Climate Crisis Digest Feb 2022: Covid, vaccination and climate anxiety

Unconscious displacement on a global scale

I cannot get out of my head the thought that the global North's panic stricken response to Covid-19 is also a displacement of climate anxiety. This displacement would be working at the level of the societal unconscious; perhaps the most global societal unconscious displacement humanity has ever spawned.

It is global in scope not just because this is a pandemic, nor just because it coincides with climate catastrophe coming into near view, but also because of the globalisation of the past half century which provides the conditions for the breadth and complexity of this large-scale panic attack, interacting with the anxious responses to it that are part and parcel of the complexity. 

There is much debate in the psycho-social/psychoanalytic field about the dynamic relation between individual and societal defence mechanisms: here I take the view that there is an important relation among, but no simple read-off from, individual to social unconscious dynamics. Paul Hoggett paints a global psycho-social picture of which the theme of this Digest can act as an example:


Today we stand at a crossroads, at an interregnum where the old fossil-fuelled civilization is dying and the new cannot yet be born. [...] The establishment, in our mind and in society, with its commitment to business as usual, has held firm even though it must know it is dying. In this stand-off a variety of morbid symptoms begin to appear, conspiracy theories flourish, fundamentalisms of many kinds appear and almost everywhere ‘strong men’ promise salvation.1


Vaccination tunnel vision

Increasingly central to Covid-19 policy responses - and intensified by its success - is vaccination, the investment of hope in vaccination as a way of vanquishing the virus. In their different ways, many governments of the global north (the ones who can afford it) have pursued Covid-19 policies with authoritarian zeal that latterly imposes a series of vaccinations on citizens, whether through fines, laws, incentives, vaccine passports or threatened job loss. This is legitimized by epidemiology, based on a statistical technology for large medical data sets, with nothing resembling a qualitative component or psycho-social perspective. The prevention of Covid deaths is a powerful rallying cry, hard to question (fear of death is a profound cultural complex). 

However, to me the dominant narrative that rates good government simplistically in terms of Covid-19 vaccination rates' protection against death looks like tunnel vision. A shocking number of humans at this time in history are unhealthy because of the late capitalist, industrial culture within which we live and we are particularly vulnerable to respiratory disease. As far as I know, there is not one nation whose policy has included the long-term aim to improve citizens' respiratory health and immune systems, or to give advice on strategies of recovery to guard against long Covid. More broadly, in comparison to worldwide deaths from air pollution, air pollution deaths exceed Covid-19 deaths by a huge margin. So this is not a balanced response to Covid's threat to life.

Caught in a polarised set up

Novak Djokavic - men's tennis international star - was headline news in January because he is unvaccinated against Covid-19. Originally granted a medical exemption to enter Australia after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, he was deported as the Australian Open tournament began, on the grounds that his presence in the country risked fanning civil unrest as a "talisman of anti-vaccine sentiment". 

I feel some sympathy for Djokavic's position but to say this feels risky. The debate throughout the global North is polarised such that the fact of not getting vaccinated every time risks being positioned as 'antivax'.  What are the intermediate positions which would acknowledge personal responsibility for one's bodily health and awareness of the ‘greater good’? And my own position? I have not felt personally vulnerable, despite being in a vulnerable category (over 70). After two vaccinations, I got Covid eventually, at a time that was predictable in terms of stress and tiredness; it was not too bad. So far I have refused a booster jab on the grounds that there is no end in sight to this vaccine scramble and that there needs to be a different relation to this virus. Given a set of particulars that I lack the space to enumerate, I tend to conclude that there is no more risk than usual of me putting pressure on the NHS.

"But it's not about you, it's about the vulnerable", I hear you think. Or is this a paranoid projection, a product of the polarised positions available? The pro-vaccination story - the one that is hammered home in public messaging - is based on an argument about the common good. It is anti-individualist ("you're selfish if you just consider your own risk") and is also critical of exceptionalism. Djokavic, among numerous public figures, has behaved in exceptionalist ways. I have done so too. Where do considered personal actions based on particulars that are unknown to statistical averages (but that clash with rules) bleed into exceptionalism? 

We might welcome the anti-individualist message as a better-late-than-never pro-social position in a profoundly individualist epoch, but it seems to me trapped in a binary - individual vs collective interest - that distorts both positions. In this trap, we are deprived of the right to act as separate creatures responsible for our own bodies. And our care for others has been stripped of its precious particulars by being framed in rules generated by statistical averages. Pro-vax pressure rests on a bigger context, namely the way that for a long time, medical care has positioned us as passive recipients of expert remedial interventions. 

Dodgy interests

At this time in history, the power of global corporations has reached new heights. Pharmaceutical companies are making unprecedented profits, at the same time polishing their reputations as world saviours. The more ruthless, for example Pfizer, have competed against those trying to be more altruistic (eg Astra Zeneca). Prices of many vaccines are off the scale, yet still paid by desperate governments (in the UK's case, trying to salvage its political reputation with its "world-beating vaccination roll out").

However, corporate profit interests would only become so successful if other conditions, psycho-social, were tilting in their favour. Governments evidently have had their own reasons for protection through vaccination, as have citizens. One is fear. Fear - partly realistic and partly paranoid, depending on one's position and state of vulnerability - can lead to paranoid anxiety and othering. In the UK, the unvaccinated have gradually become targets, by government, medical professionals and anxious citizens. A fracturing discourse has been sanctioned that claims or implies that vaccination makes an all or nothing difference.

In summary, I am suggesting that there is a silver-bullet fantasy of vaccination. It dominates policy thinking, claims to provide the solution; despite and because of its efficacy, it encourages a lot of 'not thinking' (-K in Bion's terms).  

A step back from the vax/antivax stand off

I am making this case not to mount an anti-vax argument but to raise questions about the roots of this Covid panic and to suggest in response that vaccination is the recourse of a Modern global culture whose relation to nature (in this case the virus) is one of othering, of enmity, of the need to use technology to prove Man's superior control over nature. At the very same time, most of us have medical technology to thank for the saving of precious lives. Part of our predicament as Modern subjects is that we are all implicated in technology attachment and dependence, so it is hard to escape the either/or.

At first the idea of herd immunity was flirted with, then vilified. Lately, with vaccination available, the position that we must learn to live with this virus, as we do with others, has appeared hesitantly on the scene; reluctantly, I suspect, because of the one-eyed idea of wiping out the virus (without the follow-through this would require in terms of providing vaccine to the global south). Faced with the insistent reality of an efficiently mutating, highly transmissable virus, a technology that offers to afford complete control over it is highly seductive, although becoming harder to sustain in reality. Unconscious phantasy about the virus fuels panic: the invisible threat slipping through almost every defence, the persecutory revenge of Gaia, the beginning of an apocalyptic end.

Climate crisis, also evidence of Nature's power, has spawned its own technological fantasies, being an even less controllable catastrophe. Both these facets of our current predicament face humanity with the fact of our now-precarious place on earth. There is an ineluctable unconscious logic to investing hopes and resources into a fight with Covid rather than climate change prevention.

How is this climate psychology?

  • I see a Promethean technology dependence, coupled with an anti-nature stance that prioritises human lives above ecological devastation. I see also its failure, its hubris. 
  • I see judgement about health matters being taken out of the hands of citizens and located in increasingly authoritarian medicalised systems. These are based on corporate self-interest, big data and government tunnel vision; also, speaking psychosocially, on social defences against anxiety and the cultivation of fear and risk aversion in the population that lead to antagonistic factions. I see solidarity and resistance. 
  • I see a head-in-the-sand approach to climate and ecological catastrophes by governments. Part of the fight back is to expose not only the hypocrisy and corporate greed but also the macro unconscious workings of interconnected expressions of defence against anxiety.

Wendy Hollway: Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Open University, UK and editor of this digest.


1Paul Hoggett, in Hollway, W., Hoggett, P., Robertson, C., and Weintrobe, S. Climate Psychology: A matter of life and death. Phoenix. Out this month; CPA launch on February 11th.

Lead image photo credit: Arek Socha via Pixabay

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