In his new book, The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop it Happening Again, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the influential British medical journal The Lancet, weighs up the fatal errors of governments that failed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. He goes on to discuss the need for science-based policy without authoritarianism, and considers how we might think about society in a changed world with immense human and economic losses, but also some gains, such as a reduction in greenhouse gases and a greater understanding of the interconnected nature of human health.
How does a society, even a vigilant society, now navigate between these losses and gains? How do we retain, as far as we can, the benefits we have accrued while eliminating the disadvantages?
Slavoj Žižek, in perhaps the first serious response to COVID-19’s implications [in his book, Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World], predicts the possibility of an “alternative society” emerging. Although Žižek doesn’t believe the pandemic will make us any wiser, he is surely right to argue that “even horrible events can have unpredictable positive consequences.” He suggests that the responses of governments have made us all communists now. He doesn’t mean communist in the Soviet sense. He means communist as an expression of “new forms of local and global solidarity,” “abandoning market mechanisms” to solve social problems, and avoiding a “new barbarism.” But his conclusion that COVID-19 has precipitated the “disintegration of trust” in governments, exposing “their basic impotence,” hardly heralds the moment for a rebirth of humanity.
Ulrich Beck’s answer to the dilemmas posed by a risk society was to encourage a more vigorous culture of self-criticism: “Only when medicine opposes medicine, nuclear physics opposes nuclear physics, human genetics opposes human genetics, or information technology opposes information technology can the future that is being brewed up in the test-tube become intelligible and evaluable for the outside world. Enabling self-criticism in all its forms is not some sort of danger, but probably the only way that the mistakes that would sooner or later destroy our world can be detected in advance.” [From Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1992.]
The seismologist Lucy Jones put it this way in her book The Big Ones: “Science works only when its practitioners are free to argue opposite sides.” We need to foster better and more informed conversations (and criticisms) about our present and future, about the kinds of people we want to be, about the kind of society we wish to inhabit, and about what we owe to one another.
There is often resistance to this call for greater self-criticism. At the height of the pandemic in the UK, when unfavorable comparisons were being drawn between Britain’s response to COVID-19 and that of other European countries, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, argued that, “We must learn lessons at the right point. But what you don’t do, frankly, is do that in the middle of something. We are nowhere near the end of this epidemic. We are through the first phase of this, but there is a very long way to run for every country in the world on this. And I think let’s not go charging in on who’s won and who’s lost at this point. … Let’s do the post-action review, which we absolutely must, at the right moment, and we are definitely not at that stage yet.”
Human beings are condemned to suffer from optimism bias.
Now is not the right time to review what went right and what went wrong. That was a common refrain from government scientists and politicians as the pandemic unfolded.
Indeed, those of my colleagues within the medical community who did raise their voices to comment on (and, indeed, to criticize) the UK government’s response were frequently “hammered” by more senior colleagues who urged silence, fearing perhaps retribution in the form of lost government research grant income or future exclusion from powerful and prestigious leadership roles and committees. But those who criticized didn’t want to apportion blame to individuals. Instead, they wanted to hold government accountable for its decisions. As one professor of global health, who had spoken out but had been pressured by their own institution to stay silent, wrote to me, “I just don’t understand why academics can’t speak freely. Freedom of speech? So many senior people sitting quiet. While thousands die.”
Perhaps we need a different attitude of mind. It is common today to praise the optimist and condemn the pessimist. Who wants to listen to those who spread nothing but gloom? Surely it is better to be a boosterist—to view the world more positively, adopt a can-do approach, be enthusiastic and fearless, believe that our common problems will be solved. We can discover new drugs to disable a virus. We can devise a new vaccine to protect against future infection. We can eliminate the threat of a further pandemic. Maybe.
Yet optimism can also blind us, imbue us with a sense of power and overconfidence, and mask real dangers that need to be embraced, understood, and addressed with humility and care. Human beings are condemned to suffer from optimism bias. We tend to overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen in life.
Pessimism need not kill our hopes for a better future.
Benjamin Fondane (1898–1944) was a Romanian Jew who emigrated to France in 1923. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and killed just two weeks before the Soviets arrived the following year to liberate the camp. In his fragmentary writings, Fondane questioned the influence of excessive rationalism as a solution to the predicaments facing humankind:
“If the final result of four centuries of humanism and the apotheosis of science has been only a return of the worst horrors … the fault lies perhaps with humanism itself, which was too lacking in pessimism, which staked too much on the separate and divine intellect, and neglected more than it ought to have the real man, whom we had treated as an angel only to finally reduce him to a level lower than the beasts.”
An appeal for greater pessimism in our dealings with the world may not feel like an inspiring call to arms to avert the next pandemic. But if the scientists and politicians who gave advice and took decisions on our behalf had adopted a little more pessimism in their predictions and policies, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens around the world would have been avoided.
Pessimism need not kill our hopes for a better future. Hope is a feeling of desire for a particular outcome in our lives. We can protect and, indeed, intensify our hopes through a perspective that does not mask the worst that can happen to us.
This adapted excerpt from The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop it Happening Again by Richard Horton (Polity, 2020) appears by permission of the publisher.