Stringent quarantine in a larger part of Europe was imposed during March and May 2020 in response to a pandemic of a novel coronavirus. Quarantine enforced sudden, shocking intermezzo when only the sounds of silence could be heard. ‘Silent Spring’ arrived, but in the evocative inverse, with people, not birds, missing from streets and parks, as Rachel Carson predicted in her memorable book (1962). Humanity eventually paralysed itself before it could overrule against nature.
The invisible virus took over for a couple of weeks to collect its human toll and leave the present generation a sobering message: the ignored are present everywhere and doing well. Persistent ignorance generated a subversive coalition of invisible forces that cannot be ignored anymore.
With the uninvited intervention of the invisible, many things have become clearer. In the first place, what is really important in our lives and what is mere illusion. One cannot overlook Hegel’s negation of the negation at work. With the invisible virus, the void is voiding our ignorance, exposing the blinding lights of political theatre and revealing the hidden mess behind the stage: environmentally and socially blinded globalisation, starved and functionally crippled public infrastructures and systems of public governance. They are embedded into the inability of far too many key politicians to face complex challenges in a transformative way, as open-minded visionary leaders steering collective action toward positive change instead of trying to revive the old as soon as possible or even excavate and reinvigorate their long buried predecessors.
The pandemic imposes on us a complex social problem. It is not only related to health in contradicting ways, but also affects economic and social life, even natural environment. Complex situations refuse one-sided solutions. Strict quarantine was a highly effective measure in a crucial but narrow sense: it instantly stopped further transmission of the virus from an already infected population, before things became uncontrollable for the health sector. The quarantine was imposed at the moment when it became clear that preventive measures — as well as efforts to locate and control critical hot spots of infection — had failed. To make things worse, the quarantine was not only an enforced choice, but also an enforced cure. Since the different circumstances in which people live were largely ignored, it came to many in a large overdose, while some of the most vulnerable groups lacked life-saving protection. For instance, an astounding 80% of coronavirus related fatalities in Slovenia were, by official counting, the residents of retirement homes operated by public institutions. These were largely left to deal with the pandemic problem on their own, cut off from the medical help of hospitals until it was too late. The major effort was focused on protection of less vulnerable populations.
With inappropriate selection of measures and disproportional treatment, an imposed cure may transform into a poison. A survey by the Chinese Psychology Society indeed found that after the quarantine more than 40% of healthy respondents tested positive for anxiety, while 20% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, the quarantine triggered personal tragedies for many people living in emotionally unhealthy families or relationships, especially for the disabled, elderly, and children. It was reported that in China, where the massive scale epidemic first concluded, domestic violence nearly doubled in areas that had been subjected to general lockdown. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierres called for the urgent attention of state leaders to a “shadow pandemic” induced by quarantine — a “horrifying surge” in family violence against women. From still fragmented evidence an awareness slowly rises that the negative side-effects of quarantine must have been enormous.
Health concerns are complex, arising from independent and sometimes contradicting domains that should, in principle, never overrule one another. For instance, a certain life-threatening health condition is not more important than other comparable health threats. Neither is physical health superior to mental and social health, like social cohesion and intergenerational fairness. They are all needed for a good and well-lived life.
If one specific aspect in a national antivirus response overrules other integral considerations, the situation becomes biopolitical, as Foucault explained. It wide-opens doors for imposing political concerns over lives, ideologies over physical bodies. Biopolitical measures may prove effective in saving many individual lives in times of urgency, but they nevertheless push the whole generation toward more suffering in the long run.
As the end of the pandemic (its first wave?) nears, it seems that governments’ efforts to subjugate complexity were defeated on a grand scale, at least for some time, and defeated again by the invisible. The third or fourth time in this still-young century. Even if pandemic does not become a triggering event to fundamentally revert globally negative social and environmental trends, it is certainly a major crystallising experience that is changing the game. What makes the difference is the fact that the virus cannot be defeated. It cannot be bombed like fanatic terrorists. It cannot be sent to prisons like greedy bankers. Nor can it be repelled like migrants from distant countries, by sending soldiers to install barbed wire to secure national borders. The era in which the dominant doctrines of the old normality first tried to ignore, dissolve, then to ‘kill complexity’, or at least domesticate the beast, is brought to an abrupt end. Even when a vaccine is found we will only become less vulnerable; this virus will continue to prey upon our weaknesses. But the invincibility of virus does not mean we are doomed.
During the current coronavirus crisis, one aspect of the ignored acquired not only a voice and voting right, but also a chance to impose a veto. The invisible must be accepted now as an invincible constraint — not to life but to our ignorant normality. We urgently need to find a vaccine, but we also need to learn how to coexist with this virus, in the same way we do with a plethora of other existentially threatening natural phenomena: by adapting our culture, by modifying our values and ways of thinking and behaving, and by relating to each other more responsibly, with a wiser organisation of global, social, and communal life, especially in cities. In this manner, the invisible enables the present generation to again hear the echo of the ancient messages from Mons Sacer and to recognise the developing signs of a future social order for which the present generation has aspired for so long.
From our book (Social Complexity and Complex Society; with Mojca Golobič): https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/social-complexity-complex-society-middle-world-bojan-bojan-radej/
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