Making Sense of the Horror of COVID-19

Earlier this week the all-parliamentary on COVID-19 called for the government to adopt a zero-covid strategy. This included a package of recommendations intended to reduce the number of infections seen in England over a seven-day rolling average to no more than one new case per million population per day, rolling out a locally-led and coordinated track and trace system and screening for the virus at public transport hubs. Whilst these seemed like eminently reasonable suggestions there appeared to be a substantial amount of pushback. Suggesting among other things that “Surely the point of life, was to live and not just to avoid death”. The implication being that any further restrictions or measures to prevent the spread of COVID would make life not worthwhile.

Whilst I don’t wish to overstate the prevalence of this particular line of thought, it does seem to be as a good a point as any to consider, the current moment we’re in, from the insufficiency of the measures taken to contain COVID, to the continuing inability of many governments to take the threat posed by COVID seriously, to our still developing understanding of the long term effects of the virus, which has been linked to everything from heart problems, chronic fatigue and even brain inflammation. As such, I continue to be intrigued by those who seem entirely unnerved by the lethality of the virus and continue to push for activities that would hasten it’s spread from discussions of “herd immunity”, to the rapid reopening of social spaces to the current push to spur workers back to their offices even in situations where they could safely work from home.

There are of course reasons for cynicism here, and I do not wish to downplay them, the virus has certainly lead to previously unforeseen intrusion into the interactions of everyday life and compared to many other pandemics the pathogen in question appears to be considerably less-lethal however in the UK it has still lead to a level of excess death well above that of previous years. It is also entirely possible the virus could be reaching its end, as I write 18 deaths have been recorded in the UK from COVID, considerably down from numbers that rose to be in excess of 900 at its peak. However, the fact remains the virus has killed more people in the UK than could be attributed to any recent terrorist attack, yearly vehicular accidents, yearly ischemic heart diseases and perhaps crucially substantially more than yearly deaths attributed to influenza and pneumonia.  

Despite this many appear on the brink of accepting the level of fatalities caused by COVID as the new normal and it’s this that I find particularly troubling. Within this particular thought process, mounting numbers of deaths are coldly rationalized as the cost of maintaining an economy and yet curiously the same rationale is not applied to the increasing possibility of viral zoonotic transference due to increasing incursions into the wilderness as part of modern industrial farming practices. Even prior to the virus the economic settlement for many has, skewed in favour of a continually decreasing minority, all the while the value of human life and living itself is being reduced to a financial cost benefit analysis.

Much was made of many mainstream philosopher’s attempts to grapple with the enormity of the crisis from the vaguely conspiratorial musings of Agamben suspicions surrounding state overreach, a laudable goal but perhaps undermined by his refusal to take into account the evidence surrounding the transmission of the virus, to Judith Butler’s comparison of the urge to resume economic activity as being in many way a reflection of the wider trajectory of capitalism’s death drive. One particular article did hold my attention however namely Slavoj Žižek’s piece for the critical inquiry blog ‘Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate’.

Opening with a morose reflection on concerns surrounding fears of contracting the virus, Žižek pondered on whether the future was not as many might surmise immediate regression to open brutality, but rather as he put it “ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy but legitimized by expert opinions”. Indeed, prior to the rapid escalation of the virus in the UK, the prime minister already spoke of grand parents being taken before their time. In a similar fashion to Žižek I have continually questioned, why many of these premises have been allowed to persist unchallenged or even been echoed by the general populace. Contrary to the infinite responsibility for the other, as espoused by Levinas we have instead allowed the for the basic suspension of our social ethics, in moving past the importance the protecting of the weak and the vulnerable.

As someone who has perhaps implicitly shown some resistance to what Agamben referred to as “the politics of bare life” (see Life… the Best Game in Town?) , perhaps this seems somewhat hypocritical, however I do not believe that’s what’s at stake here, lives are ultimately being prematurely cut and based on recent reports about the long term damage of some infections potentially irreparably changed, amid calls for ‘normal’ economic activity resume. Not to provide us with our necessary sustenance, this could and has in many areas been provided without the potential level of sacrifice that a full scale return to the office would require, but to continue to sustain a mode of production and profit generation that’s clearly no longer serves the majority but whose needs we’re increasingly becoming subsumed to.

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