While we stayed home...

Peter Harling

The outbreak of a new infectious disease has hardly brought us together. Rather, it has proven intensely polarizing—in line with the age’s politics, economics, and international affairs. If one point of agreement can be found, it lies in the idea that, from here onward, things can only change one way or another. But even this apparent consensus quickly breaks down. 

The more pessimist forecast for the post-covid world suggests that distance and distrust may relax but remain the norm. Lockdowns could ebb and flow, border walls rise, xenophobia intensify, and masks stay in vogue, while we deal with the crisis’ catastrophic social and economic fallout. In the most optimistic vision, our politicians and tycoons would backpedal constructively, working to restore social equity and ecological equilibrium with a newfound sense of urgency. Somewhere in the middle, a cautiously hopeful narrative would have growing mobilization, solidarity, and awareness pave the way to a better tomorrow. 

For now, it is much easier to see the darker scenarios take hold, as we fail to articulate, with any clarity, what mechanism could bring about the change we desire to see. Covid has had a paralyzing effect on parts of society that are integral to imagining our future: the middle class, or what’s left of it, as a last buffer between the sold-out elites and the burned-out poor. While the upper class is too invested in our broken systems, the underclass cannot transform them on its own, particularly as circumstances worsen. Much hinges on the stratum in between, whose worse bet is to retreat into itself.

We know little about the virus, which may be the forerunner of worse pandemics to come. But we know ourselves well enough to introspect and strategize. While we wait for epidemiologists, biologists, and public health experts to sort out the more technical aspects of our problem, it behooves us to think through what kind of world we want to save. 

The data disease

Arguably the most striking aspect of this crisis is what it says about our relationship to data. The proliferation of trackers and dashboards reflects an intense desire to find some truth and relief in numbers. The era’s most popular slogan is itself a nerdy mathematical reference: #flattenthecurve. Laypeople around the world take stock of complex figures on masks, tests, beds, ICUs, and ventilators almost as they would check the weather. 

Much of the data, however, is technical and difficult to interpret. Seemingly straightforward figures are often deceptive, obscuring inconsistent diagnosis criteria, evolving testing capacities, and imperfect collecting and compiling mechanisms. In France, for example, the elderly are rarely tested for covid when they die, leaving a blind spot about a cohort we mean to protect. Countries across the world continue to measure their performance against that of China—although Beijing focused as much on shaping the narrative, through data doctoring, as on containing the disease. Imperfect information is nonetheless consumed and shared compulsively. Numbers often mirror our moods, sustaining either panic or calm, depending on the moment.

Such ambiguities make for an incoherent global conversation. It makes sense to compare Western and East Asian states that publish figures transparently. But it is hard to see the value in placing those countries in one graph alongside Russia, Egypt, or Iran. Some governments may altogether neglect to document the epidemic, whether to obscure their failures or for lack of resources. A peak in covid cases may well come and go, largely unnoticed, in impoverished or war-torn societies that already suffer from high mortality rates. 

Inevitably, our obsession with data prioritizes certain metrics over others. Rates of contagion and fatality have naturally absorbed the lion’s share of attention. Other, secondary data points alleviate or intensify our anxiety: from graphs illustrating unemployment to anecdotal figures on declining pollution and soothing stories about nature’s comeback. But one must look much harder for charts explaining what helped spawn the crisis: Covid is one in a string of animal-borne epidemics that trace back to human behavior; its initial spread around the world neatly followed feverish air traffic routes; and the dismantlement of public health infrastructure can itself be mapped onto growing inequalities. In other words, hard data has focused overwhelmingly on the virus itself—oddly detaching a globalized syndrome from its context. 

Longing for control

At the core of our fixation on numbers is the disturbing reality that this disease will linger for months—and probably years—in our lives. Data, however impractical, provides a sense of control and clarity in the face of often unanswerable questions: Have I caught it? What are my odds? Why are some doing better than others? Have we hit the peak yet? When will my anxiety subside? Covid has prompted a type of emotional reaction—a sudden awakening to one’s transience—that rarely occurs on this scale. 

This angst partly stems from the virus’ nebulous, shape-shifting quality. Aside from being equal-parts invisible and infectious, covid takes on puzzlingly distinct forms in different cases. It seems to strike at random, and can fast-track otherwise healthy people from their homes to an ICU to their tomb. It threatens what is dearest to us: our closest kin. Its eeriness also draws on our response itself, as we ward off infection by reducing human contact. As masked individuals standing assiduously apart in grocery lines, we have come to protect life by making much of it feel morbid. 

Today’s anguish has historical roots. Our innate faith in numbers and science harks back to the simultaneous growth, in the 19th century, of the middle class and the health sector. Industrialization, accelerating urbanization, and the advent of total warfare all required improved hygiene and empirically proven medicine, which in turn fed a growing appetite for statistics. With public health emerged the new discipline of epidemiology, the chimeric promise of eradicating disease, and a conception of progress based on living ever longer, safer, healthier lives. By the 20th century, the hospital came to embody a contemporary sense of certainty: This is where we put our lives in the hands of science. It is a sanctuary that counts everything religiously—not just deaths and recoveries but temperature, pulse, blood cells, and pills. There, the chart is hallowed.  

Our collective obsession with data speaks to our continued faith in technocratic solutions, which inform all sorts of policies. Even governments which don’t collect reliable data will publish statistics, which then feed into aggregates such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Humanitarian and development agencies churn out dubious metrics to lend their work a scientific sheen. Numbers, while useful at times, have become a fetish. They project an aura of measurability and control, which befits our middle-class ethos: We may disparage our ailing bureaucracies, but we still seek shelter in their logic. 

Covid turns this whole ideology on its head. It largely eludes meaningful figures, given the speed and secrecy with which it spreads. Meanwhile, it hijacks how modern society functions, not least in ways that define the middle class and the elites: intense mobility, a public health machinery that is both central and underfunded, and an ingrained aversion to the unknown. Covid so far has thwarted our risk-management creed. Our last resort, to keep our own mesmerizing numbers in check, has been to shut everything down. Covid now controls our systems far more than the reverse. 

The new global war

To fight this existential enemy, nations across the world have conjured the metaphor of total war, echoing and amplifying authoritarian reflexes jacked up by years of counterterrorism. As our societies come under threat, we seek solace in intrusive and regressive forms of state control; some have gone as far as to applaud their government’s resort to emergency powers, clamor for more digital surveillance, and praise Beijing’s authoritarian model. 

Both despotic and liberal regimes were quick to catch on, projecting martial tropes of mobilization, lines of defense, sacrifice, and heroism. In places like Saudi Arabia or southern Lebanon, health personnel have paraded in the streets like soldiers. Elsewhere, states have jumped on the crisis as an opportunity to promote their own parochial interests in the name of defending humanity. For China, the crisis has involved silencing dissenting voices at home while extending influence abroad. France is again attempting to lead Europe. Iran blames all on sanctions. Egypt invests in petty showmanship, sending theatrical help to Italy while doing precious little for its own. Covid enables a projection of power in the image of any given political system. 

The resulting bunker mentality—in which states ratchet up belligerent rhetoric, seal borders, and expand intelligence gathering to new fields, such as public health—feels uncomfortably familiar. Our response to covid carries some of the undertones of the “war on terror” and the global crackdown on migrants and asylum seekers. The risk is to double-down on a security-centric approach while failing to invest in more fundamental fixes. For instance, the zealous imposition of costly lockdowns would be easier to understand if matched by vigorous efforts to fund the public health sector through fairer tax collection. 

The risk is to double-down on a security-centric approach in lieu of more fundamental fixes

On various fronts, the war on covid could mirror the war on terror by undermining our societies as much as it protects them. The post-2001 campaign against jihadism dragged on, consumed gargantuan resources, justified abusive behavior, and split societies internally—all the while failing in its stated mission. The virus also terrorizes us from our midst, and lends itself to stigmatizing whole categories of people. In India, Muslims now stand accused of siding with covid against the body politic. Elsewhere, distrust in the Other has spiked in its own ways: ostracism has targeted unwanted foreigners, deviant minorities, the unwashed underclass, but also colleagues or neighbors merely assumed to be negligent. 

Mounting polarization ties in to astonishing levels of virtue-signaling. Uber, whose business model is built on disregarding human capital, spams clients with messages like “please keep your driver’s well-being in mind.” Across the world, people post mask-wearing selfies at home; drive their own cars with gloves; and insert slogans like #StayHomeSaveLives into their social media profiles. Workers have been either glorified or castigated for circumventing social distancing rules, depending on whether they did so while serving us or fending for themselves. Some nurses resent being caricatured as heroes, and would rather see their work conditions improve. Well-meaning slogans can deflect responsibility away from governments and undercut those we claim to lionize.  

Our classist hypocrisy could extend into the political realm. Health—like security—has an imperative side that puts it beyond question. As long as disease lingers, undesirable gatherings could easily be tarred as socially irresponsible: Protesting has become a sanitary threat if not a civic crime. Social distancing, useful to reduce contagion, is also the negation of active dissent. A perfectly salubrious order would see the end of politics, at a time when exhorting our politicians to act is ever more urgent. 

While we’re (not) watching

Lockdown is indeed reinforcing a host of dangerous, preexisting dynamics. Although its exact efficiency and ultimate costs remain unknown, many have embraced it as a necessary evil—allowing it to spread around the globe like a panacea. In Africa and Asia, some states imposed quarantine as a kneejerk reaction, although their young, poor populations may prove less vulnerable to covid than to hunger. Lebanon implemented confinement preemptively, as an end-in-itself, neglecting to shore up its public health system in parallel. Alternative measures, such as mass testing and contact tracing, have remained the exception: Almost everywhere, the rule has been to stay put and wait it out. But ominous trends are taking over as we watch from the window.

First, the individual is being redefined in ways that serve our systems—when the opposite should be true. Human mobility is reduced to functional behaviors: consumption, fitness, and essential work, at the expense of fundamental freedoms. This would seem a small sacrifice were it not for the walls closing in on us in recent years—creeping restrictions on travel, the digital invasion of privacy, and rising repression of political dissent. At the same time, our malfunctioning systems hand the growing costs of their failures down to the individual: When we are not bailing out rogue banks, assuming crippling student loans to make up for rundown public education, and scrambling to reduce our own tiny contributions to the environmental crisis, we’re staying home to give a break to underfunded public health sectors. 

Second, lockdown boosts our dependency on the worst business practices. Working remotely is likely to catalyze the shift toward Uber-style employment: If you are indeed productive from home, your employer may decide to save on office space and overheads, as a prelude to more “flexibility.” Meanwhile, the crisis rewards industries which, each in their own way, have harmed our ecosystems, political frameworks, and social fabric: chemicals and pharmaceuticals, processed foods, mass retail, microelectronics, surveillance, and rumor-mongering social media. They will come out enriched while welfare states, civil societies, and many smaller yet vital economic players will count their losses when we need them most. 

Third, we are witnessing (and arguably taking part in) the destruction of the middle class, which has long been shrinking under the combined effects of dwindling social benefits, rising education costs, and increasingly precarious employment. Covid threatens to accelerate that process by wrecking the economy generally, but also by raising questions about the “non-essential” character of large swaths of the population. Public displays of creative cooking, parenting, and fitness routines reveal a dangerous mix of privilege and futility. This confinement subculture can be understood as a coping mechanism. But that in itself is a sign of crisis. What is our middle class raison d’être when so many of us can stay home for so long? As we dangle in suspended time, we spend what resources we have left on food, communication, and entertainment. Who are we counting on, meanwhile, to outline our future for us?

Mental lockdown

Copious fear has met with scarce ideas to assuage it. So far, not a single government or multinational body has even sketched measures that would address the outbreak’s root causes—as opposed to merely treating its consequences. Meanwhile, billionaires reap popular acclaim for contributing sums that are insignificant even measured against their own fortunes, not to mention state budgets. Professional commentators, for their part, have tended to fall back into worn-out themes: the collapse of capitalism, the demise of democracy, the end of empire, the death throes of the West, Europe’s terminal crisis, the rise of Asian Tigers, or the charms of dictatorship. Such platitudes don’t exclude thoughtful journalism, but the sheer space they take up is disheartening. 

This mismatch echoes past crises: None of terrorism, the financial collapse, the oil crash, or climate change prompted any soul-searching on a scale that could transform our systems. Our overwhelming instinct is to prefer a broken status quo: We tweak the world we know for fear of what a radical shift might entail. Europe will bail out airlines with money it could invest in continent-wide public transport, and delay taxing plastic if only to kick-start the production of masks. Leaders as different as Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson are benefitting equally in the polls, riding out the pandemic without tangibly shifting their worldviews. In the US, where momentous presidential elections are on the horizon, the Democratic Party settled on the dreariest figure possible—as if playing it safe remained the best bet. 

What explains this unique blend of emotional panic and intellectual apathy is, arguably, covid’s hybrid nature: For those of us least affected, it is scary enough to unsettle us, but still manageable with soap, seclusion, and music on the balcony. In public hospitals, refugee camps, and impoverished communities across the globe, the public health and economic crises are all too real. For many of us in the middle class, however, these supposed end times weren’t so bad. If we’re honest with ourselves, we may even admit that we ate well and had a little fun. This milder form of apocalypse could serve, perversely, to both release and reduce all those anxieties that we had been nurturing in recent years, as we braced against the deluge of climate change omens. If we are lucky enough to be spared losing our jobs and our kin, will we be spurred to action by this survivalism made easy? 

As the institutions we collectively depend upon are exposed for what they are—not just unprepared but seemingly unbudgeable—salvation seems more than ever to rely on our own, small-scale initiatives. On that front, covid poses an interesting problem: Rather than assume that something good will mechanically come out of “shaking up the system,” it remains entirely up to us to define what that good will be. 

From the ground up

Comparisons with past pandemics don’t provide much direction. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we don’t owe the renaissance to the plague, but to a variety of factors including traumatic Ottoman encroachment; trade, migration, and cross-cultural pollination; the advent of the printing press; and our inherent capacity for dogged reinvention. Likewise, covid won’t flatten for us any of the curves it steepened: Fear, resentment, solitude, unemployment, xenophobia, populism, and profiteering are sicknesses we must tackle ourselves. 

There are uplifting signs, although their long-term effects are hard to divine. At the individual level, the crisis may be a more transformative experience than would seem. It has led to a soothing rediscovery of nature: Just as whales and dolphins have supplanted tourists in the Calanques and Venice, the Himalayas have torn through manmade smog. Such images stir many of us profoundly, as if we were belatedly emerging from a toxic slumber. 

There are uplifting signs whose long-term effects are hard to divine

Stillness has prompted another form of awakening, after decades of hypermobility. The world’s state of agitation got much worse starting in the 1980s, as a result of a combination of factors: container shipping, delocalized production, professional mobility, high-speed trains, and the domestication of computers, to cite a few. The ensuing, dizzying acceleration has made the recent slow-down both destabilizing and, arguably, much needed. It has revealed the pervasiveness of “bullshit jobs,” to quote David Graeber, as well as bullshit meetings.

Isolation, predictably, has forced us to be creative in how we connect with others. Some interpersonal bonds have grown stronger around a sense of mutual reliance. Numerous small-scale and informal initiatives—from lending flats to the young to delivering groceries to the elderly—have fought back not just the disease, but the contagion of “every man for himself.” Indeed, we now face a malady that truly captures the conundrum of our age: The world is so packed full of human beings, we must be fools to think that we can truly solve our problems by standing further apart from each other.

Reconnecting with the environment, one’s kin, and oneself may seem trivial or self-indulgent, but a deeper questioning can be felt. Our privilege is also our responsibility: Our duty lies in doing more than passing time, venting our boredom, and striking a righteous pose. If the world reverts to its unsustainable self, pregnant with worse diseases still, we will only have ourselves to blame. Idle time under lockdown leaves the fortunate to mull over questions that matter: When we’re done with the “stay home” part, what will we do to continue to “save lives”? 

The struggle largely comes down to fighting our own instincts. In recent years, the middle class has been closing in on itself, fighting a rearguard action to protect its living standards. We consume more responsibly, but typically just as much. We may cling to jobs that pay far more than they enrich society. We pay our taxes but, in the face of dwindling returns, we also defend against the rising tide of the poor. Politically, we are split between two regressive options: entitled conservatives, who promise to restore the world as we knew it, and raucous populists, who have a different way of saying the same thing. This defensive mindset has done anything but improve our fate, hold elites to account, and set the economy on a more sustainable course. 

Covid could make us more inward-looking still, as we retreat into our ever-shrinking space. The only alternative is to go in the opposite direction and be more radical in everything we do. We cannot save ourselves by cowering from disease, seeking protection from patronizing elites, while forgetting the less fortunate. We must demand more of those who lead and care more for those who need. We can no longer be the middle class that just muddles through.

4 May 2020

Peter Harling is the founder and director of Synaps

Illustration credits: Edward Hopper Hotel by a railroad, Hotel window via Wikipedia / public domain. 

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