A worldview is emerging, one that is critical of the more dramatic measures that have been taken throughout the world to curb the pandemic. Its proponents are intellectuals drawing from both classical and modern sources, speaking from both the left and the right. For a while at least, their ideas appeared to be filtering into the minds of some policymakers. Until just a few days ago, President Trump was still expressing skepticism of radical efforts to contain the pandemic. The cure, he insisted, must not be worse than the disease.
The conservative political commentator Victor Davis Hanson acknowledges the public-health crisis posed by the coronavirus pandemic, but also argues that “The current sweeping measures to curb the virus come at a huge cost.” These costs might include an economic recession or depression; rise in drug use and suicide; mental illness; higher morbidity in other illnesses that are temporarily going untreated; etc. Hanson’s arguments rely on an analysis of statistics concerning things like morbidity rates and trends in transmission. But Hanson, who is also an accomplished classicist, notes that ancient authors feared the panic as well as disease: “the sense of hysteria that accompanies a pandemic explains why both Thucydides and Procopius are more famous for their descriptions of the reactions to a plague than even their astute and empirical descriptions of its symptoms.” Hanson mostly asks questions; while he is skeptical of draconian measures, his main thesis is that we will develop a wiser policy only once we get more data through testing. And few would disagree that we need more and faster testing.
Writing from a theological perspective (and citing few statistics), First Things editor R.R. Reno has declared radical containment measures to be the fruit of a “disastrous sentimentalism” that values physical life as the highest good. Instead, we ought to value higher things: “What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life.” Shortages of medical supplies have forced Italian doctors into making tough decisions but, Reno writes, “We are always doing triage. Only the great wealth of our society allows us to pretend otherwise.… Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage.”
Reno also argues that “closing churches is utterly unnecessary. People can gather to pray before the reserved sacrament while maintaining the ‘social distancing’ advised by public-health experts.” Following Pope Francis’s orders, the churches in Rome have remained open for private prayer, though liturgies are not celebrated publicly. In many other cities, church doors are closed.
A more radical debate is taking place in Europe. On February 26—before thousands had died from complications of the virus in Italy—the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published an essay titled “The Invention of an Epidemic” in Quodlibet, an online cultural review. Agamben denounces the “frenetic, irrational, and entirely unfounded emergency measures” being taken to contain the outbreak in Italy, for a disease he describes as not much worse than the flu. He believes these measures have a hidden purpose. Inspired by Michel Foucault, a philosopher who dissected the disciplinarian structures of the modern state, Agamben denounces the “serious limitations on freedom” imposed by the Italian state, and appears to be most alarmed by restrictions on free movement and the closing of schools and cultural institutions. He fears these exceptional measures will become the norm: “the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government.” These measures will produce a feedback loop between a panicked citizenry that craves safety and a nascent totalitarian state that will be all too glad to provide it: “the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.”
In a response to Agamben published in Antinomie, the normally high-flying French thinker Jean-Luc Nancy reminds Agamben of a few fundamental facts. First of all, the morbidity rate of the current epidemic is far worse than that of the flu. Second, the pandemic is a local (not a global) affair, as are the strategies for containment. So even if these strategies were to evolve into a means of social control, to attack the Italian government is “to hit the wrong target.”
In response to this and other critical reactions to his essay, Agamben published some “Clarifications” on March 17. He no longer downplays the gravity of the situation. “The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic.” Those consequences will be dystopian: “Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technology, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact—every contagion—between human beings.” Social-distancing measures have moral consequences: “Our neighbor has been canceled,” because an encounter with him or her could be an occasion for spreading the contagion. On this score, Agamben says that the churches have been silent. Yet this is surely not true of Pope Francis, who has praised the “heroic example” of priests who care for the sick.
No doubt there is a kernel of truth to Agamben’s reasoning. Democratic states are exerting power—through enforced quarantines, surveillance, and executive imperatives—in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades. And at least some of these measures could remain in force after this pandemic is over. Yet others would argue that the real problem has been not so much state overreach in the name of public safety but a general lack of preparedness that has left governments everywhere struggling to catch up with the emergency; the seemingly draconian lockdowns have all come too late for the tens of thousands of people who have already died. In another response to Agamben, the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito makes an entirely plausible claim: “It seems to me that what is happening in Italy today…has more the character of a breakdown of public authorities than that of a dramatic totalitarian grip.”
One thing lacking in all this theorizing is a robust sense of responsibility. The neighbor might indeed be canceled, but not in Agamben’s sense of the term. It is a fact that certain populations are more vulnerable to this illness than others; it is also a fact that transmission of this disease takes place at a much higher rate without the implementation of radical social-distancing measures, especially during the beginning of an outbreak. While it is true that one is not responsible for every foreseeable consequence of one’s actions, it is also the case that, in this special moment of crisis, one has a duty to try to foresee the possible consequences of not having a shutdown, or of ignoring one. Those consequences are social, affecting both neighbors and ourselves, and to pay attention to them is to pay attention to the common good. A few weeks ago, Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi wrote the following warning: “I and many other Italians just didn’t see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.” Instead, “I lacked what you might call ‘moral knowledge’ of the problem. I knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting me in a significant, personal way. It took the terrible ethical dilemma that doctors face in Lombardy to wake me up.”
On the way to their dubious conclusions, the shutdown-skeptics make some good points: panic is indeed dangerous; scarcity is indeed part of the human condition; and, yes, we need to remember, even now, that the other is our neighbor and not just a potential threat to our personal well-being. But now is not the best time to be inflaming suspicion of public authority, or encouraging people to go their own way and take their own chances. As UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who has tested positive for COVID-19—recently acknowledged, the pandemic has demonstrated that there is, after all, such a thing as society, never mind what Margaret Thatcher said. Without cooperation and collective discipline, many more people who might have been spared will die of this virus. So stay at home if you can, not in fear but in solidarity. Right now, you don’t need to go inside a church to find icons of sacrificial love in our midst. Just look at—and pray for—the doctors, nurses, and orderlies in our hospitals, the people delivering meals and groceries, the healthy people volunteering to undergo clinical trials for vaccines and treatments, the priests, nuns, and religious praying and caring for the sick.