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10 December 2020updated 13 Dec 2020 6:16pm

The year of the Great Humbling

Covid-19 has pricked the bubble of human supremacy and revealed our fragility. And the economic destruction means we cannot return to the free-market capitalism that made the pandemic inevitable.   

By John Gray

It is hard to avoid seeing unfolding human events as history that has already been made, and so it is with the vaccines that are being rolled out against Covid-19. The vaccines will give us a high degree of protection against the virus, and we owe this triumph, and the ever more effective treatments that will surely follow, to the genius of science. Many would like to believe that, in the months ahead, we shall be returning to a time of accelerating progress in society, or at least of relative safety.

Underlying these responses is a belief that humankind has reasserted control. With the pandemic soon to be contained, we can look forward to resuming the expansion of human power that seemed to be under way before it struck. In fact, the lesson of this year is that we must learn to live in a world we cannot fully know or control. 

The future behaviour of the virus cannot be reliably predicted except in broad terms. Some scientists believe it may have mutated and become more infectious as it has spread throughout the world, and there is the constant possibility of future mutations that may limit the usefulness of the vaccines. It is not yet known whether the vaccines block transmission or how long immunity lasts.

The pandemic is not a once-in-a-century traumatic event, but a revelation of the fragility that lies at the bottom of our way of life. When the true human situation is suddenly exposed, the result is cognitive chaos. Paranoid mass movements – in which human misfortunes are represented as resulting from the machinations of hidden elites – are emerging as powerful forces, not for the first time in modern history. The present danger is that they could divide society and undo the struggle to contain the pandemic.

Without science and the knowledge it yields, we would be practically helpless in the face of the pandemic. If some such virus had spread in pre-Pasteur times, just over a century and a half ago, it could have killed many millions. As it is, providing social distancing is maintained while the vaccines are distributed, and they are taken by enough of the population, we can reasonably hope to emerge with a much smaller loss of human life.

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The enduring achievement of science is explaining why a pandemic of this sort was bound to occur and how we should prepare for others in future. Epidemiologists warned for many years that the disruption of natural habitats increased the danger of outbreaks of zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases. Some also observed that factory farms have become cesspits of bacterial diseases, which can easily jump into human populations.

Links between industrialised farming of animals and infectious disease are not new. It was known that tuberculosis could be passed from cows to humans by the late 19th century, via contaminated milk. Since then, diseases including BSE, avian flu, swine fever and most recently a mutant coronavirus in mink farms, have posed threats to humans.  Intensive farming of animals, birds and fish has never been on such a large scale, and as the single biggest user of antibiotics, animal farming has a major role in AMR (anti-microbial resistance), which reduces the effectiveness of drug treatments. The pandemic will not be the last assault on human health to originate in the way we treat our animal kin as if they were insentient resources.

Behind habitat destruction and hellish factory farms is the unmentionable fact of overpopulation. To speak of the very idea is nowadays dismissed as crypto-fascist, but the seminal advocate of stabilising human numbers at a level that would best enhance the quality of life is John Stuart Mill, an old-fashioned liberal progressive who spent a night in gaol for handing out leaflets to working-class women detailing contraceptive methods. Accepting the reality of overpopulation is not Malthusian scare-mongering, but recognising the environmental damage it has produced.

[See also: Journal of a plague year]

Population growth is expected to taper off sometime later in this century and then possibly go into reverse, but only once human numbers have reached as high as ten billion. Human expansion is a primary cause of wilderness destruction, as seen in the Amazon, where rainforest is being turned into agricultural land. It is also a fact that population density has facilitated transmission of infectious diseases, as it did in Roman times when there were clear links between epidemics in crowded cities, deforestation and climate change. (See Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, reviewed in these pages in June.)

Ten billion human beings can be fed by new methods, such as the vertical vegetable farms pioneered in Singapore, while land that had been given over to agriculture can be rewilded. At the same time, it is unclear how a human population anywhere near ten billion can coexist indefinitely with an intact biosphere.

The most fundamental effect of the pandemic – and for many the most disturbing – is that it has pricked the bubble of human supremacy. We are told we live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch defined by the transformative impact of the human species on the planet. If it refers to climate change and mass extinction, the Anthropocene is a concept that reflects reality. If it means humans are in control of the Earth, it is nonsense. The neglected lesson of science is that the planet belongs to the microbes. We can use our growing knowledge to protect ourselves from the dangers of the natural world, but we cannot rule over it.

***

Our difficulties with science come partly from ideologies that represent it as producing knowledge of increasing certainty. Propagandists such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins have claimed that scientific inquiry yields an ever more solid body of incontestable truth, when scientific knowledge remains conjectural and fallible even as it continues to grow. Like any human institution, science has the failings of the species, including dysfunctional hierarchies and tangled rivalries. It also tends to reflect the values of the time. Nineteenth-century biology mirrored European power in assuming built-in inequalities between imagined entities called races. Unlike other institutions, however, science contains methods that over time correct its errors.

Hostility to scientists is one of the toxic forces released by the Covid pandemic. It is based partly on misunderstanding of how scientific method works. Probabilistic models of the spread of the disease and potential death rates have been mocked for being inaccurate. This was strikingly so in the case of the projections produced by the Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who became a hate figure for the libertarian right. But initial modelling assumptions may be mistaken, and scientific method encourages us to learn from these errors as more data become available.

We need to be reminded of the limitation of human knowledge marked in the 17th century by the religious philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal – one of the founders of modern probability theory – when he asked ironically, “Is it likely that probability will lead to certainty?”

Science is a means of coping with uncertainty, not of abolishing it. Nor is it sensible to expect science to deliver us from human folly. The increase of scientific knowledge does not make the behaviour of human beings any more rational. The millions of Americans who crossed the country to celebrate Thanksgiving were warned by scientists that they risked triggering spikes in infections and deaths, but they set off on their travels anyway.

This essay is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Armando Iannucci, Ian Hislop, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.

***

Suppressing the virus is not impossible; smallpox was ultimately eradicated, as we know. In most countries, however, the price of trying to eliminate Covid-19 has been extremely high in terms of other kinds of ill health and lost livelihoods. These costs need to be properly recognised and assessed, and it may be true that, in some cases, they caused more damage than they prevented. The notion that there are policies that could altogether avoid harm and loss is nevertheless mistaken.

Proposals that the government should concentrate on protecting the most vulnerable while letting the rest of society carry on as it did before may not be fully workable. Around 1.8 million households in the UK are multi generational, and the disaster in care homes has shown how older people cannot be segregated from their families without terrible harm being done. Suggesting that older people can decide their own risks is irresponsible, since the risks are not only to them but to others they may infect and those denied treatment because of resulting shortages in NHS resources.

Admired by some for its less restrictive approach to the virus, Sweden has had a higher death rate than comparable Scandinavian countries (with around half of its deaths occurring in care homes) and suffered only moderately less damage to its economy.

The country that has been most successful in controlling the pandemic is probably Taiwan, which has a population of nearly 24 million and eliminated community transmission without lockdown by rapidly curtailing international air travel, early screening, publicly funded quarantine, efficient tracing and universal mask use. (Other Asian democracies have also done well. China’s record is difficult to assess because of controls on the flow of information.) New Zealand claims to have stamped out the virus, but at the cost of lockdown. However, no society can permanently eliminate Covid-19 while it is circulating in the rest of the world.

[See also: What do magpies want?]

Countries can stay Covid-free only if they maintain stringent border controls on the movement of people. Doing so for years on end is beyond the capacity of most states, which are embedded in global webs of travel and tourism on which their living standards depend. The current size of the world’s human population is a by-product of globalised production, which requires continuous cross-border mobility. The solution is fast testing at ports and airports, but this is still some way off and will be hard to implement everywhere.

There are major questions about the take-up of vaccines. It is not only logistical problems that need to be solved. If polls are to be believed, something close to half of the people of France may refuse vaccines against the virus, and just under a third of Germans say they will do the same. In the US, attitudes seem to be correlated with polarised political allegiances. Many in Western democracies may resist or delay being vaccinated.

***

Billions in poorer societies do not have this choice. To the credit of both institutions, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, when it has been approved, will be distributed on a non-profit basis in low-income countries in perpetuity. But the pandemic is exacerbating inequalities between and within societies. Countries with failed states such as Libya and Lebanon face great difficulties in vaccinating large sections of the population. Within societies, the human impact of the disease varies according to class divisions in wealth and income, jobs and housing.

The economic devastation inflicted by successive lockdowns is worse than anyone anticipated. Whole sectors of the economy have been all but destroyed, while others are living on borrowed time. The harshest effects of the pandemic have been felt by the poorest, but unemployment and poverty in what used to be the middle classes could reach high levels because of the lockdown-induced collapse in freelance income and the decimation of the professions by artificial intelligence.

The scale of economic disruption means there will be no going back to free-market capitalism. The human scars of lockdown will not heal quickly, but a quick and strong economic recovery is possible as long as no attempt is made to revert to fiscal and monetary orthodoxy. The economy is so weakened that it needs continuing government stimulus simply in order to keep functioning. Public borrowing is at enormous levels, but if it is severely curtailed the result will be disaster. Unless the trick of conjuring money from nothing, which has been deployed since the financial crisis a dozen years ago, goes on being performed, the show will fold.

At the same time, further money creation may inflate the stock market to ever higher levels. As some in business circles believe, we may be about to revisit the Roaring Twenties (though it might be useful to remember how the decade ended). The difference is that our lives are being transformed by technology in ways that were hardly glimpsed a century ago.

***

Whatever political system they oversee, the legitimacy of 21st-century governments relies heavily on them increasing material living standards. When that becomes impossible, the response is not the end of growth but its continuation in virtual space. The world’s economies have become dream machines in which unreality is the commodity that sells all others.

New technologies do more than shift human interaction to the virtual realm. They enable alternate realities to be constructed that distract from desolation in the human world. Many computer games have expanded their user base since the pandemic, and some now offer synthetic human contact with algorithm-generated phantoms. Soon there will be simulacra that mimic the behaviour of friends and neighbours.

Virtual communities are multiplying while historic human settlements decay or disintegrate. The flight to virtual worlds is not a way of curbing environmental degradation. (Apart from anything else, online life is highly energy-intensive.)

A more creative use of technology would be to make living in high-density environments safe and fulfilling. Cities are an integral part of human ecology, and while digitally tracking the population in order to contain the virus, as has been done in South Korea, means an increase in surveillance, it also offers the prospect of renewing urban life. Instead, digital technology is being deployed in a vain effort to break free of the material world. 

Deepfake technology, which blends actual images with computer simulations, illustrates this impulse. It can be deployed for purposes of political warfare, and to fabricate pornography with which to smear public figures. But some uses of the technology seem to be attempts to escape the frailties that come with bodily existence. The parents of Joaquin Oliver, who aged 17 was shot and killed outside his classroom in Parkland, Florida, resurrected their dead son so that his speaking image could urge gun control. The rapper Kanye West had a hologram made carrying a message for his wife Kim Kardashian from her late father. Reports suggest there is a flurry of start-ups aiming to fashion more fully realised avatars of the deceased. Programmed with enough information, these phantasms could interact with the living.

[See also: George Orwell and the road to revolution]

There are echoes here of psychical researchers and spiritualists a hundred years ago, who imagined they could communicate with the discarnate minds of people who died in the Great War and from the Spanish Flu. Then as now, there was nothing there. There was no conscious mind or personality to be in contact with. But what does that matter if subjective experience is the only reality?

The cognitive disorder of our times is a pitiable need for certainty. Under the pressure of tumultuous events, this need has mutated into a cult of wilful subjectivity. The virus reveals that our entire way of life is mortal, and for many it seems an intolerable vision. Holograms of the dead are 21st-century necromancy, one aspect of a flight from reality that affects the entire culture.

Those who say lying is endemic are misunderstanding the present. Mendacity presumes an ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, or at least some lingering sense of what truthfulness might mean, which is almost extinct. Genuine liars are as rare as Siberian tigers. When Donald Trump and his acolytes assert that large-scale voting fraud occurred in the US presidential election, the claim bears no relation to anything in the objective world. The position is the same when disoriented liberals suggest that many of those 70 million Americans who voted for Trump did so as a result of Kremlin manipulation. Very few of these people are lying. All they know or want to know is their own feelings and fantasies.

***

The redundancy of truth casts a shadow over the triumphs of science. It is easy to dismiss people promoting conspiracy theories about the virus as fringe groups, but paranoid social movements could set back the struggle against the pandemic by years. In the US election, Marjorie Taylor Greene – a Georgian Republican opponent of mask-wearing and supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which believes the world is ruled by a demonic elite of

Satanists and paedophiles – was elected to the House of Representatives. The political mobilisation of paranoia is more advanced in Germany, where the idea that Covid-19 is a hoax has been embraced by neo-Nazis and elements in the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the third largest party in the Bundestag.

It is not by accident that Covid denial is so central in the conspiratorial mind. Paranoia is a defence against loss of meaning, and nothing is so lacking in human meaning as the virus. Conspiracist world-views are the en point of contemporary solipsism. They have to be self-enclosed if they are to serve their function of screening out an indifferent world. When reality threatens to break through, the result is panic and rage, usually directed at members of minorities, who are attacked as sources of contagion. The Black Death was accompanied by a spate of pogroms, and much the same psychological forces are in play today. If the pandemic slips out of control, so will paranoid movements.

It may be natural to look back at the world before the coronavirus pandemic and imagine humankind was steadily advancing. In fact, we were creating the conditions that made the pandemic inevitable. And yet many yearn to resume the grand march that was so abruptly interrupted. The virus has shown that human supremacy was always a dangerous illusion. It is time to adjust to a more modest place in the life of the planet. 

This essay is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Armando Iannucci, Ian Hislop, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special