Can Europe Make It?

Mental confinement

Is it not true that this now-suspended normality was experienced by most of us as burdensome, painful, unbearable, and unjust?

Adam J Chmielewski
13 April 2020, 5.34pm
A man prays inside empty St. Joseph's Church, Krakow, Poland, on Easter Sunday.
Beata Zawrzel/PA. All rights reserved.

It is premature to draw any lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic which has just overwhelmed the world. Yet the unprecedented situation in which the whole world has found itself as a result of the deadly virus raises numerous questions. The most persistent ones of them are: when will the pandemic end; what would be its effects on our economies and our individual lives; and will we return to normal life as we knew it only several weeks ago?

The easy way of dealing with the question about the end of the plague is to recall Karl Popper’s argument about the unpredictability of history. As he argued, we cannot predict the future for logical reasons: the course of human history is largely shaped by the growth of human knowledge. However, we cannot predict the future growth of our knowledge by any rational or scientific methods. For if we were to know now what we would know in the future, this would be tantamount to now knowing what we will know only in the future. If this were to happen, future knowledge would be present knowledge, which is impossible. Therefore, it is not possible to predict the course of human history.

The above exercise in philosophical acrobatics does not bring any consolation. For example, it may be read as undermining our hope in the discovery of the vaccination that would protect us from falling ill. Thus, irritatingly, it only drives even deeper the sense of deep uncertainty in which we now live. Yet, despite the fog of uncertainties, and despite the nagging premonition that we are probably only at the beginning of the plague, it is worth considering what use we can make of the knowledge of the pandemic, and of ourselves, which we already have at our disposal.

The human mind

Some lessons can be drawn from the set-up of the human mind. Against the common belief in human reason as capable of objective value judgments formulated sub specie aeternitas, its workings are determined by several factors.

One of them is the space-bias which undercuts the alleged universality of our moral judgements and decisions. Peter Singer argued that the moral concern we owe to a baby drowning in a pond of misery in a slum of Africa is identical to the one which we instinctively extend to a baby drowning in our own swimming pool. We have been consistently and desperately failing to live up to this moral imperative. We failed in the past in relation to the European Jews, and recently in relation to the refugees expelled from their homes by the policies of our own states. Due to the spatial, geographical or proximity preference ingrained in our minds, we value much more the known and the familiar than the distant and the foreign. The pandemic has only made this failure of ours more apparent.

In the present situation we care about the safety of our selves and our loved ones, and we steer away from the others as much as we can, perceiving them as a source of a mortal danger. Understandably preoccupied with safeguarding ourselves and our nearest and dearest, we do not pay equal attention to the effects the virus will have, or already has, on the more distant others, e.g. on the fate of the people in Africa or India.

As Arundhati Roy recently wrote, the rulings of the despotic Modi regime have led to an exodus of 460 million people from the Indian megacities. Huge crowds, made suddenly redundant by the industrial standstill, were forced to walk to distant villages they came from, often in other provinces, only to learn that they cannot cross the provincial borders which, in the meantime, have been closed down by the erratic regime. The people are now crammed in ghettos and slums with little or no means of subsistence or health facilities. But even if we were to break free from our present self-preoccupation, we would be at a loss in finding a way to help them. It seems as if, together with our confinement, the number of the neighbours we were commanded to love has radically shrunk as well.

Until very recently we liked to repeat the slogans about how invaluable for us was our freedom. Now, faced with invisible yet mortal danger, we silently abandon both the slogans and the freedoms.

We are now confined also in our freedoms. Until very recently we liked to repeat the slogans about how invaluable for us was our freedom. Now, faced with invisible yet mortal danger, we silently abandon both the slogans and the freedoms, acquiescing docilely in the internment imposed by the political authorities. We believe that through surrendering to the enacted constraints we will increase the chances of prolonging our lives. This reveals that the confinement is not only imposed, but also, to a significant measure, self-imposed, thus demonstrating the workings of the natural and understandable security bias in our minds.

We console ourselves that the restrictions on our freedom will be only temporary and as soon as the pandemic abates, our freedoms will be fully restored. This may turn out not to be true. To take just one relatively recent example of the contemporary encroachments on our freedom, let us remember that prior to the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, one was able to board a plane without being subjected to the humiliating procedures of the partial removal of garments, x-raying of luggage, and being patted down by airport security. These procedures constrained our freedom, violated our intimacy, and, adding injury to the insult, imposed a considerable though not obviousexpense which we were covering from our own purse. Yet we have acquiesced in this systemic harassment as an inevitable cost of our freedom of movement.

On the basis of this example one can assume that at least some of the present restrictions, both those enforced and those self-inflicted, will remain with us in the future. The presently imposed restrictions on interpersonal contacts, administered by the political authorities, make us realize that they have in fact been superimposed upon the restrictions that we have already imposed upon ourselves prior to the pandemic. We have been living in individualist, abstract societies, and have tended to confine our social relationships carefully to only those ones that are necessary and unavoidable. And we have tended to perceive even the latter as constraints upon our freedom.

Trust in others

For those who valued social distance before the present confinement, the current administrative isolation does not make much difference: they have already been practicing social distancing anyway. However, for most of us it is an opportunity to realize the importance of social relations and contacts with other people that we know we have been deprived of, even if they were only shallow and artificial. Freedom from social relations, which we usually felt as limiting our freedom, is not possible in the social vacuum in which we have just found ourselves: they are its necessary condition. It seems that the extent to which we shall be able to restore our trust in others will be also a measure in which we shall be able to enjoy our freedom when the pandemic is over. In the present circumstances, however, it is rather difficult to believe that we shall be able fully to regain our social confidence, which suggests that our future liberties will also be more limited than they were before.

State of emergency

The presently demonstrated social docility of the masses is a great temptation for the politicians. Some of them, like Victor Orban, promptly took advantage of the pandemic to assume complete power over the state he has been ruling for some time now. In Poland, a country of paradoxes, Jarosław Kaczyński presses for the presidential elections to go through despite the danger they surely will present to the public. The likely victory of his puppet candidate will give him a few more years of an unchallenged despotic power, exercised from the back seat with the help of his servile and ruthless acolytes. He refuses to declare a state of exception for it would make it impossible to hold the elections. But perhaps he also wishes to avoid the likely ridicule which would be heaped on him due to the unavoidable comparisons to General Wojciech Jaruzelski who, in wholly different circumstances, imposed martial law on Poland.

In some aspects the present undefined and legally questionable state of emergency seems much different from the martial law of December 1981. Back then we demanded the right to keep our passports at home in order to be able to leave the country at will. Today, with passports in our drawers, we do not contemplate any journeys because, with the exception of our own increasingly claustrophobic homes, there is no safe place on this globe to run away to. Back then we chanted the slogan of solidarity against the regime; now the regime is ramming the slogan of solidarity down our ears, thus besmirching the very essence of this concept. Back then the people, even unbelievers, flocked to the churches hoping for a respite from the overwhelming communist propaganda; now, even the believers steer away from the churches.

No return to normal

At present, it is anyone’s guess that the effects of the pandemic will reach deep into the structure of plague-stricken societies and that they will probably be long-lasting. However, the very idea of the long-term effects of the plague reveals an implicit assumption that the return to normality seems to us somehow inevitable.

This assumption needs to be challenged. First of all, in view of the devastation already inflicted by our fear of the virus, the return to the normal will involve a lot of effort and hardships. Only a fraction of the businesses function as they did before. The number of payments made by credit cards fell by ninety per cent overnight. The airplanes are grounded, restaurants and shops, with few exceptions, are empty. The activity of businesses and the flow of cash, now stalled, instantly made unemployment skyrocket. The states are pumping empty cash into the companies in order to keep them alive, something which we will have to pay for in an indefinite future, plus interest.

This should be enough for us seriously to consider the possibility that the normality thus far known to us may not return in its entirety. Indeed, it is now oft-repeated banality that from now on nothing will be the same it used to be. But this banality makes us realize that we instinctively believe that the future will be roughly the same as the past, even if we have no good reason to believe it. Here the familiarity-bias reveals its full force: we seem unable to conceive of the future as radically different from the past. Yet it is quite possible that it will be different. Despite that we persistently believe that when “this” ends, we will not have to do anything extraordinary: after a longer or shorter pause, we will just return to the previous routine, and our lives will regain their previous shape.

This belief provokes yet another question: do we really want to return to normality that has just been suspended? Or, to put it differently, should we want our life to return to its previous shape? These questions, in turn, reveal an important fact about the psychological constitution of man: indeed, it seems that now we want nothing more than the return to the normality we have known.


The familiarity-bias, which is a synthesis of the temporal and spatial bias, is a powerful fixture of the human mind. It explains the urgency with which we ask the question about the return to normality, and our yearning for it. Actually, our yearning for the return of the normal may, and probably will, become a force which will help to bring it back, at least partly. But the power of this yearning does not invalidate the normative question which should be for us no less urgent: does the normality-now-gone really deserve to be restored? Is it not true that this now-suspended normality was experienced by most of us as burdensome, painful, unbearable, and unjust? If that is the case, are there any genuinely good reasons for us to yearn for its return? In view of this question, should we not take one step further and ask ourselves yet another one: should we not treat the pandemic not only as an austerity and nuisance, but also as an opportunity to envisage a plan for a revolution in our social life, and its reorganisation according to new, fairer rules?

The above questions, though they seem timely and urgent, are rarely asked and remain unanswered. This suggests that we are not only restrained in our movements, but also in our thoughts. Scared by the danger of the deadly disease and intimidated by the administrative prohibitions, we are also stuck in a deadlock imposed on our minds by the spatial, security and familiarity biases, now jointly working to constrain our moral imagination.

Our inability to shake off this mental deadlock is tantamount to forsaking our agency, both individually and collectively. It is hard to tell which damage will be greater: the one stemming from the fear-induced standstill, or the one resulting from the mental confinement.

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