 May 2020. https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/news/2020/05/20/new-zealand-s-place-in-the-world-the-impact-of-covid-19.html
 Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity, 2018.
 See, for example, https://plandemicvideo.com/
 153News.net. “Your Government Wants You Dead.” Presented by Vernon Coleman, published 28 June 2020. https://153news.net/watch_video.php?v=6KUR18H71OO7
 Derrida, Jacques, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides—A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) p. 100.
 Derrida, Jacques, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides—A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) p.106-107.