From The Paris Institute
The aim of this essay is to explore the impact of contemporary safety consciousness on the reaction to threats like COVID-19 and, more generally, on the way society fears. It argues that in recent years, safety has been sacralised to the point that it has become a foundational value for society. The essay draws on previous experience regarding the human response to disasters and argues for a more robust approach in responding to COVID-19.
SINCE the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the culture of fear has turned into a pandemic of fear. Arguably the city of Perth in Western Australia is one of the safest places in the world. Until January 2021 there was not a single case of infection in the city. The discovery of a single case in Perth led to the outbreak of hysteria and panic buying.1
It is evident that people really fear the threat posed by the coronavirus. Governments throughout the West have been surprised by their citizens’ willingness to give up their freedoms and accept newly implemented lockdown rules. With virtually no opposition to the imposition of these rules, millions of people were willing to give up their way of life, abandon their work, and give away fundamental rights such as the freedom of movement and of assembly!
There was very little discussion and debate about the unprecedented steps that were taken in order to contain the threat posed by the pandemic. One of the most striking and disturbing symptoms of the public’s passivity in face of the demand for a lockdown was its unhesitating willingness to go so far as to shut down schools. In previous times, schools were never closed—not even during wartime!
When the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in, I was surprised to discover that many people felt comfortable with life under a lockdown. Almost a year later, millions have learned to live with lockdown conditions and have got used to it to the point that they are wary of lifting restrictions “too soon.” In December 2020, in countries like Canada and the UK, a significant section of society indicated that lockdown rules do not go far enough and were willing to extend the range of restrictions during Christmas.
Critics who have raised concern about loss of freedoms and the catastrophic consequence of the lockdown on economic life are invariably dismissed by the media as irresponsible and a threat to public health. Public health has acquired a sacred status, and its moral authority is frequently used to justify the introduction of a variety of measures for regulating life. Consequently, people fear raising criticisms of government policies in case they get accused of being COVID-19 deniers. Criticism is frequently condemned as a threat to public health and by implication, debate is regarded as a luxury that society cannot afford during the pandemic.
The imperative of public health has triumphed over other concerns to the point that it has succeeded in almost totally dominating public life. At times the media is entirely focused on COVID-19 and the significant political and economic issues are treated as problems to be filed under the label of “post-pandemic issues.” Numerous commentators suggest that there will be no return to what was once considered normal. From their perspective our lives will need to be reorganised along the lines promoted by public health concerns. This fatalistic sensibility pervades the current zeitgeist, and to many it seems that it is not human society but a virus who will decide our future direction of travel.
From this fatalistic perspective no goals are projected into the future. Staying safe and surviving appears to have become the pivotal issue around which everything else turns.
Public health has become synonymous with public life.
One of the most significant developments that has emerged out of this pandemic has been a significant erosion of the line that divides health from politics. Consequently, health has become politicised and politics has become medicalised.
The rhetoric of staying safe and keeping others safe has acquired the status of a self-evident truth to the point that any form activity that appears to deviate from this norm is immediately condemned as a threat to the wellbeing of society. Even before the pandemic, safety had become the foundational norm of Western society. In most institutions, safety has become not just the first order, but the only first order value, reducing freedom to—at best—a second order principle. The pandemic has reinforced this cultural mood of moral disorientation and obsession with safety. That is why the argument against the subordination of politics to the exigencies of public health has been lost.
The current zeitgeist of survivalism is best captured by the idealisation of the concept of “safe space.” The transformation of this term from one that was occasionally used by isolated groups of campus activists to an everyday colloquialism has been extraordinary. Almost overnight the term has become a cultural trope to which people refer casually on and off the media. The demand for safe space signals the conviction that in our everyday encounters, far from being normal, safety must be a constant focus of our quest for survival.
In a world where the idealisation of a “safe space” has gained widespread currency, living under quarantine conditions is far too often regarded as not necessarily a big deal. Indeed, numerous organisations and individuals interpret their lockdown existence at home through the narrative of a safe space. So, according to Jonathan Mayer, professor emeritus of geography and epidemiology at the University of Washington, as danger, real or perceived, creeps closer, the notion of safe space narrows, then narrows more “until it’s really anything outside the home.”2 From this standpoint, everything outside our home is unsafe, a quarantine is a guarantor of a safe space, and staying indoors offers security from an inherently dangerous world. The implication of this outlook is that what lies outside our self-imposed quarantine is inherently unsafe.
The Sacralisation of Safety
Society’s preoccupation with safety is not simply a response to the current pandemic. As I explain in my study, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century,3 the meaning of safety has expanded to the point that it guides virtually every dimension of life. Safety has become the dominant value of society. It is important to understand the implication of the mutation of safety into the principal value of society. There is a fundamental difference between what we value—safety and security—and what is a moral value, such as freedom, justice, or courage. Safety has both a subjective and an all-encompassing quality to the point of encouraging a survivalist mode of behaviour.
One of the regrettable consequences of the sense of survivalism is that it deprives important moral values such as courage of their meaning. Historically the virtue of courage was regarded as the most effective antidote to the corrosive effect of fearing. Western society still holds courage and the display of heroism in high regard. But in everyday practice, we have become estranged from this ideal and do very little to cultivate it. In effect, the ideal of courage has become downsized. In everyday discussion, the term courage has acquired the status of an instrument of self-help. The phrase “courage to survive” communicates the ideal that the act of living with distress and existential pain is in itself an act of heroism. The very ordinary experience of surviving a loss earns the designation of being courageous, as indicated by the very name of the self-help video The Courage To Survive: Facing the Loss Of Your Soul Mate.4
Safety is an inherently subjective and diffuse condition, and perversely, the very quest for safety enhances the sensibility of insecurity. The mantra of “you can never be too safe” is a roundabout way of saying “be careful.” Typically the quest for safety turns every human experience into a potential safety issue. The exhortation “stay safe” has acquired a ritualistic quality that signals the message that we can never take our security for granted.
The obsessive embrace of “safe spaces” by groups of university students in recent years anticipated a similar response by their elders during the current emergency. The culturally induced sense of helplessness which visibly drives the project of safe spaces amongst young undergraduates is also at work amongst adults in this pandemic. It also indicates that there is no need for an actual pandemic for people to voluntarily quarantine themselves.
Fear is both mediated and regulated through moral norms. As we noted, historically the virtue of courage was regarded as the most effective antidote to the corrosive impact of fearing. Throughout the centuries, courage provided society with hope and confidence and offered an antidote to the cultural power of fear. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt explained, courage not only provides society with hope but also underwrites society’s capacity to exercise freedom.5
Experience shows that the quest for personal safety is not simply a response to external threats but increasingly a reaction to the internal turmoil associated with existential insecurity. Since existential insecurity is an integral element of the human condition in a world of uncertainty, it is likely that the quest for safety will be a never-ending feature of life. Its most important downside is that this quest distracts people from attempting to gain a measure of control over their affairs. Control requires a willingness to attempt to manage and live with uncertainty. Unfortunately, the capacity for dealing with uncertainty has been undermined by a culturally induced sense of helplessness.
Human beings can never entirely lose their aspiration for control. Regrettably, in this emergency, this aspiration has often assumed the caricatured form of hoarding stocks of toilet paper and tinned tomatoes. For some, staying at home actually offers the illusion of control. To make matters worse, official policies along with media alarmist communication reinforced the public’s obsession with safety and weakened its capacity for exercising control.
One of the most unattractive features of the deification of safety is the apparent tendency to subordinate the value of freedom to its dictates. Within the contemporary Western moral framework, safety and security are first order values, whilst freedom is, at best, reduced to a second-order one.
Throughout history, the relationship between freedom and safety has been a subject of debate. In numerous instances, the very human impulse to achieve safety was used as an excuse to limit the exercise of freedom. This point was recognised by Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct,” he wrote in November 1787. And he warned that “even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates” which will “compel nations” to “destroy their civil and political rights.” With a hint of fatalism, Hamilton suggested that “to be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”6
Another Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, was unequivocally against the practice of trading in freedom for safety. He famously remarked that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”7
Supporters of the freedom-safety trade-off claim that the liberties that people enjoy need to be balanced with a community’s need for security. This argument has been raised and re-raised by authorities throughout history. Relieving people of the burden of freedom in order to make them feel safe is a recurring theme in the history of authoritarianism. A version of this argument was elaborated in response to 9/11 in the form of the War on Terror. On both sides of the Atlantic the exigencies of safety and security are used to justify laws and procedures that limit civil liberty. One of the most troubling dimensions of this development is the relentless trend towards the colonisation of people’s private life.
Advocates of expanding intrusive instruments of surveillance actively promote calls for a trading off of privacy for safety. In many instances, citizens have been convinced to accept Big Brother watching them in order to keep them safe. Indeed many citizens have become Little Brothers keeping their eyes on their neighbours. After one month of lockdown, police in England and Wales fielded nearly 200,000 calls from members of the public snitching on their neighbours for lockdown breaches.8
COVID-19 constitutes a serious threat to human health. The challenge it poses is how to protect people from the threat posed by this virus without giving up their freedom. Once the exercise of freedom is perceived as a threat to human health and safety, society is in trouble. Arguments for a trade-off between the two deprive freedom—in any of its forms—of moral content. Nor does the act of trading in freedom make people feel genuinely safe. That is why after weeks and weeks of living in a state of lockdown, so many people have become anxious about stepping outside their door and living freely.
We can never be 100 percent safe. But by stepping outside our door we can begin to live as free citizens. We can also begin to take control, get on with our lives, and learn to contain the threat posed by COVID-19. No power on earth can do more to strengthen our ability to deal with the threats we face than freedom.
So What Can We Learn from the History of Disasters?
Disasters have a nasty habit of appearing from nowhere. This catches communities unaware and people struggle to understand what a disaster like COVID-19 really means. Finding meaning in an apparently meaningless threat to human lives has continually invited theologians and philosophers to provide much needed explanations. Today, we seek help from scientists and experts and rely on their evidence and modelling to give meaning to the global COVID-19 epidemic. However, in the end, the meaning that a community attaches to a disaster is rarely based simply on science but on the values and customs that prevail.
As we know from the recent tragedy of 9/11, major catastrophes and disasters serve as historical markers. The phrase that “after this event nothing will ever be the same again” has been frequently repeated after many other major disasters. Frederick Francis Cook, the chronicler of the 1871 fire that destroyed a large part of Chicago, wrote that “in the minds of Chicagoans the city’s past is demarcated from the present by the great fire of 1871.”9 Since the beginning of human history, disasters have been experienced as key defining moments in the human experience. Events such as the Fall of Adam and Eve or Noah’s flood were interpreted in a similar fashion and Martin Luther represented the biblical deluge as a catalyst for speeding up the world’s decay.10
History shows that people have been both haunted by and intensely interested in disasters. The Bible itself is a rich source of disasters. From the story of Noah and the flood to Divine retribution on Sodom and Gomorrah or the famine that drove Abraham to Egypt, stories of disasters excite the human imagination. This biblical legacy has been continually reinforced by the apocalyptic tradition that regards disasters as precursors of the day of reckoning. Although we live in a more secular society, the end of the world model cannot but continue to influence the public perception of an event like COVID-19. Typically visions of an apocalypse have been displaced by the widespread tendency to perceive worst case scenarios as the normal one.
Disasters are often used as the key episode of a master narrative through which we understand reality and through which we make sense of human transience. Since they are as bad as things can get, disasters represent a major challenge to values and meanings. That is why over the centuries, disasters have acquired significant moral connotations. Perceived as Acts of God, a form of divine retribution, disasters are frequently depicted as a form of punishment for human transgression. In previous times, great catastrophes highlighted the transient quality of human existence and the futility of all purely human ends, serving as a stimulus for religious contemplation. Even in today’s secular times, disasters are invested with some hidden meaning. Rarely perceived as just an accident, disasters appear as events of profound moral significance. Not surprisingly, some have opportunistically pointed the finger at global warming as the cause of flu pandemics. Instead of blaming COVID-19 on divine retribution for human sin, some are all too ready to point the finger of blame at mankind’s supposed destruction of the environment. “Is our destruction of nature responsible for COVID-19?” is the rhetorical question posed by a commentator in The Guardian.11
Not surprisingly, the outbreak of the coronavirus provided an opportunity to link global warming to it. The Harvard School of Public Health declared that “We don’t have direct evidence that climate change is influencing the spread of COVID-19.” However, the absence of evidence did not inhibit it from stating that “we do know that climate change alters how we relate to other species on Earth and that matters to our health and our risk for infections.” And just in case the reader missed the message, it stated:
As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.
Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people. Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions.12
Despite the lack of evidence, the reader is left in no doubt that manmade climate change and pandemics are closely connected.
History teaches us that disasters do not simply have an impact on physical health but are also a source of profound moral disorientation. They disrupt the way we think and behave because they call into question the taken-for-granted aspects of daily life. How we manage to deal with the destructive forces unleashed by a disaster like COVID-19 ultimately depends on society’s ability to give meaning to the experience. Societies can learn to live with pain and even with death. But if they are at a loss to give meaning to the challenges they face, communities face the danger of people turning on one another.
The Ancient Athenian historian Thucydides’ account of the mysterious outbreak of a plague in 430 BCE in Athens retains its relevance to this day. For Thucydides, the danger facing this community was not simply the plague but also the reaction of the citizens of Athens to it. He noted that as fear spread, “anxious citizens disregarded civic authority and violated laws and customs”13 that were previously dutifully observed. What really concerned Thucydides was not that people became too fearful but that they ceased to fear the authority of their old traditions. As numerous citizens abdicated their traditional responsibilities, Athenian society unravelled. Thucydides observed that many Athenians no longer feared God since they felt that because they were living under a death sentence, they had little to lose. He observed: “fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.”14 The lesson that Thucydides drew from this experience was that matters are made worse when a community’s response to a disaster becomes uncoupled from a grammar of morality.
Unable to contain fear with moral guidance, many Athenians responded to the plague by taking action that made the situation worse. Fear and panic led many citizens to flee their homes and move into congested urban huts. Overcrowding helped spread the disease and, as Thucydides wrote, the “mortality among them was dreadful.”15 Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague retains its relevance because it highlighted the significant role that community values and attitudes can play in the management of a disaster.
Thankfully, the response of Athenian people to the plague goes against the way that most communities respond to a disaster. Most research carried out on disasters during the 19th and 20th centuries emphasises the impressive degree of social solidarity with which the community reacts to the onset of a disaster. Numerous accounts provide testimony to the relative absence of panic and the flourishing of acts of solidarity in disaster situations. Sigmund Freud regarded disasters as occasions when social solidarity emerges and a spirit of altruism influences human behaviour. “One of the few gratifying and exalting impressions which mankind can offer is when, in the face of an elemental catastrophe, it forgets the discordancies of its civilization and all its internal difficulties and animosities, and recalls the great common task of preserving itself against the superior power of nature,” observes Freud.16
Post-Second World War researchers tended to concur with Freud’s assessment, and their insights directly challenge what they described as “disaster mythology.” Fictions peddled by Hollywood disaster movies communicate the mythology that when disaster strikes, people panic and their communities experience increased levels of anti-social behaviour. Other assumptions held by disaster mythology are “that looting is widespread after disasters; that victims experience shock and become dependent on outside response organisations; that evacuation orders will result in a mass exodus; that public shelters will quickly fill up with dazed and confused survivors; that price gouging will be widespread; and that martial law should be declared to impose order on the disorganized scene.”17 Experience shows that people are more likely to engage in acts of solidarity than adopt corrosive forms of anti-social behaviour.
The history of major disasters also indicates that a community’s life will not return to what it was in the past. That is why it is not too soon to begin to think and plan for life in the post COVID-19 era. There is no need to adopt a dystopian view of the future. Judging by the experience of the past, if we mobilise our imagination and creative powers, we can ensure that the new world will be an improved version of the old one.
Although catastrophes exhibit disturbingly destructive powers, humanity has often managed to turn adversity into an opportunity. Time and again our fears of natural disaster have served as a catalyst for the rise of human ingenuity. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 encouraged the application of science to the construction of an urban infrastructure. After the terrible floods that hit Holland in 1953, the Dutch constructed an ingenious system of dykes that represents one of the technological wonders of the world. Social reform is often the progeny of a disaster. Improvements in working condition were promoted after employees died from the infectious fever that scourged the cotton mills of Manchester in the 19th century. City planning took off in the United States after the Chicago Fire of 1871. After the 1909 Cherry mine disaster that led to the death of 259 workers in Illinois, new health and safety laws were institutionalised. The sinking of the Titanic led to a major review of passenger safety and a significant reduction in the hazards of seafaring.
There is no reason why COVID-19 cannot stimulate new and exciting innovation in healthcare and pharmacology. But most important of all, this terrible pandemic can provide a timely reminder that belonging to a community is the most precious asset that human beings possess. The most important conclusion that emerges from research into disasters is that robust community life that encourages acts of social solidarity can play a decisive role in minimising the corrosive impact of plagues and pandemics.
dePICTions volume 1 (2021): Pandemic Times
1. Ronan O’Connell, “Paradise lost: Hysteria and panic buying hits Perth after a single case of COVID,” The Telegraph, 1 February 2021 [24 February 2021].↑ 2. David Wolman, “Amid a Pandemic, Geography Returns With a Vengeance: The coronavirus crisis is forcing us to reconsider physical space and our place within it,” Wired, 14 April 2020 [24 February 2021].↑ 3. Frank Furedi, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018.↑ 4. Reviewed by Norman Straker in “The courage to survive: Facing the loss of your soul-mate,” Palliative & Supportive Care, 9.2 (2011), 119-121 [24 February 2021].↑ 5. Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?,” in Between Past and Future, New York: Penguin Books, 2006, 142-170.↑ 6. Alexander Hamilton, “The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States (The Federalist Papers: No. 8),” The Avalon Project [3 September 2017].↑ 7. Benjamin Franklin, “Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor,” Founders Online [24 February 2021].↑ 8. Fiona Hamilton, “More than 200,000 report neighbours for breaking rules,” The Times, 1 May 2020 [16 February 2021].↑ 9. Frederick Francis Cook, Bygone Days in Chicago: Recollections of the Garden City of the Sixties, Chicago: A.C. McClung, 1910, xi.↑ 10. See Michael Kempe, “Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story and Natural Disasters in Early Modern Times,” Environment and History, 9.2 (2003), 151-171, here 151-152.↑ 11. John Vidal, “‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for COVID-19?,” The Guardian, 18 March 2020 [16 February 2021].↑ 12. Aaron Bernstein, “Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment: A Conversation on COVID-19 with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE” [16 February 2021].↑ 13. Paraphrased by Powel Kazanjian, “Ebola in Antiquity?,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, 61.6 (2015), 963-968 [25 February 2021].↑ 14. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Richard Crawley [25 February 2021].↑ 15. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900, 139.↑ 16. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by James Strachey, New York: Norton, 1975, 16.↑ 17. Gary R. Webb, “Sociology, Disasters, And Terrorism: Understanding Threats of the New Millennium,” Sociological Focus, 35.1 (2002), 87-95, here 88.↑