Memories of Death

The experience of a pandemic and its aftermaths of suffering and death are also a lesson for a society that until recently preferred amnesia and distraction to memory, because memory is sometimes painful and we cannot cheat death. It made us remember the tragic sense of life, which is paradoxically a path to enhance it.

The United States, used to bragging about being first in everything, are already breaking another record which they cannot celebrate this time. They are the country with the largest number of deaths due to Covid-19 virus. When this article gets published they will have surpassed the 100 thousand. For the social conscience of the XXIst century, such figure is unbearable. As in many other fields of postmodern society (which others prefer to call globalization, late or neoliberal capitalism), complacency has alternated with panic. In this context, complacency means taking one’s security and privilege for granted without caring too much for the future and even less for public and preventive health. A great Argentinean physician, based in New York, dedicated his career to community medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was Dr. Samuel Bosch, chief of Community Medicine at such hospital. Bosch was a severe critic of “advance-guard” medicine that produces exquisite scientific treatments for such ailments as cardiac crises, cancer, and trauma, but ignores or underestimates preventive medicine. Because the first one is private and the second one public; because in the first one research and technology prevail (as well as being a path to the Nobel Prize) and in the second one “only” public health, especially within communities with modest resources. In the USA, the medical insurance system is geared towards sectors that can pay very expensive treatments, either personally or with strong and well-paid insurance. Many people are left outside the system and thus, enter a vicious cycle of under-treatment of pathologies which as they are not treated then become chronic. Precisely those sectors are the most vulnerable in a pandemic, together with the elderly in nursing homes and, most generally, any population in prolonged enclosure in what sociologist Irving Goffman called “total institutions,” such as prisons, barracks, boarding schools, convents, cruise vessels, hospitals, asylums, etc. As for the most privileged and best protected, when faced with a pandemic, the widespread fear among them is that the best preventive measures and insurances they are accustomed to do not guarantee their own immunity.

Thirty years ago, in my studies regarding fear as a social phenomenon[1], I could observe that fear of suffering and death (and the degradation of dignity) sometimes reaches a state in which any measure of obedience and submission even to the strictest rules does not guarantee safety, and then fear becomes terror. Terror, either as a “natural” phenomena (like a plague) or as a political weapon (terrorism) practiced against the State or by the State,  is precisely and technically the state of defenselessness before death such that no action by the possible victims can exorcize it.

In consequence, the current pandemic of coronavirus has produced a quasi-universal terror situation. All the historical studies about previous plagues, in particular the devastating bubonic plague of medieval times, show that this situation is not new. The current novelty is about something else. It is the simultaneous universality of the reaction of very different societies, in the decision to quarantine or enclose the majorities of the populations of the planet, at any cost. Some economists (often referred to as those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing) estimate the current “price” of one human life in 10 million dollars. This computation would be unthinkable for people in previous centuries. For example, in the cargo ships of those centuries, the value of merchandise was considered much higher than that of the crew. Globalization and communication and information networks have played a decisive role in considering not only the price but also the value of human life. This is my first observation regarding our perception of pandemic terror (or to remember an expression from western ancient times, panic fear[2]). The counterpart of panic is without doubt a positive one, as today we value human life more than ever.

A hundred years ago, in the 1918-19 “Spanish flu” pandemic, governments around the globe, the media, and a great many people pretended to be absentminded. They were more worried about the end of the Great War than about the havoc produced by a plague. However, the Great War had caused 10 million deaths and the pandemic caused 70 million deaths. The world pretended to ignore the disproportion. Today that would not happen, for diverse reasons. I continue listing my observations, almost all of them paradoxical.

My second observation is the following. The universal simultaneity of the reaction took place in a context where there is no world government, and where the coordination among states “surprised” by the plague has been scarce or inexistent; measures were taken more by imitation than by rational planning. In many countries, people isolated themselves without having the need of police imposition. The question, as all mine, is double-edged: do we do it due to rationality and social conscience or do we do it because we are a flock of fearful sheep?

My third observation, derived from the previous ones, is that the reaction has been drastic and even brutal, in large part due to our ignorance regarding the origin, nature, functioning and way of multiplying of the virus. As our grandparents failed by omission, we failed by commission. Here, it is worth pointing out two paradoxes: 1) the perplexity and even the disarmament before the virus of a civilization that brags about being the most advanced in science and technology, but resorts to the most basic, if not primitive, security measures, and 2) the false leveling effect of infection that made the crisis appear as affecting everybody without distinction. Of course, that is not the case. Far from producing risk equality, the pandemic has shown the stratified probability (in terms of class, color, age, category of countries, etc.) of becoming infected and the seriousness of the illness. In a sense, the false impression repeats itself regarding that when a ship sinks, all we think all passengers equally drown. It is not like that: many more die in third class than in first. One example suffices. These are the figures for passengers that survived the sinking of the Titanic (1912), according to the report made at the request of his British Majesty after the tragedy:

Passengers Total Survived
First Class    325 202 (62%)
Second Class    285 118 (41%)
Third Class    706 178 (25%)
Total 1,316 498 (38%)

The pandemic uncovered social scourges and gaps in each society. It is a very ugly vision, but it also has its positive side: there is much more transparency, despite desperate attempts of some governments and politicians at trying to continue disguising the situation. We complain too much about the “panoptic” effect of media where rulers get informed about their citizens or subjects, but we must warn that in many senses these same means have inverted the Panopticon and there is the possibility of controlling the guardians (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?). From this clearer perception emerges a universal clamor for social change in favor of systems, if not more egalitarian at least more fair. Let me clarify this observation with an example: of all Scandinavian countries, Sweden is the most unequal. However, those who are at the bottom of the social scale in Sweden enjoy a “floor” of protection with guaranteed education, health, and old age. Sweden does not guarantee equality, but it does guarantee protection with dignity. It is an example worth pondering not only for other rich countries but also for others which are not rich, as in Latin America, bridging the gap in solvency. The pandemic will not be the great leveler, but it is capable of generating a universal desire for more social justice.

The exit from the pandemic will be so uneven and confusing as there were the containment attempts. States, not “the State” in the abstract, will be reinforced, and they are very different states according to their previous trajectory (what we sociologist call path dependency). There are those which are virtuous and those that are perverse. Regarding this, I suggest re-reading an old collection of essays that Franz Neumann left in draft form before dying: The Democratic and the Authoritarian State, to put things in perspective. In many cases, a good exit implies serious state reform and this task is not guaranteed.

The world is quite capable of exiting this pandemic with the same mistakes with which it exited the devastation of war and pandemic in 1919. Let us hope not. The decade of the 20s during the last century witnessed the collapse of cosmopolitan and liberal democracies in favor of fascist nationalism, on the one side, and soviet communism, on the other side.

As I mentioned in many previous articles, today we are on the verge of a new cold war, without passing through a hot war before (the third world war). The visible retreat of the United States, the advances of China to occupy the vacant positions, and the opportunistic advantage of Russia in  taking positions even while it can not act as a world power, are dangerous geopolitical trends. The European Union, which should play a moderator role and be an example of wise regionalism, unfortunately has only offered lessons in cowardice. Other regions of the world are even less capable of taking the initiative. And Latin America? Though today more ramshackle than before, it continues to occupy its traditional role of spectator of history, in the balcony of a foreign opera theater.

From a general geopolitical point of view, the greatest danger when exiting this pandemic is the huge power vacuum: the absent center of the world’s governance.

Humanity has often lost the collective memory of pandemics such as that of 1918-19[3]. I do not believe that it will erase the memory of the current pandemic. The memory of this death will work as an incentive for social enhancement. Many victims have died, but many pretexts and many excuses have also fallen for not trying to build a better world.

[1] . Juan E. Corradi et al., Fear at the Edge.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

[2] . According to mythology, the god Pan used such a boisterous stratagem to defeat Osiris’ enemies whom he protected, that they ran away terrified. Since then, ancient authors argue that such is the way of calling the unfounded and excessive terror.

[3] . So many monuments to those dead in wars! Where are the monuments of those dead due to pandemics and social disasters?

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