The Coronavirus, The Myth Buster

Covid-19 revealed how brutal, unjust and inhumane the attitude to the old and sick is in the modern world. It showed the reality painstakingly concealed earlier behind thick curtains, hidden from the eyes of the majority.

1.

The coronavirus has brought to the surface an entire range of situations and things that are normally invisible, especially for those who have thus far functioned in a relatively efficient manner in the reality of late capitalism. They were young, healthy, or at least capable of gainful work. They were the ones who had to feel at least confused when the epidemic actually began to develop in Europe and when “things hidden since the foundation of the world” started to come out.

Already in the initial lockdown phase, it became clear that the socio-economic system, of which healthcare is part, was designed to function under conditions of relative normality, not in conditions of crisis; even if that crisis had been anticipated for at least a decade by many epidemiologists and risk analysts. One of them was the American economist Nassim Taleb, who, in his celebrated book Black Swan, published thirteen years ago, considered the potential factors threatening the free functioning of world markets and used the example of a virulent virus epidemic. In March 2020, inspired by these prophetic insights, Taleb staunchly declared that the coronavirus was by no means a black swan—a process or event that no one expected. On the contrary, it was the classic ‘white swan’, a phenomenon whose occurrence was obvious
to anyone who understood the nature of infectious diseases in the age of globalization.

Who is to be connected to a ventilator and who is to be refused help—such choices, in actual life rather than in thought experiments, had to be made by doctors in Italy, Spain and partly also in France.

This white swan soon made it clear that the moment any major disturbance enters the stage, the system immediately goes into emergency mode. There is a regression to some earlier, pre-modern phase of development when chaos begins to prevail over order, and moral dilemmas—previously considered during bioethics seminars and cropping up only in history books—suddenly become the everyday reality of doctors and nurses. Who is to be connected to a ventilator and who is to be refused help—such choices, in actual life rather than in thought experiments, had to be made by doctors in Italy, Spain and partly also in France. On top of that, there were mass graves, crematoria working twenty-four hours a day, with trucks taking bodies out of field hospitals under cover of night.

Such landscapes and such dilemmas have thus far been a total fantasy for us, inhabitants of developed countries. Or rather, let us repeat, they were a fantasy for the healthy, young and employed, as the faces of the system suddenly revealed by the pandemic had long been well known by people thrown out of the mainstream of social life: the poor, the old, the sick, the variously excluded. At some point, however, their experience—effectively covered up until now by various cultural narratives—became the experience of the majority. They are locked up in their homes, terrified by the prospect of losing their health and life—by themselves and by their loved ones. And they are, above all, confronted by a situation previously unimaginable: the prospect that there may be no ventilators for them either.

2.

In this context, one of the main myths of the late capitalist era suffered serious damage. I mean here the belief that everyone is the master of their own destiny. That our life and our place in the social hierarchy is defined exclusively by our willpower and determination. And if so, then we bear full responsibility not only for our own successes but also for our failures.

It was, and maybe still is an extremely powerful myth. Even if we reject it theoretically or intellectually—because we are aware that human fate can be very different, and poverty and wealth in Western societies reproduce with a worrying consistency—it still works very deeply and intensely within us. Whether we like it or not—our whole way of seeing and thinking about ourselves and others is permeated with it. It has many psychological and social roles, but above all, it is part of a political project. It is a narrative that aims to naturalize what is not natural at all because it is the result of a social contract rather than the operation of some objective natural rules.

Whether we like it or not—our whole way of seeing and thinking about ourselves and others is permeated with it. It has many psychological and social roles, but above all, it is part of a political project.

Individuals convinced that they bear total responsibility for their lives, seek the source of most of their life’s discomforts inside themselves. They look for them in insufficiently strong motivation, in their private family history, or in many other areas of their own mind or personal biography—at least those discomforts that can allegedly be overcome with the help of some therapeutic sessions, workshops, or courses of competence improvement.

Psychologically, it is much easier for us to accept that someone who finds himself in a difficult situation has deserved it and has worked for it himself. This gives us a sense of security in the face of a worrying prospect that also factors, completely independent of our will, may deprive us of everything that is most important. So the conviction that others had it coming gives us the illusion that nothing bad will ever happen to us, because we do everything we need to do, or at least everything that we have always been advised to do. We study, we go to work, we earn money, we build a safe future for ourselves and our loved ones. And although we still hear stories about people who have also done the right things, but have not dodged the crisis, we have developed many methods that allow us to distance ourselves from these images. The master of his own destiny is one of them. Highly effective, let’s add.

Despite the best willpower and determination of particular individuals, the world was mobilized for several months. All it took was a small disruption, far from having anything to do with positive thinking.

But the coronavirus has completely deactivated this story. Despite the best willpower and determination of particular individuals, the world was mobilized for several months. All it took was a small disruption, far from having anything to do with either positive thinking or personal determination, or the ability to influence events—and other clichés used by life coaching experts. A tiny element, a piece of genetic code invisible to the naked eye, was enough to dismantle not only our illusory sense of causality, but also another myth characteristic of modern times: that we are immortal, and our bodies if we provide them with an appropriate exercise and dietary regime, will live forever in a state of full fitness.

3.

The coronavirus has also brought the following simple truth to the surface: our bodies are susceptible to microorganisms, our diet and exercise will not protect us from disease and death, our sense of bodily integrity can be at most temporary because sooner or later we will be immobilized in exactly the same way as the world was immobilized by the pandemic.

The claim that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries death became what sex was in Victorian culture, namely a great taboo, is obviously not new. It was put forward in the 1950s by the American anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, and later repeated and illustrated with powerful source material by two prominent French historians, Philippe Aries and Michele Vovelle. Thus, for several decades we have already known that death has been displaced from contemporary life, that it has been increasingly disappearing from our sight. One of the classic forms of this suppression is a narrative, widespread especially among the popular media, in which ‘unhealthy lifestyles’ become almost what sin was—perhaps mortal—in the Middle Ages. Since we no longer believe in the afterlife at present, the death of the physical body—the only one we have at our disposal—turns out to be something like eternal damnation. Whoever does not apply gymnastic and dietary regimes bring such damnation upon himself.

We can all live forever, various trainers, dieticians and healers promise, if we meet the necessary conditions. Today nobody simply dies. There is no such thing as death from old age. Death is always the result of a disease process. Nowadays, even scientists propose changing the paradigm of thinking about death and make it a disease to be treated. For them, death is no longer a fundamental component of the human condition, it becomes just another problem to overcome. They do not think too much about the truth—admittedly it is not their duty—that actually the entire cultural and social structure in which we live is based on the fact of passing away. And if we suddenly stopped dying, this structure would very likely collapse exactly like the hospitals in Bergamo under the pressure of the coronavirus.

Nowadays, even scientists propose changing the paradigm of thinking about death and make it a disease to be treated. For them, death is no longer a fundamental component of the human condition.

In a word, death is simply unwelcome in today’s world. It has become an embarrassing affliction, which should not be taken into consideration. Instead, all forces should be invested in avoiding it, getting rid of it, removing it somewhere to infinity, beyond the horizon of what is available here and now. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has reminded us emphatically that death is omnipresent and that it can also affect those who are young, athletic and follow the healthiest possible diet.

4.

If, however, even healthy and athletic cannot feel safe, what can old and sick people say? They are those who even before the outbreak of the pandemic was, to put it mildly, not so well off in this world. The coronavirus has also revealed how brutal, unjust and inhumane the attitude to the old and sick is in the modern world. It showed a reality painstakingly concealed earlier behind thick curtains—in nursing homes, homes for the elderly and seniors, in the undercurrent of social life, invisible, hidden from the sight of the majority.

The priority is economics and politics, care for an individual’s life is great in theory, while in practice, civilization is only a small area totally surrounded by a jungle.

According to conservative estimates, up to half of those who have died of Covid 19 in Europe so far, almost 80,000 people, maybe nursing home residents. These people were left to their own devices. They were not tested, no medicines or protective equipment were provided. In some places their caretakers ran away, leaving them to die. Later, their bodies were packed into bags, taken away in trucks cremated or buried in mass graves. Michel Houellebecq was undoubtedly right when in one of his recent statements he said, with his characteristic gloomy irony, that the coronavirus revealed a simple, brutal truth: when in today’s world you exceed a certain age limit, it is as if you are already dead. And in any case, state institutions set up to look after its citizens—and financed from their taxes, their work and effort—are beginning to treat you like this. The priority is economics and politics, care for an individual’s life is great in theory, while in practice, civilization is only a small area totally surrounded by a jungle. An area that is shrinking very rapidly in a crisis.

5.

Will the truths revealed by the pandemic—and there are still many of them—force us to reflect? And, most importantly, to change the rules that have been in force so far? Are we going to realize that we lived in a fictional world, in which soaring and noble rhetoric concealed inertia and the rule of the stronger?

The coronavirus has also revealed how brutal, unjust and inhumane the attitude to the old and sick is in the modern world. It showed a reality painstakingly concealed earlier behind thick curtains.

One of the most interesting contemporary psychological concepts, namely the theory of the reduction of cognitive dissonance formulated in the middle of the twentieth century by the American psychologist Leon Festinger, states that confronted with data that contradict our previous beliefs, not only do we not modify the latter, but we even strengthen them….. Unfortunately, the early removal of restrictions, even though the pandemic has not yet expired, and the accompanying story of the return to the ‘world before’ seems to indicate that even this time the cognitive dissonance reduction will prove stronger than rational reflection.

Tomasz Stawiszyński

is a philosopher, columnist, the author of “Skirmishes with Freud. Myths, Temptations and Traps of Psychotherapy” (2013), the author of radio programs devoted to philosophy in Radio TOK FM. He recently launched the website www.stawiszynski.org.

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