COVID-19 can be an extremely serious disease. No one wants to get it, no one wants to die from it or see friends and family succumb to it, and no one wants his or her livelihood ruined by its deleterious effect on the economy. We are right to seek to limit its impact, though I cannot pronounce with any authority on the particular measures that have been taken in the UK and elsewhere as a means of doing so. Even those who have to take decisions on which measures to introduce must do so with much less than the clarity they – and we – would like to have that they are doing the right or best thing. In my view, we should give them the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that they are doing the best they can. And those who fall ill from COVID-19 should have the best possible medical care available to help them recover: each life is profoundly important, especially, of course, to the person in question and his or her family and friends. There is no doubt that medical staff and others who are doing so much for suffering individuals deserve our gratitude and admiration: most of us would not be capable of the immense, indefatigable dedication they have shown.
I take it that no one could seriously disagree with these sentiments. But I think that there are aspects of the way we in the west have reacted to this pandemic that deserve our attention from a place of philosophical reflection: we all fear illness and death, and we all want a long, healthy life, but philosophy, at its best, talks back to our fears and desires and should try to find something to say about the present pandemic beyond acknowledging how devastating it can be.
To my mind, from that point of view, the most interesting and revealing reaction in the west to COVID-19 has not been the fear that it has engendered, including the fear, completely justified, of a ‘bad death’, isolated from loved ones – though that does remind us of how deep the motivation of fear runs in human beings, probably much deeper than we like to suppose. It is, rather, the incredulity that it has provoked that most strikes one. It has been said many times, and there is an evident sense of it everywhere, that we can’t believe this is happening. This incredulity does not flatter us, I think, and I have many times in these last few weeks thought of La Rochefoucauld’s wonderful maxim that the only thing that should surprise us is that we are surprised by anything – a kind of non plus ultra of humane urbanity.
We in the west are familiar with levels of health and longevity that are unprecedented in human history, and unknown in many parts of the world now. For example, life expectancy in the UK (not the highest in the world) is nearly 82 years for men and women combined; in Central African Republic it doesn’t even reach 55. Our systems of health, hygiene and nutrition, though not perfect of course, are fabulously well developed, and we all benefit from extensive and highly developed medical services. Where this is not so, as in the United States, where many millions do not have adequate health insurance, we must surely consider this a scandal, given the immense wealth of the country. No doubt things in even the best health care systems could be improved, but it is easy to overlook how lucky we are in what they provide us.
But our concern with health goes way beyond this and reveals an attitude to the body that is gradually taking hold of us and in large part explains our astonishment that we are faced by the coronavirus in the west. Our bodies have become for us yet one more thing we possess and we have done much to absorb into our attitude to them the ideology of use and disposal that characterises our late capitalist acquisitiveness and carelessness.
We do not seek merely to nurse our bodies to health when ill: we manipulate them and exploit them – ‘harvest’ is the chilling term often used - for medical purposes; train them and discipline them; measure and weigh them; attach devices to our wrists to tell us how much we have walked or slept; inject them with Botox; smear them with creams to combat ageing; fill them with vitamins and supplements; subject them to all manner of different dietary regimes; have them cosmetically sculpted.– Dr Christopher Hamilton
We are constantly being told what is bad for them (cigarettes, sugar, alcohol…) and what good (five pieces of fruit day, 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week…). Far from rebelling against these technologies of the body we have willingly internalised them as part of our relentlessly achievement-oriented culture that moralises about the body as about pretty much everything else. Our therapeutic culture harries us with highly normative conceptions, not simply of the mind, but also the body. We want this, because we think that the possibilities of health are limitless if we only get things right, and we see it as part of the promise of medical science to eliminate all illness and even death as something aberrant in our condition. We are complicit in a fantasy of control and domination of our bodies and all that might affect them.
We have come to believe, not that it is good to enjoy health, still less that we are lucky to possess it, but that we have a right to it.– Dr Christopher Hamilton
It is no longer a precious gift, but something to which we are entitled, and anyone who talks about health as a gift is likely to be suspected of harbouring some antiquated religious idea that makes no sense in our world: in the west, God may not be dead, but he is certainly on his deathbed, and the idea that there is a ‘giftedness’ about life or the health that helps us enjoy it makes no sense to most. One of the most difficult things for human beings to feel is gratitude – man, it might be said, is the ungrateful animal - and here is one place it shows up in the modern west.
I do not myself have a religious faith, but it bothers me that we are very quick to suppose that, if such faith is no longer credible, then all that came with it is superstitious nonsense from which we would do well to free ourselves. The failure to find any real space for the idea of gratitude to life is just one side of our hubris that is expressed in our attitude to our bodies - an exploration of which is central to D.H. Lawrence’s life’s work. For sure, this might be pierced when we cannot avoid the facts of illness and death, for of course many in the west do, after all, suffer horribly from many ravaging diseases, but the key thing here, to my mind, is that we do all we can to sanitise death and illness, pushing them to the margins of the social world and consciousness and telling ourselves, as I have noted, that it is only a matter of time before disease is eradicated and maybe death too.
This is why we instinctively reach for images of war in our response to COVID-19 – as we also do when confronted with cancer and many other diseases: we are in a battle and must fight; we are all of us ‘enlisted’; some are on the front line; we must defeat this enemy. Once we do so, we tell ourselves, once COVID-19 has been defeated, things will be back to normal. Yet normal they never were and Coronavirus is not an enemy: enemies – of which we in fact have very few in the west as the most cursory glance at, say, the situation in Syria over the last 9 years or so will confirm – seek to hurt and kill, but coronavirus has no intentions and is not seeking to do anything at all. It is profoundly grim for human beings, but, in one sense, it is just doing what it does. Such, by the way, is an old reaction to Camus’ novel The Plague, which, whatever its merits might be – and they are many – has often been justly criticised to the extent that Camus intended the plague to represent Nazi oppression in Europe; a plague, dreadful though it is, is not an agent seeking to maim, oppress and destroy as the Nazis were.
The normality to which we wish to return is, in truth, an extraordinary exception. Illness and disease have accompanied human beings throughout history and we in the west are amazingly fortunate to be so free of them. But we harbour complacent fantasies of invulnerability that leave us incredulous in the face of their refutation. When something touches that sense we have of ourselves and reminds us that we are, after all, physically and spiritually weak, vulnerable, frightened and confused creatures, we are astonished that it could be happening at all. I remember that I was living in Spain during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. The media there reported on it in their usual distanced fashion – until a Spanish nurse contracted the disease in Madrid from two patients who had been flown back from the region to be treated. Suddenly there was a palpable sense of fear in the country. The same pattern repeated itself with the original outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan and then the arrival of the disease here in Europe. The fear, of course, is entirely understandable. But it is the sense that this can happen over there, but cannot happen here that is really revelatory of what we think of ourselves and the rest of the world.
Like it or not, much as we may fantasize about endless good health, we wouldn’t be what we are without illness and disease: in a world free of these, nothing much that we value by way of human nobility and achievement in the face of difficulty would be left. A world in which it makes no sense to say, as did Dostoyevsky, that the one thing he truly feared was to be unworthy of his suffering, is no longer a human world. The world of endless health about which we entertain fantasies is one in which we transcend our own condition – which is one of the deepest fantasies we have, as Montaigne analysed with unsurpassed finality. We suffer here, I think, from a distortion of focus. That focus is restored in part by something that George Orwell said of Shakespeare: ‘[H]e loved the surface of the earth and the process of life — which…is not the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible.’ Orwell knew what real love of life is, but we in our health-fetishizing world think it’s a matter of staying alive as long as possible so we can have a good time. What we really want is a certain kind of plenitude, for, as all the great religious systems have noted, human beings are insufficient to themselves. We suppose we might get this through health and long life, but, unfortunately, this is not so. In one of his greatest poems, W.H. Auden spoke of a need to ‘find the mortal world enough’. That, certainly, is a spiritual task, but we fool ourselves if we think that we can avoid it by attending to our bodies as we do. We are not so much serious about our bodies as earnest. Hence we find little room in our attitude for anything equal to Montaigne’s response to his intense suffering from ‘the stone’, a pain so intense that many afflicted with it at that time were driven to suicide: ‘You are not dying because you are ill; you are dying because you are alive.’ Such gentle and wise irony, which itself expresses a genuine love of life, is totally foreign to our understanding of ourselves. We need to try to talk back to ourselves as Montaigne did in his agony and as Orwell did in his. COVID-19 is absolutely dreadful. But let us not pretend it is something it isn’t, and let us try to learn from it to remain in touch with our humanity.