We are mired in the pandemic‘s swamp, struggling to move forward amidst pain, mourning and helplessness in the face of a disease that dramatically reminds us of the reality of our limitations as a human race. In addition to the serious medical costs, the pandemic generates three serious dangers at the societal level: authoritarianism, violence and hopelessness.
A year ago, the pandemic seemed far away and easily controlled; yes, there was talk on the Internet about the drastic containment measures launched by the Chinese government in Wuhan province, but we couldn’t imagine them in our own countries.
Our mental references were to the SARS pandemic in 2002-2003, or for that matter, the AH1-N1 influenza of 2009, which were contained relatively quickly and were under control some six months later. However, we begin February 2021 facing confinements almost as drastic as those that marked 2020, cooped up at home listening in two voices to the hopeful news of vaccines and the cries of grief from our friends and family for loved ones who die every day.
A year away it is clear that COVID-19 is a quagmire. It turns out to be far more disruptive than we originally thought and its effects have the power to scar our society far beyond the short term.
In some cases the change can be positive, for example, by promoting the culture of telecommuting and encouraging staggered scheduling strategies that solve the serious problem of pollution and road congestion in large cities. However, there are other aspects that are frankly dangerous and whose risk increases as the pandemic progresses, emotionally and economically weakening people and institutions, submerged in the swamp of a crisis that is going to last for a long time.
The authoritarian temptation
Murray Rothbard explained that “war is the health of the state” in the sense that, under the pretext of the crisis generated by war, governments can promote measures that their citizens would never have accepted in normal times. Something similar happens with the pandemic’s swamp: The fear of death and the painful cases of contagion around us make us more susceptible to receive the tyranny of the state as a protective mantle.
Depending on the country, this government overreach has included everything from propagandizing and nudges in favor of healthy distance, to mandatory lockdowns with police raiding homes to prevent gatherings that break the rules. In much of the world, the closure of businesses has caused serious economic effects, and has also set a serious precedent: that the government has the authority to define which economic sectors are “essential” and which are not.
Once these powers are acquired that allow the government to force people to stay home and lose their jobs and businesses, politicians will have much less difficulty repeating such measures in the next case they can project as an emergency.
This authoritarian temptation does not only affect national governments. Tragic cases, such as the elderly man who died in Spain while trying to escape after being isolated in a hospital even though he did not have COVID-19, are repeated by the thousands around the world. Similarly, local authorities, eager to exercise their power and prove they are working, interfere in ways that are often counterproductive in the life of their communities, either by preventing diners from watching TV or by setting up “roadblocks” that serve no other purpose than to make life difficult for citizens and put public servants themselves at serious risk.
Among outrage, protest and violence
Mobilizations against confinements have occurred from Amsterdam to Michigan and from London to Beirut, occasionally degenerating into violence. Even in those countries where discontent has not manifested itself in mass mobilizations, anger continues to build: Entrepreneurs who lost their life’s work and the dignity of their jobs by being labeled “non-essential,” workers who lost their jobs and now have no way to feed their families, debtors who can’t pay their mortgage or credit card and now face the wrath of the banks.
They are all angry, even if they are not yet able to articulate or channel that anger. In such conditions, all it takes is for someone to find a way to ignite passions in the pandemic swamp for a bad situation to become much worse. We should not be surprised in the coming months to see new scenes of protests and political violence, which will emerge under the pretext of very different causes, but will share the underlying motive of desperation.
In the swamp, hopelessness
The pandemic causes death and pain, the response of the authorities (necessary or not) generates crisis and unemployment. All this creates impotence, and this impotence feeds the monster of hopelessness.
Hopelessness is the most serious danger of this crisis in the COVID-19 swamp, and it seems not to be the focus of the conversation. Occasionally there is talk of “Zoom fatigue” and burnout, but we are still a long way from understanding the full impact of hopelessness on the lives of billions of people, whose vulnerability will not only have ruinous effects on their life projects and interpersonal relationships, but represents a dangerously suitable breeding ground for demagogues and charlatans.
Last week, I explained that traditional loyalties are eroding. Add to that reality the complications resulting from the pandemic and we find multitudes of people searching with increasing desperation for meaning in their lives and a path for their efforts. Millions have lost their sense of meaning, and they will cling tooth and nail to whoever offers to put them back on track. Turn to the history books and you will see that this does not usually end well.