What, collectively, do we do with the sickening knowledge that air pollution takes more lives the world over than this virus?
How respond to the craziness that, as one calculation suggests, 20 times more lives are being saved (unwittingly) due to pollution reductions caused by the global “war” on Covid-19 than the number of lives lost to the virus? Moreover, European areas of worst air pollution have the highest Covid deaths. Resilience is one of the four pillars of infectious disease control in the veterinary world: cleaning up the environment would be the most effective course of action in saving lives. What, then, has all this Covid-induced economic collapse, destitution and trauma achieved? It has almost wiped climate change off the political agenda, but achieved more in four months towards decarbonisation and degrowth than has been achieved in the last four decades. David Fleming, pioneer thinker in the British ecology party, if he were still alive would see Covid-19 as the inevitable and necessary collapse that he foresaw as ‘the coming climacteric’, where action is ‘not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us’. This is an early iteration of climate change. Are we ready?
A CPA-style Psychology
Pandemic policy – UK national and global – has barely drawn on psychology (now often labelled ‘behavioural science’) and where it has done so it is instrumental, advising how to induce citizens to conform to stringent and unwelcome restrictions. Pandemic policies lack a psychotherapeutics, a psycho-social and eco-psycho-social perspective. ‘Isolation’, ‘distancing’ (these already culturally common), masking and protective gear prevail.
Where there is ‘distancing’, there is absence of touch; where there is isolation, there is a lack of intimacy; where there are masks, open communication is undermined. Where couples and families are incarcerated together, domestic abuse multiplies. Where there are concerned and compliant families, grandparents staying behind closed windows and doors, there are puzzled grandchildren too young to understand the sudden withdrawal of contact, affected by the loss. How could Psychology help deal with these potentially profound effects? What do we know about working with rupture, and falling apart? (See here for a far-reaching Jungian discussion of the long-term effects, not of the virus but the accompanying crisis and trauma). None of this is available in current political dialogue.
With virtual connections, how denuded is the experience that depends on vision and hearing detached from the fullness of bodily presence? How do we love at a distance, someone asked on the CPA discussion forum? Is it only touch we lose at 2 metres or is something else strained? How to recognise the profound quality of a loving hug? This is CPA territory, addressing the public and domestic domains, and also professionally as psychotherapeutic practise goes online and therapists reflect on the changing qualities of their relating.
And how do we all continue to think when faced with the uncomfortable paradox that death is enabling life; that this unbidden and largely unwelcome threat to human life and livelihood brings with it a more profound interruption in the human systems that are destroying the planet than has been achieved by intended policy actions?
Where the above refers to the importance of interpersonal dynamics and internal worlds, a psycho-social analysis moves levels, for example to inquire about the effects of the UK government’s omnishambles, reluctantly transparent at best, either authoritarian or patronising or both and opportunistically using ‘the science’, as if it were definitive. How does that affect how people move across boundaries between home and public spaces; what might happen to fear when lockdowns are eased and people are expected to reimagine populated spaces (planes, trains, sports and arts events) as threat-free? Can we rely on government rules in deciding how to treat the real Covid virus threat? Psychoanalysis has taught us how difficult it is to maintain a hold on reality in the face of a genuine threat, to reflect on defensiveness and recognise the power of paranoid-schizoid thinking. This is not only the case within individuals; the traces of defence, avoidance and omnipotence are evident too in collective language, policy and action. At the societal level, what happens when a manic society is forced to stop? It would lead to depression. Not the financial one that seems likely but a collective psychological one.
The need to impose certainty on the uncertain is common at the level of the collective as well as the individual, to afford the illusion of control on the uncontrollable. Science culture reflects this in its wish to have a strong empirical evidence basis for action. Narrow rules as to what constitutes evidence are an expression of ‘scientific rationality’, which partly functions as a social defence against anxiety. But when the public get confused and disillusioned with science, because different scientists are saying different things, using different evidence, it is a short step to the dismissal of science per se, and the denigration of expertise. Then we are on the slippery slope where ‘fact’ and ‘evidence’ are called ‘opinion’: the post truth world.
Science, which science?
Early in this pandemic, the projected number of deaths was elevated into a privileged position within policy making, almost fetishized in contrast to the large proportion of infected people who would be either asymptomatic or easily recover without hospital care. The way this happened seemed to be not so much an intended feature of government or WHO policy but an effect of a newly dominant epidemiological science which uses mathematical modelling of infectious diseases. This eventually dictated policy. It is what is often referred to as “the science” by politicians at the podium, anxious to defend their lockdown declarations and extensions, using the statistical abstraction “flattening the curve” to refer to attempts to reduce hospital deaths.
An alternative perspective on infectious disease control branded this policy logic ‘a strategy not so much to save lives but to delay deaths’. This was an expert veterinary perspective, shaped by dealing with pandemics in non-human animal populations, applying four pillars of disease control (biosecurity, bio-containment, surveillance, and resilience). Does human exceptionalism account sufficiently for the fact that disease control in animals and humans can be so separated? This binary labelling, animals/ humans, illustrates the point, by refusing the reality that humans are animals too.
UK government’s pandemic policy soon began to mirror uncritically a series of COVID reports from the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, with the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling. The first report estimated that without governments taking action, 90% of people on earth would be infected and roughly 40 million would die. The report’s only comment on this was that ‘no health care system anywhere would be able to keep up’. This singular concern exposes the medicalized perspective being produced in a Faculty of Medicine and reflects the historical reality that medicine has come to revolve around treating the seriously sick via hospitals, diagnostics and technology. Could society not have imagined other ways of caring for the seriously ill, ways that enabled the dying to be with their loved ones (and vice versa)? Kerala succeeded in controlling the pandemic with a more community-based approach.
In report 12 (March 26th), the COVID-19 response team included a coda to their data presentation that made passing reference to two highly consequential likely policy implications. First, ‘We do not consider the wider social and economic costs of suppression, which will be high and may be disproportionately so in lower income settings’. Lockdown policy was designed for high-income nations, for example, incapable of recognising the inappropriateness of distancing and isolation (and handwashing) for billions of the world’s poor. When Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, declared a nationwide lockdown of 1.38 billion people with four hours’ notice, millions of destitute workers left big cities in droves to return to their villages, taking the virus with them and infecting the crowds on their way. Surely, says Arundhati Roy in The Pandemic is a Portal, even those who supported the action in principle cannot support ‘the calamitous lack of planning or preparedness that turned the world’s biggest most punitive lockdown into its exact opposite’.
Missing – an exit strategy
The second caveat of the Covid-19 response team applies the world over: ‘suppression strategies will need to be maintained in some manner until vaccines or effective treatments become available to avoid the risk of later epidemics.’ How could any responsible government fail to pay attention to this warning? A magical belief in immediate vaccine technology? A cowardly and authoritarian desire not to frighten the horses? A panicked inability to face a very difficult truth? A probable yes to all three. There is a need for psycho-social containment of collective anxiety. The caught-in-the-headlights look of ministers, out of their depth, is symptomatic of existential angst dissolving the ego’s illusionary capacity to control. Panicked, many governments have talked up the fight against hospital deaths, and consistently failed to either mention or provide for most of the population who would be little affected by this virus. Towards the end of April, the UK government is still refusing to discuss how their lockdown policy can end, in case, it says, such talk compromises compliance. Nonetheless it also started to drip-feed the idea that there will be no near-term escape from some version of distancing/self-isolation, while scientists tell us that distancing might need to last for years. The wider ramifications of policy reliance on distancing are now beginning to unravel: why would it not apply on aeroplanes, for example, something that would dramatically increase air travel costs and sustain the huge decreases in carbon emissions? Gifts sometimes come in unattractive wrapping.
As Charles Eisenstein remarks, placing the pandemic in the context of the now untenable belief in human dominion over nature ‘Now the authorities tell us that some social distancing may need to continue indefinitely, at least until there is an effective vaccine. […] Lest we institutionalize distancing and reengineer society around it, let us be aware of what choice we are making and why’. The quantification and prediction of deaths (in relation to health system overload) has dictated global policy: risk of death is the preoccupation, squeezing out life, ignoring quality of life.
Eco-psycho-social: the return of the repressed
Natural immunity is perhaps reappearing rather like the return of the repressed, hovering almost out of sight, under elision, occluded by the race to produce a vaccine and the whiff of eco-fascism, aided by uncertainty and lack of empirical evidence in the absence of mass testing. Natural immunity in the global population has remained perilously low, only 2 or 3%, presumably because distancing and isolation measures, where they are applied to everyone and not just to the vulnerable, prevent the development of immune response in majority populations.
Certain ideas are almost impossible to think within the human versus nature binary framework, for example the idea (see here) that virus and human/animal cells have been in an evolutionary tango since the beginning of planetary life, the virus parasitic upon living cells. Lynn Margulis wrote in Symbiotic Planet (1998, p64) ‘viruses are no more “germs” and “enemies” than are bacteria or human cells […] Like bacterial symbionts, viruses are sources of evolutionary variation. Populations of the virus-infected organisms are honed by natural selection’. Science and technology cannot detach humans from the life-death-cycle of all natural things for very long. That we live within the living earth’s systems is what virus pandemics should teach us. How many subsequent waves and new pandemics will it take for the lesson to sink in? This is our current human predicament, meaning a problem for which there is no solution.