“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague
I want to reflect on the Coronavirus pandemic, not from the medical point of view or the horrendous mortality statistics, but on the impact it has had on our daily lives and the way society has responded.
This has led me to look again at the mid-20th century philosophers in particular Sartre and the existentialists. In the aftermath of a horrendous world war and the totalitarian regimes which spawned it, they grappled with questions around freedom, liberty, personal choice and responsibility asking what it meant to be free, what responsibility did people have around personal choice, and how to give meaning to our lives.
By the end of the 20th century, existential thought had fallen out of favour, and yet it seems to me to continue to raise important questions about the impact of Coronavirus on society.
There are many themes running through western history, but if there is one major theme for the west in general and Great Britain in particular it is about freedom and liberty versus the need to be governed.
How we balance the power of subjects against over mighty authority, seen in the battles between crown and parliament, the independence of the judiciary and the development of English law with its central tenet of habeus corpus, or how we balance freedom of speech against social norms are all central to the way we live and the way we think.
Such freedoms are hard won, easily lost and even harder to recover.
So the debate around the wearing of masks, or the decisions to save the NHS and prioritise the response to covid over other illnesses, or the decisions to close schools and threaten the life-chances of our young people take on a much deeper meaning when look at from the existential perspective.
What does it mean to be free? How do I balance my individual freedom against the community need in times of crisis? How much authority am I prepared to delegate to others? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? What about young people’s education? What about the treatment for cancer sufferers? What about family versus the wider community?
As Camus said, wars and pestilence are always with us, yet each event seems to take us by surprise, produces the same panicky response and a knee-jerk authoritarian approach under the guise of: “We (the government, the scientists, the authorities) know best. You need to do as you are told. Dissent won’t be tolerated. It’s for the good of the community. Any restriction on personal freedom will only be temporary” etc. etc.
This is accompanied by Orwellian language. We’ve seen it throughout the pandemic “The new normal” and “Social distancing” being classic examples.
Nothing I’m saying belittles the crisis we have faced, nor the sacrifices which have been made, nor the tragedy which has touched so many families.
But I am concerned about the lack of debate around the issues raised by our response.
Indeed, not just our response to the pandemic, but the way we are responding to a whole range of other issues, where debate is closed down, dissent is vilified and decisions are taken without regard to the wider context or unintended consequences.
I wear a mask in certain circumstances because I think it might help, and it seems a common sense thing to do. I also accept that some people find wearing masks deeply distressing, or that their view of the evidence might be different from mine. That does not mean I am comfortable with being made to do so by the government under threat of sanction, nor am I comfortable with the precedent it sets for the future and some of our hard won civil liberties.
To finish with another quote from Camus:
“All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims– and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague