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Eugène Ehren: A Brief Anatomy of the Plague That Never Was

Eugène Ehren can be contacted at eug.ehren@gmail.com

Many moons ago, I found myself on the receiving end of a stern warning: stay away from the sun. The warning came from a dermatologist, and I’d ended up in her office by a fluke, since it was an ophthalmologist I’d wanted to see, and it was my eyes I needed to get looked at and not my skin. But my GP’s receptionist had bungled things up, and the dermatologist had offered to make the best of the situation and examine me anyway.

What she found was not very reassuring. Covered with caramel-tinted birthmarks, my skin was apparently too white to handle sunshine. To decrease my risk of melanoma, I had to avoid any exposure to the sun. Even fifteen minutes was fifteen minutes too many. I could forget about cultivating that bronze look of affluence or retiring in a seaside town in Australia. Admittedly, I’d never had much interest in either. But the life of a bat held little appeal for me, nor did I want to walk around with a dainty umbrella like some Japanese geisha. The dermatologist was probably right – she was an expert after all. Yet it also seemed to me there were other benefits to spending a bit of time in the sun, benefits that were not necessarily in the scope of interest of skin disease specialists.

You’ve probably figured out where I am going with all this. Before we venture any further, by way of a belated preface, I might as well say that I am not one of the more colourful characters we’ve seen protesting against COVID-19 measures. I don’t think that the virus is a hoax, that vaccinations are evil, or that there is a master plan concocted by a coterie of billionaires to take over the world and introduce chips into our bodies. I also don’t believe that the rights of yours truly are more important than public health and safety – or at least, being human and all, I don’t believe it any more than is necessary. But a sine qua non of a free society is the right to disagree with the prevailing notions and question the measures they beget. The fact that I had to insert that preface – or that I wondered about the prudence of using my real name when submitting this piece before ceding to personal vanity – says a lot about how free our societies have become.

This is not flowery rhetoric born of a libertarian mind. The measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in an unprecedented loss of freedoms that, as is customary to say in such circumstances, we once took for granted. Did we ever! Since March, most of the civilized world has been subjected to a litany of curbs and restrictions that would have been unthinkable in 2019. We’ve been told where we can go and when; whom we can see and in what numbers; and, perhaps most invasively, what to wear on our faces when we leave home. All to contain a virus that is primarily a problem for the elderly with comorbidities.

In a certain sense, we’ve collectively decided to do what the dermatologist I hadn’t asked to see wanted me to do. We’ve chosen to minimize one risk to the exclusion of all other considerations. A questionable risk analysis, if we can at all speak of any analysis, and one that might well cause future historians to rack their brains over how we got to where we are now. The 1968 flu pandemic killed an estimated 1–4 million people worldwide, yet Woodstock still went ahead. What’s so different about this one?

Instead of talking about how COVID-19 has changed the world, it might be more helpful to look at the world laid bare by the virus. It was the existing state of our world that caused it to behave in a way that is virtually without precedent, and making sense of that world will help us better understand why we have reacted the way we have. I see three major societal developments that have coalesced and that are, at least in part, responsible for what has happened.

The first is the digitalization of society – the shift of normal human activity online. The rise of social networks is perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon. A big danger of social networks is the influence they have on the way we interact in the real world. Put otherwise, as we become digital creatures, our behaviour in real life begins to mimic our behaviour online. Call it the spillover effect. The ultimate promoters of democratization, social networks do not recognize hierarchies. To that end, they are egalitarian, but this kind of egalitarianism is hardly conducive to reflection and rational discourse. It is, however, conducive to a herd mentality and herd behaviour, which is dangerous when it begins to inform real-life behaviour. At its most extreme, herd behaviour can rapidly trigger a global stampede in a way that would have been impossible in the past.

Herd thinking means impoverishment of thought, mental uniformity, and rigid conformism at all levels of society, including the top ones. Ask yourself if the government of your country would have reacted the way it did in March, had other countries made a show of sangfroid. Impervious to reason, social networks are inherently emotional, and the response to COVID-19 has been largely underwritten by emotions. We chanted “We’re all in this together”, forgetting that the well-remunerated decision-makers who had ordered businesses to close did not take any pay cuts. We gushingly called all front-line workers heroes, without pausing to think that, however laudable the toil of grocery store clerks, heroes typically do not draw a salary. We were advised by officials not to wear masks, only to be forced to wear them in many settings a few months later – a volte-face unencumbered by an explanation or an apology, and one that took place in the absence of a firm consensus in the scientific community. As recently as August, in fact, the UK’s deputy medical officer was on record saying that the evidence for masks was “not strong in either direction”.

The endless flip-flopping, the emotional roller-coasters, the lack of any permanence, the blatant irrationality – all are hallmarks of social network behaviour. COVID-19 politics has been inconsistent and incoherent. Imperceptibly we’ve moved from the objective of flattening the curve to one of complete eradication of the virus; nothing short of zero cases now appears to be the prerequisite for a return to normality.

There seem to be no limits to the flouting of reason. A walk down the street, where you’re bound to see people wearing masks in their cars, will confirm this. In my municipality, diners were required to wear masks when they entered restaurants but not at table – that was when indoor dining was permitted, which it again no longer is. The mayor of Toronto, Canada’s largest city, recently declared that the young had an unjustified sense of invincibility, since “the medical evidence has shown that people who get COVID at a young age …  can end up with lung and heart conditions later into life”. Given that this is a ‘novel’ virus, I’d be curious to find out where the mayor got his medical evidence from. But the assertion went unquestioned. Nothing ever sticks as we abandon the latest story in favour of the one that comes right after, feeding our gluttonous need for more information and more novelty.

There are other aspects to the digitalization of society that have shaped the reaction to COVID-19. As John Gray has pointed out, the pandemic has merely accelerated trends that were already in place. Certainly, our alienation from each other predates COVID-19. A young woman told me recently she hadn’t left her home since March except for the obligatory trips to the grocery store. She then admitted it wasn’t much of a lifestyle change: her pre-pandemic life, including her relationships with friends, had been mostly virtual anyway.

An anecdotal example, to be sure, but the increasingly ‘schizoid’ nature of modern society was a problem long before the pandemic, and the degree to which we’ve become subservient to the digital world, frequently at the expense of real-life interaction, is self-evident. We no longer look at others when out and about, preferring the company of the sickly glow of a screen. Get together with friends or family, and it won’t be long before someone whips out his smartphone; our communication with other people is now constantly mediated by gadgets that were supposed to be a means and not an end in themselves. Social distancing as a health safety measure was implemented at a time when we were perfectly receptive to it. In a sense, we’d already started to distance from each other by the time the virus swept over the planet.

Additionally, advances in technology have made lockdowns feasible and, for some, even appealing. When SARS broke out in 2003, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to orchestrate nationwide lockdowns, since few people could work remotely – no Zoom meetings back in those days. We now have the tools and resources that allow service economy workers to plug away from home, something that many have found to their taste. This is particularly so in the northern hemisphere – a lockdown is a much easier sell when the alternative is a long commute in lousy weather.

The second societal development in recent years is the much-commented-upon rise in the influence of unelected policymakers and technocrats who believe they know what’s best for everyone, and the concomitant narrowing of the field of dissent. As has been demonstrated with other hot-button issues, we are living in a society that is intrinsically hostile to anyone who is not ‘on board’. Those who question the dominant point of view, however sensibly, are seen as unruly children in need of being disciplined at best, and enemies of the people at worst. The broad support of the public for the policies of these bien-pensants, particularly at a time when the public is frightened, leaves virtually no room for debate or opposition. Throw in the mob mentality of social networks, and dissenting voices are no longer simply ignored; they are demonized. Dissent becomes evil.

Thus, anyone selfish enough to question the lockdowns or other facets of COVID-19 politics naturally wants everyone to die, while people who oppose the wearing of masks are ‘covidiots’ or perhaps even sociopaths, as one recent study has suggested (yes, someone actually did a study on this). Sweden is accused of engaging in a dangerous experiment simply because the Swedes are doing what they (and everyone else) have always done in similar situations. This demonization of opponents in real life mirrors the cancel and shaming culture of social networks, where standing on the wrong side of the debate can literally destroy your reputation and livelihood.

All this enables a smattering of individuals and organizations unaccountable to the public, with opaque agendas of their own, to ride roughshod over the citizenry. In a state of emergency, their power is amplified, and the field of dissent is narrowed even further. We’ve seen this with Youtube removing videos critical of the response to the virus or of face masks – all in the name of public interest, of course. The demonization is ratcheted up accordingly. The UK’s top police officer, Cressida Dick, said in July she hoped shoppers who refused to wear masks would be shamed into compliance. The point is that the suppression of views that run counter to the prevailing dogma was in place long before the pandemic; COVID-19 seems to have merely intensified it.

Finally, the big difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is what has come to be known as ‘safety culture’. This is a politically correct way to refer to what is essentially the demasculinization of society. The world of yesterday was, for better or for worse, more masculine. Barring another cataclysmic disaster, 2020 will be the year of COVID-19. By contrast, writing of his travels around the world in the years 1968–1969, the number of times Ernst Jünger mentions the 1968 flu pandemic is exactly zero. Generally, men have a bigger appetite for risk than women, which might partially explain why the world did not grind to a halt during the 1968 flu pandemic. The decision-makers in those years were mostly men, and their notions of mortality had been moulded by the experience of World War II, among other conflicts.

Attitudes have changed considerably since then. Overt masculinity is now seen as toxic. Behaviours considered to be vestiges of patriarchy are vigorously stamped out. Female leadership is viewed as more benign and constructive than its alternative, and a recent study claims to show that countries led by women have done better in the fight against the virus than those led by men. As society has become less masculine, our willingness to take risks has also evolved, which could explain why the response to COVID-19 in most countries was all about risk aversion. Jacinda Ardern, yes; Anders Tegnell, not so much.

I am not advocating a return to a more masculine world here. I do, however, question the health of a society that promotes total risk aversion and seeks to eliminate all risk-taking from the fabric of life. Norman Mailer spoke of the need for an ‘existential experience’ at least once in a person’s life, even if only in one’s thoughts. His point was not that we need to live on the edge or be reckless, but that life is fundamentally about taking risks. Leaving your home is usually riskier than staying indoors; you might get run over by a car while crossing the road. This does not mean the solution is to never leave your home, certainly not if you want to have a life worth living.

As I waited in line at the grocery store a few months ago, an overstocked shopping cart rolled back, nearly toppling the woman right in front of me. Instinctively I leaped forward to catch her before she fell down and struck her head. By the yardstick of a world with a balanced view of risk, I did the right thing. By the yardstick of the COVID-19 world, defined by total risk aversion, I did not – a point that was made clear to me by the curt way I was thanked. The lady in question might have cracked her skull, but at least she would have been safe from COVID-19. Such is the logic of total risk aversion. The Good Samaritan here is the person who keeps the prescribed two-metre distance and not the one who makes physical contact.

Instead of facing the virus, we’ve decided to bunker down at home and wait things out. Whereas in the past some loss of life would have been considered an acceptable price to pay if most people could get on with their lives, any loss of human life is now anathema. Every life is infinitely valuable; no one’s is expendable – a noble sentiment, and one no decent person would disagree with. But we know how the road to hell is paved. Noble sentiments tend to have eye-popping costs when they are framed by governmental decree and a seemingly perpetual state of emergency.

As Alexander Lee describes in The Ugly Renaissance, when the plague hit Italy in the 14th century it obliterated an estimated 45–75% of the Italian population. Even taking the most conservative number, that’s almost one out of two people. That is an apocalypse. Nine months or so into the pandemic, it is clear COVID-19 is not the plague, yet we are reacting as if it were. Naturally, the argument that the virus is no big deal because it primarily kills those who are almost dead anyway is not a very good one. Equally, though, there is something very wrong about a trade-off whereby we consider it acceptable to wreak havoc with the lives of the younger and healthier cohorts of the population to protect those who are at the bottom of the actuarial table.

The economic consequences of the reaction to the virus scarcely need additional commentary. But it’s not just the economy, stupid. Millions of medical procedures have been postponed around the world, and the implications for those affected are incalculable. Isolation and loneliness have battered people, particularly the elderly, whom, ironically, the measures were designed to protect. Anxiety and depression are on the rise, along with substance abuse, which is what one can expect when people are deprived of everything that makes life worthwhile. The number of overdose deaths in my region is up by 40% since March.

The most dramatic impact has been on human relationships – essentially, on the way we interact with, and relate to, one another. We’ve effectively conditioned ourselves to view other people, including our loved ones, not as human beings but as agents of a deadly infection. Man is a social animal, yet for months on end we’ve been encouraged and even legally required to avoid each other. This is abjectly baleful, whatever the efficacy of social distancing as a tool of public health. Nor should one breezily assume that it will be confined to the short term. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben believes that social distancing will be the legacy of COVID-19 in the same way that more stringent security measures around the world became the legacy of 9/11.

Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Salvation hinges on the discovery of a successful vaccine. That is assuming we do find one – the WHO has suggested there’s a possibility we’ll just have to learn how to live with the virus, in which case the present dystopia will either last until the pandemic has run its course, or there will be some acknowledgement that the politics of recent months has been a colossal mistake. If and when a vaccine is found, we can only hope that in the rush to get it out, safety will not have been sacrificed to speed. 

It is also possible that, at one point or another, people will have had enough. The reaction to the virus took place with the acquiescence, and even broad support, of the public. This is an important point. The temptation to blame those in power should be resisted: COVID-19 politics, such as it has been in most countries, has fallen within the Overton Window. Freedoms are easier to forfeit than to regain but, in the event of a major shift in public attitudes, officials may have to change course. So far, the signs have not been very promising.

Yet one dares to hope, for what is more human than the propensity to dream of sunnier skies? I will admit that it was a somewhat disconcerted man who left the dermatologist’s office that day many years ago. In the end, though, I decided in favour of the sun. I’ve never much reflected on the dermatologist’s expert advice, and I certainly have never gone out of my way to follow it to a T. From a science-based point of view, this might not be the wisest of decisions. From a human one, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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5 thoughts on “Eugène Ehren: A Brief Anatomy of the Plague That Never Was

  1. Thank you, Mr. Ehren, for an interesting perspective. Arguably, there is a fourth major societal development — which has been the rise of agenda-driven media (which may in turn be a consequence of the ongoing dumbing down of elite education).

    Even those of us who avoid the legacy media can’t help but notice the constant harping on about the high number of “cases”, without any mention of the low number of deaths or any context on comparisons with morbidity & sickness in prior years. When the UK’s Office of National Statistics reported that Covid-19 had been beaten down to being only the 19th most common cause of death in England in September, it would have been reasonable for the Political Class to take a victory lap. Instead, this real good news was ignored and the legacy media focus was on dodgy models predicting that things were going to get much worse.

    It is no wonder that conspiracy theories abound when we can all see things that don’t make sense.

  2. In attempting to appear ‘ever so reasonable’ this is a cop-out. It describes quite well the main issues, then excuses behaviour.
    On this site its preaching to the converted. It dreams of sunnier skies, but is so insipid it will get drowned.
    Wake up man , you( and we) are getting screwed.

  3. He’s right though that all this lockdown insanity is not really about the virus per se but about the nature of our society. I think he’s absolutely right with his three reasons and would suggest two more. The first is the narcissism of our age. People want to be part of something existentially big. “I was there in 2020 doing my bit to fight the worst pandemic to hit the globe in a hundred years”. Secondly (and linked to what he says above) the rise of an attitude that it is the government’s responsibility to put things right. A vaguely socialist notion of the state.

  4. Besides risk aversion there’s also risk ignorance – whether that’s wilful ignorance or just not bothering to find out. Also, the media is a massive creator of availability bias, so people don’t realize or care how much risk they take every year when flu, pneumonia and other infectious viruses are circulating. There’s also the issue that deaths from Covid are much more visible than those occuring now and in the future as a result of lockdowns wrecking the country.

  5. In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity.

    The opening sentences of Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Dip into it further here:

    https://www.gutenberg.org/files/24518/24518-h/24518-h.htm

    During seasons of great pestilence, men have often believed the prophecies of crazed fanatics, that the end of the world was come. Credulity is always greatest in times of calamity. During the great plague, which ravaged all Europe between the years 1345 and 1350, it was generally considered that the end of the world was at hand. Pretended prophets were to be found in all the principal cities of Germany, France, and Italy, predicting that within ten years the trump of the archangel would sound, and the Saviour appear in the clouds to call the earth to judgment.

    The chapter on Modern Prophecies is particularly relevant, commenting on behaviour during several plagues. It seem that human nature is unaltered, and that all that has changed is the means of spread of madnesses, though I suspect that the tavern and the market still hold a place in that: hence why they are so readily banned.

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