Covid-19 crisis: normality was the problem

Once we transcend the sanitary crisis, we may see the reemergence of the social movements that were budding all over the world.

Ilan Bizberg
15 June 2020, 8.39am
Protester in Chjile sports a banner reading: "We won´t be back to normality because normality was the problem".
Captura de pantalla 2020-01-31 a las 11.36.22.png

It has been said that crises allow us to see what is not evident, even though it lays before our eyes. Hannah Arendt wrote that only when an instrument breaks down, are we able to perceive it, and so we can repair it, we are concerned in how it is made, its structure and functions.

The present health crisis displays what is not working, not only in our health systems, but in the societies in which we live, and in the relationship with nature and with our fellow human beings. It highlights the failures of our health systems, which have been forsaken by the austerity policies applied in almost all the countries of the world as our governments give primacy to the interest of international finance over the well-being of its citizens.

It exhibits the social effects of an economic system that accentuates inequalities and that implies higher health risks for the poor and the migrants. All of this has already been widely discussed and it is hoped that, in the face of the current health crisis, the governments of our countries will mend course, as Alain Touraine has said.

Nonetheless, there is an even more significant aspect that concerns our attitude towards nature, that one can resume as arrogance. In the last decades, the most optimistic have believed that technology will deliver the solutions needed to heal the damages that our lifestyles are causing on the environment.

A scientific / magical thinking similar to that of the economists who stated categorically, shortly before the 2007-2008 global crisis which almost destroyed capitalism and deeply damaged the economy of various countries, that the financial mechanisms that had been created to safeguard risk investments, promised that there would never again be a financial crisis; we know too well the result of these predictions. For its part, the lack of preparation of almost all countries against the current pandemic contrasts with the expectations that artificial intelligence has generated and the promise of biogenetics to "defeat death", as trans-humanism claims.

What an impressive failure against the attack of a microscopic entity! And what terrible consequences for thousands of people directly affected by the virus, and for the millions who will suffer from the economic crisis! What an excess of what the ancient Greeks called hubris, an attitude that was portrayed by Aeschylus in his Agamemnon, when the king of Argos returns home after having destroyed Troy and accepts the purple carpet displayed for the great warriors, without considering that he had been helped by the gods. As we know, he was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra and her lover.

The philosopher Emmanuelle Coccia suggests that the epidemic is awakening a feeling of liberation from our arrogance as a result of to the helplessness we are experiencing to deal with it. He proposes that we are not what we thought we were: the beginning and end of the planet, the only ones capable of destroying humanity. If intelligence, power, and overconfidence have been the source of spectacular inventions and advances, they have also led to disasters and to our present vulnerability; perhaps we can learn from modesty how to save our ecosystems.

As many analysts and social activists have claimed, climate change will have much more catastrophic consequences than the already terrible human, social and economic drama we are undergoing, since it will threaten all of humanity. Our rulers, supported by some (fewer and fewer) scientists, are betting on new technologies to come up with a solution or find an alternative planet we can all (rather some) move to, for the moment when the threat Greta Thunberg has been warning us about becomes a reality, when she claims that “our world is on fire".

Some specialists have said that the current pandemic is a consequence of the pressure of our civilization on the environment and that it can be considered as the first epidemic of the ecological crisis. It is argued that the collapse of the diversity of the species has wiped out the buffer zones between us and wild animals. The same occurs when urban zones and agricultural or livestock areas approach jungle spaces destroying natural habitats.

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The epidemic is the first crisis of a new era as it comes at a time when a significant part of the world population is convinced that our destruction of nature is putting humanity at risk.

Although not everybody accepts that this health crisis is effectively the result of the destruction of the biosphere, there is no doubt that it is so in intersubjective terms. Unlike other epidemics that have plagued humanity in the past, since a decade or so, numerous scientists and activists have been insisting that we are approaching an ecological crisis of great proportions. In this sense, the epidemic is the first crisis of a new era as it comes at a time when a significant part of the world population is convinced that our destruction of nature is putting humanity at risk.

What is absolutely certain is that, just as we were not prepared for the current health crisis, we are even less prepared for the ecological one. And also, that although the consequences of the health crisis are still unknown, the climatic one will surely be much worse. Given our inability to cope with the present epidemic, it is derisory to think that humanity will be able to invent something to prevent the deterioration of the biosphere.

To face both crises, many of us believe that international cooperation is required. And that a global pact or even a world government are necessary to stop the deterioration of the environment. Although this is unlikely to materialize in the short or even medium term, we have been seeing attitudes of solidarity between countries: Germany has accepted patients from France and Italy, Portugal has legalized migrants and refugees so they can have access to health care, China has sent masks and respirators to several affected countries, as well as doctors; and so has Cuba.

Scientists from all countries are collaborating to find a vaccine and a cure for the disease. But we have also seen how the government of the United States tried to secure a German company that was advancing in the production of the vaccine and diverted a shipment of masks destined for France. We have also witnessed the closure of almost all national borders.

On the other hand, several governments have been more interested in saving the economy than preserving the life of its inhabitants, especially the elder and the poor, and it is manifest that capitalism is insensitive to ecology as its sole purpose is economic growth.

The current crisis may allow to harbor some hope. During the confinement, we have recognized what is truly important in life and have been forced to restrict our consumption.

That is why it is unlikely that the deterioration of the biosphere will be tackled directly and seriously by the national governments, although some like the one of New Zealand and those of Finland, Norway, are doing it; curiously most of them governed by women who seem to prioritize both the health of its citizens and of the environment.

The solution, then, will have to come from each one of us individuals and the social movements we will support or join. And, in this sense, the current crisis may allow to harbor some hope. During the confinement, we have recognized what is truly important in life and have been forced to restrict our consumption.

Some have become aware of the social gap: of the precariousness, poverty, bad working and living conditions of many of our fellow citizens. We have also become conscious on how much our lives depend on doctors and nurses, and on the people who produce the most essential foodstuffs; and the fact that they work risking their lives for us who are privileged to be confined in our houses.

We have also realized that each of us can infect or be infected by others. This can lead to a defensive attitude and to rejection, but it can also make us conscious that we all depend on each other, and that every individual behavior impacts other fellow human beings. Whether this translates into empathy depends on each of us.

It may awaken in every human being the idea that it is necessary to open our eyes to the challenges that we would face if we do not heed the warning that the current epidemic means for the future of humanity. And that we begin to act and consume in a different way. One could expect that this awareness could be the source of greater solidarity.

In fact, we have already been acting differently, something that may project the future. Those of us who have been lucky enough to be spared of experiencing wars, famines, and poverty and, additionally, are able to work from home, we are already travelling and using our cars less (or not at all), reducing our consumption and buying locally.

The health crisis has also had an impact on our subjectivity, and especially on our rapport to time.

We are thus learning that we can live more frugally than before, that we can communicate with others through the internet, have meetings without leaving our homes. etc. This may have durable consequences, limiting air travel, hiking local production and reducing consumption.

The health crisis has also had an impact on our subjectivity, and especially on our rapport to time, which many philosophers, such as Bergson and Heidegger, consider is the essence of man. In the first place, the pace of our lives has slowed down considerably. What the sociologist Rosa considers to be the fundamental characteristic of our contemporary relationship to time: acceleration, has been detained with the confinement of half of the world population.

Subjectively, it has slowed down the rhythm of the life on millions of people. On the other hand, Kim Stanley Robinson writes that with the pandemic, older people have seen their time horizon reduced due to the fact that they have become aware that they may face death immediately. Although it is true, as Heidegger says that our essence is defined by death, we usually do not think of this prospect. The pandemic has imposed this possibility in very real and close terms. If somebody who is 60 years old thought his life horizon was 20 or 30 years, the present situation has abruptly shortened its scope.

It is possible, as some analysts have said, that the confinement has given rise to a purely subjective and conjunctural awareness, that once the emergency is over everything will return to normal. The experience of the last forty years that began with the governments of Thatcher and Reagan, who considered that “…there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”, can lead us to come to such a conclusion.

We may think the same if we think with Foucault that power in the contemporary world is no longer imposed upon us from the centrality of the State, but that it is diffused in such a manner that it controls us, so to speak, from within ourselves, that power has been internalized. A perspective that leads us to consider, wrongly according to Wieviorka, that structures are too strong to allow for any change.

The transformation of the conception of time of older people may bring them closer to the preoccupations of the youth movement that was so active in different parts of the world just before the epidemic. Concerns that are linked to the way in which the young experience temporality nowadays. From the demands of their movements, one can observe that young people feel that their future is closed and that time is, so to say, slipping between their fingers.

This is well exemplified by Greta Thurnberg, whom Eliane Brum considers as a representative of the first generation without hope. Greta has organized a school strike since more than a year ago, arguing that it is worthless going to school if there is no future, if "time is running out". She has said “I don't want your hope, I don't want you to have hope. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act, to act like your house is on fire, because it is."

This girl is the image of young people that, according to psychologists in many parts of the world, are seeking aid for their deep concern and anguish about the future. In the demonstrations and school strikes, banners have exhibited this distress: "Later, I want to be alive", “I will do my homework when you will do yours”. In Santiago in Chile I saw tags on the walls that point in the same direction: "For a future without fear", "We shout because we hope it could be otherwise".

While in the past, social movements were based on Christian temporality, as they struggled for a better future, based on the idea that an earthly utopia was possible through revolution, and they were based on the faith of ​​progress, of improvement (of the working class, of humanity), today they arise from despair, from concern for the future. Paul Mutuku, a young Kenyan activist, considers that “Young people are the only generation that has grown up in this age of climate change. They have not seen the best of nature that other generations have had the privilege of seeing.”

A 10-year-old militant of the Hong Kong movement declared “...there is less and less hope for Hong Kong now. It doesn't really matter what we try to do about it. There isn't much hope for the future, which means that there isn't much hope for us, either. That's why we have to come out and resist.” Another Hong Kong activist comes to the same conclusion: “What really makes me get up and do something? I’m not that sure. Maybe because it’s now a bad future, or no future at all.”

Once we transcend the sanitary crisis, we may see the reemergence of the social movements that were budding all over the world: from France, with the gilets jaunes, to Chile with the students, from Hong Kong to Beirut. These movements carried demands that were political, economic, and social, but also ecological. And as the feminist turn of all of them showed, in their center they had subjective claims.

It is possible that when these movements resurface, they will receive a new impetus by the growing awareness that many individuals gained during the pandemic. And in this manner, when we overcome the current health crisis, we may become aware that, as was tagged on a wall in Santiago of Chile during the mobilizations of the end of last year, that "Normality is the problem."


This is a revised version of an article that appeared (in Spanish) in the journal El País.

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