1. First level of explanation: Panic
Over a few weeks of March 2020, the collective consciousness of Western nations moved from curiosity about the new virus in China to serious worry, then to communal fear, and finally to total panic. This highly contagious and self-reinforcing terror – passed back and forth, with no subsequent immunity, among political leaders, various types of scientific experts, the media, and much of the populace – is the most obvious explanation of the hasty enactment of unprecedentedly extreme measures that were supposed to control what fearful thoughts had turned into a threat to civilisation.
The field on which these panic-weeds grew has been well-prepared. The soil was turned over by a half-scientific cult which had recruited Bill Gates, probably the largest non-governmental funder of public health research and initiatives.
The ground was fertilised by the popular culture, including a TED talk by Gates and the film Contagion. Irrigation was provided by research into using viruses as biological weapons (technically into countering such use by understanding how it could be done). This war-thinking probably encouraged some public health professionals to both fear the worst and countenance society-damaging interventions that the World Health Organisation and all national authorities explicitly recommended against.
The belief that a virus could be a new sort of Black Death that threatened civilisation was never close to rational in any scientific sense, since the global population is both healthier now than at any time in the past and has far more medical and technological resources than were available even a few decades ago. However, as will become clear, Covid-19 elicited responses that were anything but scientific in any modern sense.
The panic story is true, but it is misleading. What needs to be explained is not the emotional incontinence of individuals, even of individuals who should have known better. Such breakdowns are not surprising – courage, prudence, and temperance are virtues that are hard to learn and easy to lose.
What is surprising is, first, the total failure of well-established bureaucratic and political systems that were designed to resist panic.
i) Bureaucratic: All modern states have extensive public health bureaucracies, which have generally had an underlying culture that is humanistic rather than authoritarian. To deal with pandemics, the bureaucracies all have carefully written guidelines that should reinforce deeply embedded institutional memories. The overriding principle of these guidelines is the paramount value of minimising interruptions to normal life.
ii) Political: The rule of law in Western countries is supposed to be built around the protection of “rights.” Even if national panic leads the executive branch to try to restrict these “rights,” the legislative and judicial branches have the explicit responsibility of defending them.
The second surprise is the ease with which the general public discarded their supposed “liberal” or “Christian-style” values. Politicians and pundits in every Western country assumed well into March that these values were so strongly held, outside of the definitely non-post-Christian and non-liberal People’s Republic of China, that their citizens would not accept oppressive, Chinese-style restrictions on their freedom (at least for very long and not without a clear reason).
There are two possible families of explanations for this litany of fearful failure, which has continued for almost two years.
i) It was justified. The threat to public health from Covid-19 was in fact so great and continues to be so great that it is worth sacrificing everything else for the effort to fight it.
ii) Neither the system nor the social values were as strong as previously believed.
The first type of explanation is completely unpersuasive. In March 2020, there was no good reason to ignore the established procedures of dealing with pandemics. The disease was undoubtedly frightening, but those procedures were created exactly to help the responsible officials respond calmly and realistically to frightening diseases.
Even if the panicked emulation of Chinese repression could initially have been justified, it was clear by June 2020 that such measures were disproportionate to the danger posed by Covid-19. By then, deaths in the first wave had peaked and were declining in most countries. Calmer scientists were persuasively arguing that Covid-19 would settle into the typical pattern of infectious viruses – becoming less dangerous as the population’s immunity increased and evolution led to more contagious but less severe variants.
In addition, treatments for all sufferers improved significantly and estimates of the case fatality rate steadily fell. Initial panic cannot explain the continued copying of formerly unthinkable policies. Something more was going on.
2. Second level of explanation: Mass hysteria
One suggested deeper explanation is what scientists and social scientists call hysteresis: an initial state determines the path of future states. In simple words, moments of panic led to the institutionalisation of mass hysteria. There is a well-developed model of mob action: irrational groupthink supports and is supported by claims of some higher principle that demands extreme action; this leads to increasing extremism and the hysterical blaming of failures on both inadequate vigilance and on traitors and dupes; the government adopts and encourages the mob mentality; there are fervent efforts to exclude and condemn perceived opponents to the mob’s desires; the resistance to evidence that contradicts the accepted narrative becomes increasingly desperate.
The lockdown-cult fits this model very well. Mass hysteria helps explain why the original panic did not subside. Further, the shared hysterical belief that this pandemic was fully outside of the normal course of nature helps explain the long-lasting inability to remember the well-developed understanding of viral infections.
However, this explanation is still not totally adequate. Human systems, unlike mechanical ones, are never totally determined. It was certainly possible that experts, politicians, and the general public would have recovered quickly from the initial panic. Indeed, it was likely, since there were several months during which the pandemic waned and knowledge increased. The choice to turn down the path to persistent hysteria needs to be explained.
In more detail, mass hysteria does not explain many things: why political and cultural leaders and their institutions were so willing to believe that this pandemic actually was outside of the normal course of nature; why neither leaders nor led developed resistance to hysteria despite increasing scientific knowledge and first-hand experience of the disease’s very limited mortality among the not-very-old and even the healthy elderly population; why most of the media around the world enthusiastically spread misleading alarmist theories and minimised reports of encouraging developments. Most profoundly, it does not explain the willingness of most of the population to accept unprecedented and clearly damaging restrictions on communal and private life and, in many countries, on public education.
3. Third Level of explanation: Selfish motivations
The calculated self-interest of individuals and organisations is a more profound and more persuasive explanation than the blind force of mass hysteria. Some public health professionals have found fame and political influence by spreading panic. Some power-hungry politicians relish the ability to impose restrictions.
The scientific-commercial-philanthropic vaccine complex has gained prestige from the hopes placed in its products. Purveying fear and tragedy has benefited the reputations and revenues of many leading media organisations. Amazon and other online merchants gain greatly from lockdowns and the fear they encourage. Some well paid and influential workers have enjoyed working from home or being paid not to work.
Other people may use Covid-19 as a means, or an excuse, to promote a political or cultural agenda. Opponents of globalisation and proponents of stronger global governance, critics of industrialisation and enthusiasts for more intrusive governments, techno-utopians yearning for a culture of vaccinations and constant testing: for all them disaster is an opportunity, so they happily promote a disastrous interpretation of the present, as the first stage in their preexisting desire for some sort of “great reset” in the near future.
Desires for monetary gain, power, praise, and influence have certainly helped prolong the narrative of disaster and the antisocial anti-Covid policies. Powerful people and institutions were well-placed to take advantage of fear and foolishness, and have done so. Their actions have probably helped extend and intensify the restrictions.
However, this level of explanation is still too superficial. Overall, most powerful people and institutions have suffered more than they have gained from the restrictions – by any standard, including the standard of their own self-interest. If the greed and ambitions of all the powerful were the only forces shaping the response to the pandemic, the response would have been much less disruptive than it has been.
Also, people and institutions that do not gain at all from the restrictions have also been very enthusiastic about them. There has been far more enthusiasm than public complaining from religious leaders, many teachers, lobbyists and litigants for individual rights, left-wing politicians who are generally concerned for the poor, and doctors generally concerned for overall public health. They have often cast aside supposedly deeply held principles to cheer on authoritarian rule, tight restrictions on normal social life, the suspension of basic rights, and policies that cause far more damage to the poor than to the rich.
Conspiracy theorists have an explanation for the mass abandonment of self-interest and principles. They argue that some cabal of malicious or misguided geniuses has outwitted the system and addled the minds of almost all the supposed leaders (who are really their pawns), the leading experts (half-innocent dupes), and the vast majority of common people (ignorant and easily led). Such implausible claims hardly advance the debate.
A more reasonable conclusion is that the anti-Covid restrictions are too widely endorsed by basically well-intentioned people to be explained simply as a triumph of selfishness or self-interest. The widespread sense that such tough restrictions are needed and even beneficial must reflect something more profound: dissatisfaction with the existing order and the appeal of domineering governments (fourth level of explanation), a debased understanding of the value of life (fifth level), the dislocation of some primal balance in human expectations from the world (sixth level), or the persistence of an unscientific purity cult (seventh level).
These explanations all refer to thoughts or psychological-cultural “framings” that exist largely outside of the realm of conscious reflection. In the murky world of the unconscious, views that are rationally inconsistent can be held simultaneously, and a single emotion can be “overdetermined” by several complementary trains of non-conscious thought. The following four types of explanation can all be true, each in its own way.
4. Fourth level of explanation: the failure of liberalism
Political problems are a good explanation for political decisions. The decision to impose lockdowns was bad according to the standards of Western and Western-style democracies, and many of those democracies are in bad shape: Brexit was dragged in after a dodgy referendum; the corrupt non-politician Trump was elected U.S. president and inspired a cult following; non-traditional politicians – Macron, Salvini, Modi, Duterte, and Bolsonaro – have come into power around the world; traditional party systems have disintegrated in many European countries. It can be argued that Western political systems were overall too fragile to resist popular hysteria.
The argument is not very persuasive, however. Almost all these supposedly weak governments were strong enough to draft and enforce unprecedentedly intrusive regulations. Most of them also managed to design effective programs to compensate workers and businesses for income lost because of these restrictions. Political-bureaucratic systems with these abilities could easily have followed the practically less demanding existing procedures for pandemics, including encouraging calm among the public. They chose not to. That choice needs to be explained.
Leaving aside venality, which tends to lead to inaction on all policy fronts, the most persuasive political explanation for the easy and enthusiastically received imposition of authoritarian controls that lack any good public health justification is that the politicians and peoples of today’s nominal democracies actually have strong non-democratic, authoritarian tendencies.
Certainly, gigantic welfare states and extensive regulation suggest that the classical liberal focus on the government responsibility to protect negative liberty (freedom from constraints) is now deeply subservient to the governmental responsibility to provide the governed with some sort of positive liberty (freedom to flourish according to the government’s standard of flourishing).
Among non-traditional liberals (non-libertarians in the American vocabulary, non-neoliberals in the European discourse), enlightened despotism has often been considered the most appropriate form of rule for the development of positive freedom. The imposition of oppressive public health rules for the good of the people whose lives are being disrupted can be described as supposedly enlightened despotism.
The “supposedly” is needed, because the enlightenment is imaginary. Indeed, the fervent commitment to anti-Covid lockdowns suggests an all too typical authoritarian inability to use available knowledge wisely and an equally typical tendency to exercise more force than any outside observer would consider enlightened.
There is the second political explanation. Rather than thinking of intrusive restrictions as manifestations of the desire for authoritarian rule and rulers, the anti-pandemic expansion of government bureaucracies into everyday private life can be explained as the latest step in the expansion of what can be called the Intrusive State.
States have increasingly subsumed and tamed rival authorities (churches, families, businesses), while encouraging subjects/citizens to consider the State to be the ultimate judge of the people’s good. They exercise their power primarily through rational, extensive, and basically competent bureaucracies, in which moral standards are optional. (For people interested in social philosophy, the idea of the State’s seemingly expansion is Hegelian, the preeminence of bureaucracy is Weberian.)
The Intrusive State is generally quite popular with the people whose lives it increasingly controls. Most people seem to crave the State’s protection, especially when they feel threatened. Indeed, their respect for their governments is so extreme that they readily believe that the State should and can control natural phenomena, including highly contagious viral respiratory infections. The intrusively ruled people are very happy to participate in the processes of control, so they willingly obey the State’s commands to suspend their normal economic and social lives.
The two models I have just presented, popular enthusiasm for authoritarian governments and the relentless rise of the Intrusive State, are complementary rather than alternative explanations of the ready welcome for, and almost universal obedience of, cruel and pointless restrictions and closures. Either or both are much better explanations than either fear or mass hysteria.
5. Fifth level of explanation: Decline of civil society
Intrusive States claim to promote the common good. They set up programmes that encourage mutual support in times of need; they build material, cultural, and spiritual resources that are widely shared; they protect the future from the depredations of the present; they preserve the virtuous memory of the past; they limit the strong and guard the weak; they pass on the goods and wisdom of this generation to the next. Overall, the Intrusive States’ promotion of public health, including the response to viral pandemics, belongs on this list. It is a service to the common good.
In comparison to even the most beneficent Intrusive State, however, smaller communities are often better stewards of the common good. The contemporary organs of what Hegel called civil society range from ethnic communities to churches, from employers to healthcare networks, from associations of merchants to unions of workers. These communal groupings, each with its own structures of membership, leadership, and ambition, are well suited to determine the most humane way for a society to deal with many types of problems, including many aspects of pandemics.
However, the vitality and responsiveness of civil society as a whole have diminished sharply over the past century or so. Most groups have lost much of their autonomy, yielding authority to increasingly intrusive Political States. By 2020, both the authority and autonomy of independent civil society had faded away in all the areas relevant to the hysteria over Covid-19: healthcare systems, emergency response networks, research facilities, charities, and the monetary-financial system. In effect, almost all the politically relevant organisations of civil society that might have resisted had effectively been absorbed into the governments and bureaucracies of Intrusive States.
The heated “culture wars” and some anti-government reporting from mass media show that civil society has not been fully extinguished in liberal democracies. In this crisis, though, independent voices were too weak to create a strong opposition. On the contrary, as mentioned, governments’ anti-pandemic agendas were (and are) widely supported by politicians and intellectuals of both left and right and by almost all the leading media. Similarly, religious and business leaders rushed to endorse the authoritarian agenda.
The decline of civil society not only reduced resistance to governmental hysteria. It also made that hysteria more likely in the first place, by impoverishing the once rich dialogue of social groups. The officials and bureaucrats of intrusive governments talked almost exclusively to each other, experiencing no significant challenges from civil society. It was almost inevitable that they would become a self-referential monolith that easily yielded to authoritarian temptations, both petty and grand.
The response of the “people’s” governments of the old Soviet bloc to environmental degradation is a good example of the underlying issue. With civil society effectively banned in those countries, it was literally impossible for the genuine people to find representatives who could articulate and develop an economic and political agenda that combined pollution control with maximising industrial production. In the civil silence, government officials had no reason to address this problem, so they did not. Similarly, in the face of anti-Covid policies that amounted to an assault on humanity, civil society was so weak that humanity could barely speak out.
6. Sixth level of explanation: Biopolitics
In the before-time: Conception, birth, health, illness, and death were laden with religious meaning for as long as societies were religious. However, these mysteries of life were rarely political. The plague described by Thucydides, which is symbolic of Athens’ political decay, is a rare exception – and the biology-political connection is made by the author, not by the city-state’s rulers and citizens.
Biopower for the sake of power: In the last few centuries, religious awe and authority have eroded along with religious faith, and governments have increasingly taken power over bodies (as explained by Michel Foucault). They have exercised this new biopower by promoting sanitation in the 19th century, hygiene and nutrition in the first half of the 20th century, and vaccines and certain sexual behaviours in the second half.
All these State powers persist, but in the 21st century, biopower is expanding to control the motion and location of bodies that are potentially ill; that is of all bodies. The justification for taking this additional control is an overriding concern for health, a concern that leaves little room to strive for more than the narrowest sorts of human flourishing. The animalistic thinking of biopower is essentially inhuman, but rulers who love power are inevitably drawn to treating their subjects as simply actual or potential vectors of disease.
The fear of death: When a pandemic is believed to threaten widespread deaths in a culture that lacks the spiritual framework needed to deal with the fear of death, then respect for the fullness of life-before-death – love, family, community, culture – easily comes to be considered superfluous. All that matters is “bare life” (a term popularised by Giorgio Agamben).
The mastery of nature: Hubristic modern cultures are to some extent based on the premise and promise of achieving every greater human control over nature. From that perspective, it is easy to believe that the inability to keep people from dying in a viral pandemic is a sign of scientific and governmental failure. Because “saving” lives carries so much cultural weight, it appears reasonable to destroy the quality of many lives in order to delay the deaths of even a relatively few people.
The campaign for Zero-Covid is bad science, but it fits well the desire to treat the virus as a military-style enemy that is expected to surrender unconditionally to human willpower. Lost years of school, deaths of despair, emotional distress, and even deaths from untreated conditions are mere collateral damage in the battle to ward off this natural disorder.
Expiation 1: Contemporary societies are too atheistic for a widespread belief in acts of God. However, while Covid-19 was rarely interpreted as a sign of divine anger, it was widely seen as Nature’s punishment for some sort of human hubris. Different, contradictory social sins have been blamed: excessive and careless use of technology, inadequate technological efforts to counter viral threats, and the vanity of thinking humans could have a totalitarian control of Nature. The confidence that nature is cursing humanity encouraged the easy conflation of the disease with the all-too-human inhumane responses to it.
Expiation 2: When the mysteries of life were still religious, governments often helped propitiate the angry disease-bringing Gods by supervising socially demanding sacrifices. In the logic of sacrifice, the more innocent the victim, the more effective the offering will be. Governments that have taken up this religious biopower are keeping up the sacrifices. The anti-Covid restrictions offer up innocence in the form of children’s education, the pleasures of travel and entertainment, and the health of the poorer members of the community. In this symbolic language, which is largely impervious to empirical evidence, such great sacrifices are very potent.
The cost of failure: While the sacrifices are powerful, the inability to eliminate death or respiratory viral infections ensures that no sacrifices are ever fully successful. Rulers, like the priests whose role they have usurped, respond to this failure with ever-greater sacrifices. As Covid continues to strike, more of the fullness of life is offered up and there is ever more willingness to let people, especially those defined as suitable victims, die or suffer great harm.
7. Seventh level of explanation: Purity
In the popular imagination, modern scientific cleanliness has been combined with traditional ritual purity. People still tend to divide the human body and its world into zones and times of purity and impurity. The refusal of politicians and public health experts to recognise and reject this pure-impure thinking allows it to shape attitudes towards Covid.
Those attitudes are often scientifically unsound. Purity rules separate the unclean outside world from the clean body and eliminate unavoidable bodily pollution. They do this by removing impurities and ritually purifying, most often through washing and isolation. However, humans cannot live without some potentially illness-bearing and clearly microscopic creatures.
Indeed, impure dirt and illness can bring us more of the purity of health, by making us more resistant to future attacks by other impure “germs.” Conversely, the impure virus that causes Covid-19 cannot be warded off by washing, disinfecting, or ritual actions such as wearing masks.
Modern societies can usually just about manage the tension between the primordial fear of impurity and the reality of many health-promoting human relationships with bacteria and viruses. We both use antibacterial soap and accept having seasonal colds. The uneasy balance was broken in the hysteria created by the especially impure infectious disease of Covid-19.
Without an approved cultural language of purity, modern discourse has largely turned to two euphemisms that are approved. One is “science.” The technically trained priests of the purity cult are consulted as oracles, as in news headlines beginning, “Scientists tell government…”, which are generally followed by some proclamation of doom or counsel of suffering.
Non-priests are expected to be grateful for the commanded sacrifices of personal, social and professional life, for the sake of the cult – no one wants to be a source of impurity. The quasi-religious gratitude is expressed as a “belief in science.”
“Safety” is the other modern euphemism for purity. Ignoring the actual scientific evidence, the cultic priests prescribe many sorts of polluting contact as unsafe. They also prescribe the wearing of approved facial amulets (masks), which they say increase safety, also ignoring most of the actual scientific evidence.
Like some religions, the purity cult includes a sharp duality between the pure elect and the unclean others. Membership in the elect requires rigorous adherence to the purity regulations. It brings a confidence in one’s own moral superiority that is often expressed as disdain for those who have less purity. Sociological analysis, which shows that the purity-elect of Covid-19 are typically members of the social and economic elite while the burden of disease falls heavily on the poor, probably reinforces this division.
The power-cult of governments helps enforce the purity cult. Governments mandate visible signs of adherence to the purity cult (social distancing, mask-amulets) and command ritual isolation for people declared impure, even if they are not ill. The political authorities reject mitigation through naturally acquired herd immunity as impure. Only the sterilised needles of vaccines can fully restore humanity to its original purity.
Conclusion: A pseudo-holy, power-hungry mess
The combination of mass hysteria, self-interest, authoritarian politics, and an unacknowledged purity cult brings many, many unfortunate outcomes. Most obvious is the multipronged assault on humanity, the prohibition of or restrictions on many important human activities, from worship and shopping to educating the young and visiting the ill. There is also subtler damage to healthcare, social trust, social unity, trust in the media, and whatever was left of constitutional democracy.
Most restrictions have been lifted in most of the world, and the rest will presumably be lifted in due course. However, the damage they have done will last for many years. Most obviously, lost healthcare and schooling will blight some lives and harm many others. More subtly: the isolation of work-from-home will damage and deform many careers; the isolation of antisocial distancing will have lasting effects on community mental health; the unequal burden of Covid-19 and the anti-Covid policies will widen social and economic divisions; and the official endorsement of a neo-pagan science cult will undermine public health policymaking.
The prolonged closure of roughly half of the schools in the United States is particularly harmful, and is a particularly clear example of the toxic interaction of the various levels of explanation. Teachers’ mass hysteria, their unions’ quest for authoritarian power, the participation of the media in the hysteria-authoritarian movements, the willingness to sacrifice innocent victims (children) as an exercise of bio-power, and the desire to avoid the impurities created by children playing, touching, and having physical fun – all these have combined to maintain a policy that is astoundingly cruel and totally contrary to any scientific, sociological, or moral logic.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the response to Covid-19 is the precedent it sets. Barring a revulsion of the scale that produced Germany’s multi-decade reeducation programme after the fall of the Nazi regime, most people in the Western world will accept that the authoritarian-biopower-purification responses were reasonable in 2020-2021 and will remain reasonable in the future.
Such a grand revulsion is improbable, as there seem to be no brakes on any of the deep historical, cultural, and spiritual forces that lead to authoritarian governments, random exercises in bio-power, and anti-scientific purity cults.
No substantial group seems capable of preventing a recurrence of these policies or the continuation of the anti-viral purity cult. All the natural loci of resistance – left-wing politicians, civil liberties advocates, religious leaders, and all sorts of academics – endorsed the waves of restrictions with few qualms. Only the libertarian right has stood fairly firm against the tide, and that movement hardly exists outside of the United States.
This downward spiral of explanations for the scientifically senseless anti-Covid-19 policies will be depressing for people who have rejected the dominant narrative of heroic necessity.
However, there is no need for despair.
On the contrary, the restrictions and compulsion have caused more than enough pain to change perceptions, if only the people can learn to see through their fear, their misplaced trust in authorities and authoritarian governments, and the numerous illusions supported by both culturally embedded patterns of thought and a consciously manipulative established media. Knowledge of what has gone wrong can ultimately fortify society against the attacks of unreason.