Pandemic prism

Covid-19 has infiltrated our lives, politics, and thoughts. Here's a view of it through philosophy, history, and literature

by Laura Silvia Battaglia

Policy & Politics 16 October 2020

It’s just a matter of to be, or not to be. Or rather, it is a matter of knowing that you can be by choice and knowing that you cannot be because there is no choice. And the difference is all here, and it is not a tiny one. The Covid-19 pandemic has already changed our lives in this gigantic margin between wanting with power, versus wanting and having no power and has done it so well that even for the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a lover of intellectual confinement and a warrior of solitude and ideas, staying at home and writing has never been so difficult. The volume will be called “Pandemic! How Covid-19 Shook the World” and Žižek already knows that writing it won’t be a piece of cake.

A philosophical issue

Žižek says: “Let me begin with a personal confession: I like the idea of being confined to one’s apartment, with all the time needed to read and work. Even when I travel, I prefer to stay in a nice hotel room and ignore all the attractions of the place I’m visiting. A good essay on a famous painting means much more to me than seeing this painting in a crowded museum. But I’ve noticed this attitude makes being obliged to confine myself, because of the pandemic, more difficult. To help explain this let me recount, not for the first time, a joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s film, Ninotchka: “‘Waiter! A cup of coffee without cream, please!’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream, only milk. So can it be a coffee without milk?’” At the factual level, the coffee remains the same, what changes is making the coffee without cream into coffee without milk—or, more simply even, adding the implied negation and making a straightforward coffee into a coffee without milk. The same thing has happened to my isolation: Prior to the crisis, it was an isolation “without milk” – I could have gone out, I just chose not to. Now it’s just the plain coffee of isolation with no possible negation implied.”

In fact, having verified this new ontological condition, for the philosopher, is to understand whether the ultimate goal of the question is a behavior that projects the individual to the eschatological dimension—continue to do what was done before, it doesn’t matter if you die of Covid-19, or if you become an unconscious greaser, so the end of life will put in place the secrets of the afterlife—or are crushed by a present of strict obligations and deprivations, first of all the one that opposes isolation from sociality. But in both cases, the cause of and solutions for the pandemic must be tackled with logic and not by activating a system of corporate removal that generates panic, accusations, racism, and conspiracy. And if the world’s population easily gives in to these chimeras, Žižek notes that the pandemic has shown how unable even political elites are to see the forest for the trees. For the Slovenian philosopher “both alt-right and fake-left refuse to accept the full reality of the epidemic, each watering it down in an exercise of social-constructivist reduction, i.e., denouncing it on behalf of its social meaning. Trump and his partisans repeatedly insist that the epidemic is a plot by democrats and China to make him lose the upcoming elections, while some on the left denounce the measures proposed by the state and health apparatuses as tainted by xenophobia and, therefore, insist on shaking hands, etc.”

Between the two positions — stresses Žižek — the paradox has not yet come: Not shaking hands and going into isolation when necessary is today the highest form of solidarity. Arriving at this personal and collective resolution takes a good dose of logic and a high sense of community. It takes the ability to go beyond the absurd, to recognize that many government-applied draconian measures are already insufficient and, as Masha Gessen reasoned in The New Yorker, we find ourselves in the absurd situation of allowing governments to limit our freedoms and accepting the risk of a transition to authoritarianism, instead of maintaining our social fabric. Panicking is useless as Žižek explains:

“Panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in a panic, we do not take the threat too seriously; we, on the contrary, trivialize it. Just think of how ridiculous the excessive buying of toilet paper rolls is: As if having enough toilet paper would matter in the midst of a deadly epidemic … So, what would be an appropriate reaction to the coronavirus epidemic? What should we learn and what should we do to confront it seriously?”


Milan, Italy, March 2020. Street view during Covid-19. Photo by Giorgio Orazio Salimeni / Cesura.

A new perspective and many questions beyond

Many have tried to answer Zizek’s question in these months in which Covid-19 spread itself from the East to the West of the globe, jumping from one human body to another. And the proposals are different, some even well-argued: Believe in science, study it, finance it, because only a vaccine will save us; study history because if today the virus from the SARS family brings us to our knees, in the past the plague did the same; develop a psychological form of individual resilience, enhancing the present time, not projecting into the imponderable future; or not, to project into the future and design a different, more supportive, less industrialized, less global, capitalist, liberal world; finally take seriously the claim of nature towards the indiscriminate exploitation of man and devote ourselves to fighting climate change; learn the lesson that the pandemic imposes on us, reducing consumption and going to live in the countryside; take advantage of it to take to the streets and protest against governments and that inequality of social systems; or not, take advantage of the pandemic to change your business system, riding the tiger of biomedicine, ad hoc industrial production, the market of masks, and hand cleaners and make more money than before; better monitor citizens to preserve national health systems; in this way we will feel safer; do not let us be monitored because they steal our data and make us more attentive to the erosion of individual freedoms; cook bread at home; do not cook it and be satisfied with crackers; continue to take public transportation or not; take the subway less and re-evaluate using a car, so, paradoxically, we pollute the same but without physical contact with strangers. More of everything. For sure, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in The Financial Times, “when choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also, what kind of world will we inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humanity will survive, most of us will still be alive, but we will live in a different world.” Once again, the question will not be the match between man’s survival on the planet and nature’s reactions to his presence and his work, but man’s survival to himself and to the challenges of history. Simply because, in times of crisis, in emergencies, historical processes advance rapidly and decisions that in normal times could require years of deliberation are made in a matter of hours. It’s time for large-scale social experiments. Harari wonders: “What happens when everyone works from home and only communicates remotely? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses, and school boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these are not normal times.” In these by no means normal times, there are those who remember that looking back could be instructive in solving present problems and understanding future games and risks.


Palermo, Italy, March 2020. A doctor is watching one of Prime Minister Conte’s evening press conferences after a day of work to stem the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Francesco Bellina / Cesura.

History teaches us to move forward

Ibrahim al-Marashi, associate professor at the California State University San Marcos History Department, is a Middle East scholar. He has studied the Black Death and Spanish flu epidemics. He sees the scientific reading of our current pandemic in history: “The recent coronavirus pandemic is another example of the long history of zoonoses — diseases that pass from animals to humans. The domestication of horses led to the spread of the virus responsible for the common cold in humans, while the domestication of chickens caused chickenpox, shingles, and various avian flu strains for humans. Pigs were the source of the flu and measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis emerged from cattle. When a virus successfully jumps from one animal to a human being (the “zero patient”) and from here manages to make the leap to a second human being, those two people become the first two human vectors of virus transmission. Three quarters of infectious diseases are the result of zoonotic spillovers and coronavirus is no exception.” From a scientific point of view, there would be no room for racist-based conspiracies, but racism is an inevitable manifestation of collective repression, which the philosopher Žižek already realized. Because, explains al-Marashi, “it is easier to accuse another man than an animal. It is easier for people who see the world as problematic due to the presence of another race or ethnic group to find the scapegoat in that ethnic group. It is easier to accuse a human being than science or nature. How do you deal with this abstract phenomenon which is nature without personalizing it, touching it, imagining it physically at work?.” Perhaps, to deal with it, it would be necessary to get to know it better, to study it. And therefore, al-Marashi warns against some inadequate ways of reading history and some parallels without scientific basis: “The Covid-19 epidemic has aroused renewed interest in the Black Death, the plague of the seventeenth century. But comparing coronavirus to the Black Death is dangerous, because this parallelism perpetuates a false narrative of the epidemic that describes disease outbreaks as if they were following the same trajectory with the same level of severity. Indeed, the comparison between Covid-19 and the Black Death only aggravates public fears, even if today’s pathogen is by no means fatal in the manner of that medieval pandemic. Fear serves to increase the processes of collective removal but it is also an excellent tool to make room for conspiracy theories,” because says al-Marashi “if you accuse a country of creating a bacteriological weapon, it is easier to impact global political dynamics than to encourage and finance the study of the consequences of human action on nature.” Lessons on the present also come from the mistakenly defined Spanish flu of the early-twentieth century. “These are key lessons about the need for transparency of governments and on the effectiveness of quarantines,” says al-Marashi. The Spanish flu pandemic, which was probably of avian origin, infected a fifth of the world population and killed 50 million people, much more than the First World War that preceded it, and which was its real vector of spread. “On the subject of transparency, the history of the name of the disease is revealing. It was called “Spanish” flu, not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was the first country to widely publicize the epidemic. Given that Spain was not belligerent in the First World War, it did not activate any wartime censorship, while other nations censored the news of the pandemic. Because of the headlines and the coverage of the Spanish press, many people simply assumed that the epidemic had started there, when the Spanish presumed that it came from France, calling it “French” flu. ” Thus, looking at the current outbreak of Covid-19, “it is also the result of a lack of transparency on the part of Wuhan officials who ignored and censored the initial warnings. This resulted in the timely dissemination of little critical information, depriving Beijing’s national leaders of the ability to implement informed decisions.” If the history of the “Spanish” flu encouraged transparency as the solution to face an epidemic, in the twenty-first century we have not been able to take advantage of this experience: “Transparency is essential for developing the public trust needed to control the epidemic. And trust determines the ability of the public to listen and follow the advice of the authorities on how to avoid the infection,” says al-Marashi. “History teaches policy makers that they must always be prepared for such things, therefore also for a pandemic. Because history has a value, but obviously it depends on what value it is given and how it is used. In this case, it was used very badly.”


Piacenza, Italy. March 2020. Mass behind closed doors, church of San Sisto. Photo by Giorgio Orazio Salimeni / Cesura.

Social distancing is not the solution without trust


Without trust, making informed choices is difficult. Slavoj Žižek suggests a comparison to his own story. “The situation reminds me of my youth in a communist country: When government officials assured the public that there was no reason to panic, we all took these assurances as clear signs that they were themselves panicking. So today, we ordinary people who should live with viruses, are bombarded by the endlessly repeated formula —Don’t panic! — and then, we get conflicting, vague, or amplified data from governments and the media, which can only trigger panic. In the meantime, the ultra-wealthy of the financial elite are already flocking to private planes for small exclusive islands in the Caribbean and there they will retire and have fun, telling stories in the Decameron style.” They are the privileged ones who will continue to shake hands and embrace each other and who will not be touched by the so-called “social distancing,” that is a series of behavioral measures, which are difficult to define even for researchers who are studying them and which consist of reducing up to 75% contact away from home, at school, or at work, to halt the pandemic. This social model that awaits us around the corner from draconian measures, well described by Gideon Lichfeld in the MIT Technology review, is apparently the only one possible in the near future, considering that researchers have discovered that without social distancing the whole population, even the best mitigation strategy—which means isolation or quarantine of the sick, the elderly, and those who have been exposed, in addition to the closure of schools—would still lead to a wave of seriously ill people eight times larger than the US or British system alone can cope with.

But what does “social distancing” mean in concrete terms? According to Lichfeld, waiting for a vaccine will mean an inevitable discrimination of citizens by age groups, between healthy and sick people, between people living in areas of the world with the best possible health systems and others who live in countries where there is only one unit of intensive care throughout the territory, among those who will be rich enough to access private health care by paying millions in insurance and those who will die in a public hospital, among those who can afford working at home and gig workers who will pedal for kilometers in the hope of an extra delivery tip. It will mean discovering the already inflamed nerve of social inequalities and paying the price for intrusive surveillance. Yuval Noah Harari repeated this in no uncertain terms: We are facing the choice between totalitarian surveillance and the empowerment of citizens, at a time when we are moving without a blow from “over the skin” surveillance to “under the skin” surveillance. Harari writes in the Financial Times:

“Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.”

This applies to China, which has already activated a citizen tracking system through an app that can monitor health status, body temperature, movement of individuals, and presence in certain areas of positive and therefore infected patients. But also the countries defined as democratic,. like Israel and the European Union, have studied a similar measure: In Italy, an SMS has already been delivered to all citizens with the invitation to download the Immuni app which has the same functions as the Chinese version, without knowing where the data will be stored. We also begin to discuss how to sanction citizens who will not download it in public debates where those who raise concerns are considered uncooperative with institutions and in regards to the health of others in this exceptional situation. If this method allowed the pandemic to be eradicated in a couple of months, perhaps we would be willing to accept it. But here is the weakest link in the chain: According to Harari, the downside of this hypothesis is that accepting it would legitimize a terrifying new surveillance system:

“If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure, and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry.”

“We are living in Covid-1984”

“Data is too sensitive to be in the hands of anyone,” Jeremy Scahill, American investigative journalist, director of independent magazine The Intercept, and former George Polk Award winner for his investigation into the private military company Academi, warns against this possibility and this choice. “We are already beyond the reality painted by Orwell in 1984, indeed we can say that we are at the center of a plot that could be re-titled Covid 1984. Both authoritarian regimes like China and great-power democracies like the United States are exploiting the crisis, removing civil rights, or rejecting the freedoms of movement and expression. They are offering tracking services in the name of fighting the virus. But when the pandemic ends, what will governments do with this data? They can use it for population control and mass surveillance.” For Scahill, the antidote is: “We must remain fully vigilant and understand in the history of pandemics how governments have usually used crises, and how it is possible for us to avoid exploiting them, so as to avoid applying increasingly authoritarian agendas. In the United States, this scenario has already been seen after Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. Why should it not happen again, even more so today?” Paradoxically, a worry for Scahill should not be already authoritarian regimes, but the drift of democracies: “Iran, despite being the axis of evil for the United States, has released more than one hundred thousand prisoners as part of the pandemic response. Covid-19 in the United States is spreading with great speed, especially in New York, not only among Hispanic and African-American communities in the most crowded neighborhoods, but also in prisons. Yet, here, the government is very slow to release prisoners for necessary hospital care. So, let’s ask ourselves: What are the priorities of our modern and democratic Western societies? Are we really so much better than the authoritarian regimes we say we want to oppose?” Of course, some pressing questions to these same authoritarian governments, and the slow and non-transparent answers addressing the pandemic, have to be asked: “China,” continues Scahill, “must explain what really happened in Wuhan, because whoever had launched the alarm was first silenced, how many people actually contracted the virus, if and how it put pressure on the World Health Organization, how it is using mass tracking technology systems, how it is treating political dissidents and minorities in prisons and re-education camps. These questions are necessary and legitimate, even to the extent that China’s geopolitical strategy gives it a global advantage. The help China provides to other countries affected by the virus, such as Italy, proves it. The United States, however, brought aid ships destined for Caribbean countries back to their ports. So the United States is putting the gendarmes in the backyard but China has already taken off to the rest of the world with a merchant ship.” Here, then, the opportunities that a pandemic creates for policy makers becomes central because there are two paths and choices ahead, according to Yuval Noah Harari: “Nationalist isolation, or global solidarity. The worst thing is the disunity that we see in the world, the lack of cooperation and coordination between different countries. And the lack of trust, both between states and between peoples and governments. This is basically the flip side of what we have seen happening in recent years: The epidemic of fake news and the deterioration of international relations.”


Milan, Italy, March 2020. One of the Italian government’s restrictions during the Covid-19 emergency is a ban on leaving home except in cases of extreme necessity. Photo by Stefania Bosso / Cesura.

A new era is coming

The diplomatic relationship between the United States and China and the way in which the two countries have reacted to the pandemic is the perfect demonstration of this, and from this point of view, historically, is the result of a new era. For Ibrahim al-Marashi this pandemic is no different from the previous ones, even though it developed in a global and capitalist world, because the two states—China and the US—which are the embodiment of this model, in the two authoritarian and democratic versions, are two parallel sides of the same coin: “In order to not weaken production and not lose confidence and consensus in the classes of workers and future voters, one favored the explosion of the pandemic and the other one made it worse.”

The existence of conspiracy theories that involve both of them as responsible for the spread of the virus and a possible bacteriological war, are forms of mass distraction that are useful for providing comfort and are perfect for diverting the attention of global citizenship from problems that impose conscious activism. While we get lost in discussions about when and how to end the quarantine, few have the courage to ask the institutions, even in democratic countries, sticky questions about culpable delays, indecisions, and questionable choices. Few take the initiative to continue asking for transparency. “Still in the United States,” Jeremy Scahill reveals, “most of the national decisions on the management of the next social distancing take place behind closed doors. Companies such as Palantir Technologies and Clearview AI, whose monitoring of personal data has already alarmed us about the danger it poses to the restriction of personal freedoms, have discussed the use of their tools to track down the pandemic with US federal and state agencies. We are appealing to the Freedom of Information Act but we face many difficulties. And to monitor the work of institutions and the great interests that revolve around corporations, which, as the collapse of our health system shows, affect both the American left and right, we run into a climate of hostility meticulously constructed by years of campaigns by President Donald Trump against fake news.” Campaigns that today make it possible, for example, for Trump’s followers, to reduce to fake news every type of information distributed through institutions and the press, also helped by the dehumanization that years of xenophobic propaganda have brought with them. And this is where the danger of an authoritarian conversion of many state realities creeps in. Scahill writes: “I am very reluctant to make comparisons between America today and Europe of the 1920s, but we must not forget that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini succeeded in their project because they were able to convince their fellow citizens that around them lived worms, disguised as humans and that to continue living with full rights one had to annihilate them.”

Pandemics are perfect storms to achieve these authoritarian goals, using fear as an emotional lever. Michel Foucault himself noted that the rise of police surveillance in the modern era was directly related to the span of pandemic diseases because in these situations the state and society began to watch and control city dwellers. And even a historian like Ibrahim al-Marashi, recalling the effects of Spanish flu on the Middle East, recalls how “that pandemic accelerated the vulnerability of those countries in the early twentieth century, both towards Russia and with respect to anyone interested in having access to oil, creating the so-called “Arab chaos” and, if not chaos, dictatorships. Today, this region is even more vulnerable, due to climate change. There are three already systematic problems and, if the current epidemic is added to them, everything still becomes exponentially explosive and does not bode well for local and global security.” So if there are those who, like Harvard professor Stephen Walt, believe that “the pandemic will strengthen the state and nationalism, pushing governments of all kinds to adopt emergency measures to manage the crisis, measures that are unlikely to abandon concluded,” there are those who do not want to believe that Covid-19 will create a less open, less prosperous, and less free world.

Both Jeremy Scahill and Ibrahim al-Marashi cannot give up on the fact that “the combination of a deadly virus, inadequate planning, and incompetent leadership are putting humanity on a new and worrying path,” as Walt argues. Rather, this story is worth a shock, an awareness for civil society, starting from what nature wants to tell us with this pandemic, which brings the issue of climate change back to the center of the global debate. Al-Marashi does not believe that governments alone will make a turn on this because, “unless they will not have strong opposition, they will continue in the same way. Politics loves to preserve itself when it comes to power.” Therefore, the only option that remains is to rely on a renewed civil society, which knows how to intercept some clear signs of the need to build a different world, but not necessarily one that is less open and less free. Jeremy Scahill sees these signs in the dolphins that swim undisturbed in the New York waterfront, and in every sign of nature that has regained its space: “The earth is breathing again and it is telling us: If you don’t stop consumption, pollution, and war, this planet will die. But it is not too late: If you know how to use this moment to understand that we can change for the better, the planet will be saved. We are at a point of no return, politically and humanly: We must come out of all this renewed and dedicate ourselves to change for a better world, otherwise we will come out defeated, sick, and allowing authoritarian governments to determine our future. History is written by those who win the war, and we have the opportunity to write our history now, preventing the prophets of doom from having the upper hand. But we have to fight and it will be a great battle.”