Covid-19 reminds us progress is not inevitable and disease is universal

The pandemic has exposed our brittle belief in progress and undermined the assumption that science can save us from the rise-and-fall cycle of civilisation. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

We are living through an ancient problem in intensely modern conditions. A faith in progress dominates the otherwise competitive political discourses in Europe and North America. But now we have learned we are not distinguished from our ancestors by a psychological ignorance of what happens when all else is overwhelmed by disease.

Those in power have trusted that scientists will create a vaccine, and they have trusted central bankers to purchase and technically manage debt to buy time for the scientists. But in these actions, there also lies something harder to reconcile with the faith that history has a forward direction and life will improve materially for most people in the future.

Did any Western politician look at the events in Wuhan last winter and think that leaving a modern city deserted could be repeated here? Yet it was, and those in power stopped our way of life in its tracks.

The conflicts that pandemic responses have let loose cannot readily be absorbed. As after the 2008 crash, central banks’ asset purchase programmes will generate more wealth inequality, and centre-right and centre-left parties will prove inadequate vehicles for articulating the ensuing anger. Covid-19 carries extremely asymmetrical risks between individuals and, as these risks appear partially random, they only really map on to existing political divisions across the generations.

As for the damage done to livelihoods, it is also highly differentiated between the public and private sectors, and between those who can work digitally and those working in services and entertainment that depend on personal contact. Even though any number of citizens suffer from the severe restrictions in place, mainstream political parties have generally been reluctant to position themselves as anti-lockdown. Others will not be.

Democracies struggle with conflicts over matters of mortality and the radically different ways that individuals and cultural groups live with it. Faith in progress as a modern response to human mortality is an idea much more implicitly contested than its pervasiveness in democratic vocabulary suggests.

For many, it is self-evident that political protests demanding a fairer future should not have been constrained by legal restrictions on assembly. For many others, that protesting was considered to deserve an exemption that church services and funerals did not was bewildering.

These conflicts can only deepen. Are we awaiting a vaccine because there are good reasons to suppose, as Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, recently said, that “science will in due course ride to our rescue”? Or, now the summer has passed, are we waiting because a huge amount of money rests on there being an effective one?

Trusting that the scientific method will yield ever quicker remedies, are we going to lock down each time a new zoonotic disease appears? Or, is this our one-off adjustment to the arrival of a world of emergent diseases, first predicted in the 1970s?

Of course, there will be no unifying answers, only deep disagreement, fuelled by suspicion around the relationships between science, politicians, the pharmaceutical industry and the philanthropic foundations that help fund the World Health Organisation.

If the pandemic has exposed brittleness in the faith in progress, the absence of what progress is supposed to deliver economically will prove another burden. Most people’s livelihoods depend on economic growth being the norm, as does democratic states’ capacity to raise the taxes required to finance present expenditure and service debt. Under our modern economic conditions, growth, then, depends upon financially viable technological innovation to overcome what would otherwise be resource and energy constraints.

But this reality can be no vindication for the political trust that has been placed in progress since the spring. A rapid return to growth is first and foremost now essential to prevent an acceleration towards economic and social decay, and even potential collapse. Inconceivable as it would have seemed a year ago to anyone sharing Steven Pinker’s presumption that the Enlightenment changed societies beyond historical recognition, large cities may now spiral into decline because the immense activity that drew people into their centres – and made those centres’ infrastructure financially viable – doesn’t return.

For the past decade, many politicians have been willing to use divisive cultural issues to try to win votes, and underneath these cultural conflicts lie the chasm between how religious and secular world-views conceive the limits on the human capacity to create and transform. But those in governments have largely endeavoured to keep such questions out of economic decision-making. Climate change was already edging us away from this demarcation. It pits the faith in progress and the conviction that technological innovation will make a carbon-neutral future possible within 30 years against the possibility that we have already irrevocably overstepped ecological limits; that fossil fuels cannot be replicated at scale and, consequently, we must find a less materialist way to live.

Now, the pandemic is quietly taking aim at the assumption that science saves us from the rise and fall cycle that has marked every historical civilisation. In journeying into this ancient-modern predicament, we are moving to a politics fated to struggle with what faith can be put in progress and what it means to act if and when that faith falls. 

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 09 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid

Free trial CSS