The paradox of these days is that, while much of Europe has ground to a halt and authorities urge us to slow down, the pace with which new restrictions, case statistics and opinions hit us is ever faster. Many people have already given up on trying to keep up with developments; social media are bursting with opinions, both qualified and unqualified, and the call to ban fake news is louder than ever. The noise that has disappeared from many of Europe’s bustling cities has now moved to the online sphere.
This may thus not seem at all like the moment for critical reflection. It may seem like the moment to be quiet, to listen to the experts, and to follow the health authorities’ advice. It is understandable that in difficult times like these, people are afraid and look for easy answers. And no answer could be easier than “just stay at home and do nothing”, expressed by hashtags such as “StayTheFHome”, “yomequedoencasa” and “Bleibtzuhause”. These have generated a lot of positive content, but also social shaming by photographing and scorning those who are still on the streets, irrespective of their circumstances. A Spanish friend of mine who took her daughter into the backyard to play was shouted at by a neighbour from a balcony.
These herd movements are natural human reactions, and irrational behaviour is normal in people coping with diffuse fear. They don’t mean the end of our civilisation. But they serve as reminders of how thin our layer of civility and tolerance of others, and how close to the surface our readiness to adopt repressive tendencies are when we feel cornered. Given that these phenomena have occurred from day one of what will be lockdowns that last many weeks, countries that enforce a total home confinement of their populations subject each citizen to an unprecedented endurance test, one that may well have grave consequences for the fabric of society, already tense these days due to profound disagreements over recent political questions.
The imposition of the types of lockdowns that we see in some European countries such as Italy, Spain and, most recently, France will, in my view, be looked back at as one of the biggest social experiments Europe has ever seen, at least in peacetime. These countries have taken the decision, with little or no prior warning or discussion, to basically lock their citizens up and enforce a movement ban with moral imperatives, but also police and military forces as time progresses. The curfews, it is already clear, will have to last for at least a month, and issues are arising already. While nobody knows whether such lockdowns will be effective in the long-term, everybody agrees that they are not sustainable for long. It is impossible to predict what the long-term consequences will be, but the effects on individual people may be devastating. There will be people whose life hardly changes, but there will be many people whose mental and physical health will suffer by a lack of company or exercise or who live with an abusive, alcoholic partner who, unable to drink in the local bar, now takes their habit home. Reports from China show an increase in domestic violence after just two weeks.
It is thus important, I feel, to insist on civil participation in a discussion about lockdowns and to give voice to as many people as possible where lockdowns are still up for debate. Infringements on civil liberties on an unprecedented scale must not be taken out of momentary fear of an issue we don’t (and can’t) even begin to understand in the absence of reliable data. There is an unspoken message of “be quiet and let the experts talk” these days. I venture, however, that there are no experts on the problem we’re facing because we’re dealing with a new strain that virologists know very little about and we don’t have sufficient reliable case data, and the data we do have is too unreliable to be meaningful (Ioannidis 2020, Scoones 2020). There certainly are people who are more qualified to talk about it than others. But ultimately, even those experts admit that they can only speculate. We are basically flying blind without extensive, widespread testing. The only thing we do know, to paraphrase the ancient adage, is that we know nothing.
In a crisis such as this one, which affects not just our societies as a whole, but also every single one of us on a deeply personal level, I consider it vital to listen not just to virologists and epidemiologists, but also to sociologists, to philosophers, to political scientists, to ethnographers. In short, while it is wise to stay home, we should not lock ourselves away mentally and wait for science to resolve the issue. This social crisis demands participation especially from the humanities, because we are not just figures in a clinical trial, but human beings in an extreme situation that will have severe consequences. The coronavirus has long surpassed the dimensions of a mere health issue and has become a caesura whose aftermath will have ramifications for our societies, culture and economy that, I believe, have the potential to be far more long-lasting than the virus itself and must be negotiated carefully and informed by a broad range of people and arguments.
As a linguist, for instance, I’m interested in the language used in the current discourse. The corona crisis is interesting in this respect, not just because previously uncommon phrases have entered our daily vocabulary basically overnight (“social distancing”, “self-isolation”, “flatten the curve”), but also with respect to the metaphors used to talk about the crisis. The coronavirus has so far mainly been framed in terms of warfare metaphors. When he announced the lockdown, the Spanish president Pedro Sánchez said that the virus “no está a las puertas” (“is not at the gates”), but has already penetrated the city walls. When French prime minister Emanuel Macron announced the general curfew, he said five times “Nous sommes en guerre” (“We are at war”) and talked about the need for a “general mobilisation” against an “invisible enemy”. This diction has also been picked up by Donald Trump in his recent tweets.
How different, on the other hand, the approach taken by German federal chancellor Angela Merkel, who, in her first televised speech ever, used no such belligerent language and, as is expected of German politicians, avoided rampant evocations of patriotism, but appealed to people’s understanding and reason, to keep a distance from each other out of consideration. Her key phrase was that “im Moment ist nur Abstand Ausdruck von Fürsorge” (“at the moment, the only act of caring is distance”). The use of warfare language implies the expectation of a soldier-like behaviour, which strips citizens in democracies in lockdown of their role to participate and question their leaders’ decision and instead establishes a moral obligation to serve unquestioningly and to obey the order to stay in their homes and continue working. Every politician has appealed to a sense of community. But does locking up the population in their homes not suggest a deep mistrust in their citizens’ capacity to act reasonably? The speed at which not just civil rights, but also basic human rights such as the right to freely move, are being curbed to address a phenomenon that we do not understand at all, seems staggering.
Therefore, if ever there has been a moment to demand a public debate and participate in it, to reflect on and to criticise what is being presented to us with seeming urgency, then that moment is now. At a time when the vital role of each individual in preventing the spread of the virus is emphasised, we are all also reminded of our role in the cultural development of our society. This climate of uncertainty mixed with fear is a fertile ground for speculation, underestimation as well as panicking. That is why it’s important to call on the individual judgement of everyone to form their own opinion and critically reflect on other opinions, to decide which arguments are based on solid reasoning and which are just noise, a capacity that is more important than ever in trying times like these, and one that I consider the main outcome of a university education.
At some point, we will have to ask why politicians have adopted worst-case scenarios in the corona crisis basically from the beginning despite having no reliable data whatsoever, while in the climate crisis, they have been adopting best-case scenarios for years, pushing deadlines, evading emission targets, softening legislation, despite having all the data in the world, based on decades of international research. The urgency with which governments have acted on the coronavirus stands in glaring contrast to their long-term inactivity on global warming. Hopefully the experience we’ll have gained will at last make us act with the urgency required while it’s not too late. Now we still enjoy the freedom to discuss whether confining people to their homes is necessary and beneficial. But if we don’t act now on the climate crisis, our children may face lockdowns that they cannot challenge, because those lockdowns will not be imposed by politicians, but by the inhabitability of our planet.
Mario Bisiada is a lecturer, Facultat de Traducció i Ciències del Llenguatge, Universitat Pompeu Fabra