The COVID-19 crisis has been going on for two years. For someone who is a little older, time runs like lightning. To young people, this must seem like an eternity.
The past period has been both instructive and paradoxical.
Two very obvious things came to the fore: firstly, coping with a pandemic requires a comprehensive system of health care and social protection and measures that have as much to do with the environment as with social policy: clean air, clean drinking water, decent housing. These are things that are necessary in all circumstances, the pandemic just highlighted them.
The second point is something that is confirmed time and time again. In any crisis, be it a pandemic, natural or economic, it is the weakest who are the main victims: children, women, the poor... in the North as well as in the South and the countries of the South in general compared to the North. The South has hardly any access to vaccines.
These two observations also show, once again, that social protection and environmental policy go hand in hand and require a universal approach. Nobody can stay healthy if everybody is not healthy. No one can escape the pandemic if everyone does not escape the pandemic. No individual country or city can solve the problem without cooperation from others.
There are more questions to be asked and lessons to be learned from this crisis.
The great paradox is the emergence of a strong anti-vaccine movement in many rich countries. This movement is also playing a role in Africa and Latin America - especially Brazil - mainly under the influence of some evangelical churches. In Western Europe and the US, it is less evident where it comes from. Yet this anti-science attitude should surprise us.
The belief and trust in all that is 'natural' — our 'natural' immunity — is typical of a green movement, especially that branch of the movement that looks to the right rather than the left or refuses to see the difference between the two. The many demonstrations organised in Western Europe against government policy and against the COVID Safe Pass and possible compulsory vaccinations were always heavily influenced by the right and the extreme right, but with a strong green input at the same time. That green-right trend has always existed and was strongly present in the first half of the 20th century. It is a fundamentalist ecology which is radically anti-humanist, anti-egalitarian and anti-individualist and easily slides into eco-fascism. The first 'green' thinkers — Ernst Haeckel and Ludwig Klages for example — inspired the Nazi ideology. The primacy of the Earth and the spiritual are then paramount.
Epidemics, such as HIV-Aids at the time and now COVID are easily accepted from a 'natural selection' philosophy. From that perspective, any government intervention is now rejected. Let the virus go its own way, vaccines and social measures are superfluous, corona is no more than a flu and will disappear on its own. And yes, there will be deaths, that is unavoidable. The only thing people can do is to strengthen their natural immunity through diet and healthy living. Other interventions are rejected.
A second element of explanation is undoubtedly post-modern and especially anti-modern thinking, on the left and on the right. The anti-modern thinking of Gandhi or of the Iranian Ayatollahs is easier to place than that of a few great progressive intellectuals of the 21st century for whom modernity is the source of all evil in our societies. What exactly is meant by that modernity — Enlightenment thinking or the modernization of the post-World War II development project — is not always clear, although it can be decisive for an evaluation. But the core of that thinking, the questioning of 'Western' rationality, the denunciation of the epistemicide of colonisation and more generally the relativisation of any truth and the rejection of grand narratives cannot but have an impact on confidence in what scientists have to say.
The criticism of modernity and rationality was of course more than welcome and necessary, for a great deal of mischief has been done throughout the world out of a sense of superiority and the ‘white man’s burden’. So it is not a question of rejecting them, but of pointing out that even these critical truths can never be absolute and must not lead to the radical rejection of a philosophy that is essentially emancipatory. Scientists have a particularly important task today and have also helped society in this pandemic, with vaccines in the first place and with information in the second place. But precisely because both a part of the right and of the left highlighted the relativity of scientific knowledge, it was easy to let the flow of all the 'fake truths' swell. This also has to do with the evolution that Foucault pointed out: the disappearing link between words and things. You are no longer expected to try to prove what you say with rational arguments; words alone are sufficient to throw any kind of lie into the debate. Words then stand alone and no longer refer to an underlying reality.
Even easier to explain is the purely individual view of 'freedom' that was thrown into the debate. My body is my freedom, no one else should make decisions about it. Of course, the examples of policies that refute this proposition are numerous. Governments have a lot of rules that limit the right to self-determination over your body; abortion and euthanasia are the most obvious examples. In addition, of course, freedom can never be real if it compromises the freedom of others. If I don't get vaccinated, I can get the virus more easily and pass it on to others who may be less resistant than I am. This is a weighty argument, particularly for hospital staff. But this reasoning is to no avail. And the influence of thirty to forty years of neo-liberalism, which threw every attention to the collective overboard, is having a pernicious effect here. People must be offered a choice, not whether or not they want a fixed, guaranteed government pension, but which private pension fund they want to join.
Organizing, cooperating, standing up for your rights, was thrown into the dustbin of history. It has led to an atomisation of society and a weakening of the major social movements, such as the trade unions. As Thatcher said at the time: “there is no such thing as society,” there are only individuals and families. I and only I decide whether I want a vaccine or not. It is in the private sphere that 'connectedness' and 'solidarity' are sought, with neighbours and with friends. The structural solidarity of social security is deemed to be outdated.
Finally, there is a general mistrust in everything political. Political parties and governments are more and more considered as representatives of people and groups who never keep their promises. There is certainly a grain of truth in this, after all, they have to be elected and will try to do so with beautiful stories full of attractive promises. The fact that little comes of it afterwards, however, is not necessarily a form of deceit, but of reality. Governments have to live within the existing balance of power, and are by no means as supreme as theory would have us believe. Moreover, there are often coalition governments in which everyone has to give something and receive something. So promises will never be kept. Add to that the fact that governments often show their powerlessness themselves, to have to do nothing on the economic level, against multinationals. Hence the growing distrust. Sometimes this is directly visible, when a government has indeed misled the population. This is the case in the French Caribbean, for example, where for decades a pesticide that is demonstrably carcinogenic has been used to grow bananas. The vast majority of the population and their drinking water have been contaminated. Trust in the government is completely lost.
I suspect that no anti-vaxxer will identify one hundred percent with any of these four explanations. Everything plays a small part everywhere. But these are four basic currents that endanger democracy and coexistence. No great conspiracy is needed then, no need to look for anti-Semitism in the first place (the bearers of a yellow star in the demonstrations are real outsiders). We should worry less about those who scream that we live in a dictatorship, than about that daily, slow erosion of our ability to live together, to discuss, to strive for healing, and to promote trust in government and science.
Pandemics are of all times. We don't know where COVID came from. With all that this pandemic has shown in terms of the lack of public health protection, and certainly in terms of political-philosophical developments, it is safe to say that our current society is sick.
The great confusion of the moment only plays into the hands of the extreme right that does not hesitate to put its 'truths' on the table. The French presidential candidate Zemmour can calmly talk about the 'great replacement’ and about the islamisation of society, about the danger of migration. He has no need for figures or arguments. Meanwhile, people are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and in the English Channel, walls are being erected in Greece, Belarus and Mexico and people are being mistreated in a freezing winter. Millions go hungry and lack access to vaccines and any health care. Others worry about a cancelled city trip. My freedom? My choice?
There is no counter narrative. A story that starts from a rejection of modernity can only reinforce the right-wing trend and the great confusion. What is needed is a story about emancipation, about respect, about protection, about human rights, about democracy, about rationality. Only that can save us and bring us together again.
Sapere aude: not only science, but also the knowledge of others, the awareness of multiplicity, diversity and universalism, will have to be strengthened. Living together is never easy, but we have instruments that make it possible. It is not Mother Earth that is taking revenge today. A pandemic is a very natural phenomenon that can be fought with rationality and scientific knowledge. We don't have to atone for it.
The world has changed, and this pandemic will exacerbate that change. It will never be the same again. What is needed today is a progressive movement that reawakens dreams of a better future, that speaks to the whole society and not just to one segment. Today's social movements have no political project and in many cases are even afraid of it. They nestle in the niche of their own public and reinforce the fragmentation of the social network. Internationalism has all but disappeared. Bringing everything back together, strengthening social cohesion with all the differences and contradictions that go with it, is the big challenge we face if we want to stop the extreme right. There is a global demand for social justice, in a very broad sense, from social protection to political participation, from democratic rights to sustainability. There is a need for a project that captures the imagination and creates hope. It is a task that the international trade union movement and the World Social Forum should take up.