A Very Modern Plague: Part I

This is the first of a two-part post looking at the modern elements of the coronavirus crisis. You can find Part II here.

Back in those strange mid-March days it felt as if the calendar was turning backward. Being confined in our homes because of a plague seemed a resuscitation of history. As the word ‘unprecedented’ became ubiquitous, we looked to episodes like the Black Death, the Great Plague of London and Cholera outbreak of the 1850s to find reference points. We were wrenched out of time, as strange as if the Year of the Three Popes suddenly became the closest parallel to political developments. Over the last six months, however, I’ve become more and more convinced that, far from being some kind of historical throwback, recent events have been quintessentially modern. No other age would have, could have, approached the arrival of Sars-CoV-2 in the way we moderns have. This has been a very modern plague.

What do I mean by modern? I mean that the crisis caused by the arrival of the Sars-CoV-2 is a crisis that requires modern patterns of thought as a condition of its existence. Other generations have faced viruses, and other diseases, far more deadly than COVID-19, serious and significant as COVID-19 certainly is, and yet they have not responded by shutting life down to the extent and to the degree that we have. Perhaps they would have done if they could or perhaps it is the mindset we have come to regard as self-evident, the way our instincts have been formed and trained, that has created a crisis far out of proportion to the actual biological threat that COVID-19 represents. 

In making this claim, I do not wish to throw opprobrium on any particular official, advisor or minister. Certainly, all those with responsibility for the Government’s response to the virus have faced difficult choices and no doubt they have sought to make them to their best of their ability and with all the wisdom at their disposal. My case is not that we should identify a small band of guilty men. Rather, it is to seek to identify the social and intellectual conditions, conditions that have emerged over decades and centuries, that have created such unenviable choices for our governing class. 

A Very Modern Problem

One of the striking features of our response to the arrival of COVID-19 has been the intense focus on human intervention, specifically government policy, in restricting the impact of the virus. In his ‘squeeze the brakes’ speech of July 31st, Boris Johnson stated that, ‘I cannot – I won’t stand by and allow the virus to cause more pain and heartache in this country.’ The progress of the virus did not depend simply on Mr Johnson and all his powers as First Lord of Treasury, no it depended on all of us. As he reminded us in his statement of September 22nd, ‘Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour.’ 

Now, of course, human beings have always been able to take steps to reduce the spread of a disease, human agency is not completely irrelevant in such cases, but the emphasis that Mr Johnson, and almost everyone else, has placed on human choice as the key factor is worth observing. What if viruses, like other forces of nature, like the wind and the sea, are largely beyond human, let alone government, control? 

Our response to the Coronavirus crisis has been distinctively modern because we have regarded it as a problem to be solved rather than a trial to be endured. The idea that there might be a force more powerful than us, that death and disease are immovable realities of a tragic human condition, has been anathema to us. But are we right? We may laugh up our sleeves at the way our pagan forefathers dealt with plagues by offering sacrifices to one or other of their gods. But at least their actions showed that they had sense not to believe that everything that happens to us is within the grasp of human control. That there are some things to which human power is not equal. Perhaps, in this at least, even though their medical and scientific knowledge was rudimentary, their wisdom surpassed our own. 

A Very Modern Saviour

Once we regard Coronavirus as a problem to be solved, the question naturally arises, who will solve it? And the answer has been as instinctive as it has been almost universal: the Government. While there have been some countries that have allowed their citizens to make individual assessments of the risk the virus poses, the majority response has been one of mandatory measures. The Government has been assessed by one measure and one measure alone: the Covid deaths per million rate, as if that statistic is determined solely, or even largely, by state action. Not by the underlying health of the population (which is also increasingly viewed as a matter for the state rather than the individual), or the previous year’s flu season mortality or sheer random chance beyond the ken of human perception; no, the death per million rate has been viewed as determined by decisions in Whitehall or the White House.

Very few have stopped to question whether even the most highly organised Government could prevent the spread of a virus several weeks, even months, after it has arrived in a community, nor whether it would be wise to give any Government the powers necessary to do so. That the virus is the responsibility of the Government has been a basic assumption of the public discourse from the very first moment that the word ‘coronavirus’ became popular parlance. Why? 

The answer lies in what we observed before. If the progress of the virus lies not with chance or fate or divine power, but in the control of human beings, where else is that control most fully manifest but in the power of the state? It is no accident that G.W.F. Hegel, who believed that the behind all reality was the process of humanity arriving at self-consciousness, believed that that history had reached its conclusion in the Prussian state in which he lived. For if humanity is the highest power in the universe, where else does that power reach its apogee but in the state,  which is the most concentrated corporate expression of the human will? 

So it is that, during this crisis, the Government has taken on the responsibility to regulate ever smaller areas of human activity. No family gathering, no association, no activity lies outside the scope of the Government’s coronavirus response. During the media frenzy over whether Dominic Cummings had broken the rules by driving to County Durham to let his parents look after his son, very few queried whether regulating when a child could see its grandparents by legislation was such a good idea. Of course, Cummings himself could not appeal to such an argument because the Government which he advised had created the very rules he was accused of breaching. But the reality is, by asking the Government to stop a process beyond direct human control, we have authorised it to take ever more detailed control over us and our lives. 

Again, this is distinctly modern. Only equipped with the apparatus of apps and PCR testing and Bluetooth, could the Government hope to achieve the kind of mastery of the population necessary, at least in theory, to restrain the spread of the virus. Only a Government encumbered with the belief that there is functionally no higher authority or power to which it can appeal would even attempt to. 

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