Even In A Pandemic, A Spirit Of Fear Is No Badge Of Honor
The German-American theologian Paul Tillich offered a pointed observation some seven decades ago: “there is a sick desire to escape sickness by cuffing off what can produce sickness. I have known people who are sick only because of their fear of sickness. Sometimes it may be necessary to reduce the richness of life, and to establish a poorer life on a smaller basis. But this in itself is not health. It is the most widespread mental disease.”
What, then, would a Tillich think today of those for whom a poorer, smaller life seems a personal or tribal badge of honor? What would he make of a recent Economist report headlined, “Some Britons crave permanent pandemic lockdown”? Two in five UK citizens want masks to be required in perpetuity in retail and public transportation settings, the newspaper reported. More than a third want 10-day quarantines permanently on those returning from overseas travel. One in four Brits wants nightclubs and casinos shuttered forever, and one in five even wants a permanent 10 p.m. curfew.
Yes, there are grave obligations to protect ourselves and others when a pandemic emerges. But, by about the 16th month, the lines between selfishness and heroism, and between proper caution and neurosis, get blurred. Reopenings around the world are being met with ferocious resistance from frightened citizens, fretting pundits and a certain breed of experts who raise their own profiles by raising maximum alarms. Meanwhile, nations that once boasted of eradicating Covid-19 now find themselves fraying at their seams, unable to shift their mindset to a looser approach to risk tolerance—and in some cases beginning a reckoning with “immunity debt.” A generation of children globally has been robbed not only of in-person schooling but many opportunities for social development—despite waves of data since last summer showing that children are less at risk than their elders and clear evidence of the downsides of isolation. All this is neurosis in full flower.
Meanwhile, leaders in rich, advanced countries like the United States have hoarded vaccine doses that could do more good in other nations. They have made only nominal gestures to share their good fortune, and seem all too willing to see unused doses end up in the trash. Their desire to hammer their own vaccine-avoidant citizens into submission may seem wise or noble; but it in fact reflects the selfish isolationism that Edgar Allen Poe depicted in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Aiding those overseas who beg for the vaccine now will bring greater gains for us all than getting into tussles—as in France—over domestic mandates.
The leaders of the developed world are in effect postponing our inevitable global reintegration, and that will cause its own harm. I’ve suggested before that we still remain in just Act 1 of the pandemic. Act 2 can’t even begin until the world’s leaders find the nerve to reopen their borders to one another, with the attendant threat of variants leaking from poorer, lower-vaccinated countries to higher-vaccinated countries. Only then can Act 3 take place, as societies find a balance of health and risk. It will be a messy, fractious process.
The folly of many neurotic leaders is the notion that they can eradicate risk “if only we could get the stupid and evil portion of our country’s populace to behave.” Even if they accomplished that, they still could not shut out the dangerous rest of the world forever, as Poe’s Prince Prospero and his “thousand hale and light-hearted friends” tragically discovered at the end of their brief, splendid quarantine.
The person—or the society—that has little tolerance for illness or risk also has little capacity for growth or creative possibility. It is noble to seek to diminish human suffering; it is absurd to expect to eliminate it. The society that makes an idol of security ends up a prisoner of that idol.
A number of generally liberal people, myself included, have puzzled over how our technocratic class—which clearly tilts progressive—became so comfortable lobbying for the most stifling and costly measures possible in vain hopes of banishing all risk.
It was once political progressives who lobbied for a limited, “harm reduction” approach during the HIV epidemic, when conservatives sought a more intrusive one. It was progressives who opposed conservative efforts to create a security state that could thwart bioterror and dirty nukes after 9/11, arguing that the safety that the conservatives sought came at a high cost. For a variety of odd reasons, the roles have been reversed. (Some progressive-minded health experts—Monica Gandhi and Vinay Prasad of UCSF and Stefan Baral of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health—recently shared important critiques and concerns about the approach of peers and pols.)
For many of America’s technocratic elites, it seems their main complaint regarding China is that we lack their readiness to weld people into their homes. Many of them regularly warn the states of Texas and Florida about terrible reckonings “in two weeks.” But when various pandemic waves land, the Texans and Floridians don’t repent of their sins and set about to mimic California; rather, Californians continue to set the pace for jumpiness and minimal tolerance for risk.
The true end of the coronavirus may not come for years—or ever—as variants circulate globally. That is not simply the fault of “bad Floridians,” it’s the unavoidable consequence of living in an interconnected world that we cannot unplug from forever. That will eventually require many nervous people to accept a level of risk that is right now beyond their capacity, even with two shots of Pfizer in their arms.
Perhaps our society’s seemingly reckless people understand, more than their elite, “science-minded” peers, the deep truth that Tillich spoke of. What seems to be a cocoon can, day by day, become a coffin for the human spirit.
As Tillich noted, it can be a disease in itself to try “escape disease by cutting off what can produce disease, and what also can produce greatness of life.”