Paradox of the pandemic

Barney Zwartz reflects on how the COVID-19 pandemic has led to greater interconnectedness.

When I was young, the two great literary dystopias that were thought to predict our possible future were Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.

The first, published in 1932, has a eugenically designed caste-system with drug-induced perfect social control. The second, published in 1949, features a brutal dictatorship in which the very language changes with shifting alliances, and your own television spies on you (surveillance that seems almost innocent today).

But I was also much impressed with a third, much less known, dystopian vision in the science fiction novel The Space Merchants (1952) by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, in which unfettered capitalism has reached its logical limit. Nation-states exist only to serve multinational corporations, who have conditioned the populace by drugs and advertising.

The book opens with the protagonist’s advertising agency planning to add addictive substances to its Coffiest brand, to promote sales.

As the ideology of economic rationalism seized Western economies in the past few decades, this vision of corporate rule seemed the likeliest of the three to be realised. But, buffeted by the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, it has been rendered obsolescent by the pandemic.

Surely no one now believes in the market alone, free of interference by the state, when all around the world shattered economies are surviving only because of massive state intervention.

The immense shock the pandemic has caused is leading people everywhere to ask what sort of society we should be when “normal life” resumes, and in many ways we may become a much better one. At least, that is my fervent hope, despite natural scepticism.

In isolation, we have become far more interconnected; in extremis, we have learnt who the really important people are.

The paradox of the pandemic is that it has taught us to value each other anew. In isolation, we have become far more interconnected; in extremis, we have learnt who the really important people are. It’s the health workers, the delivery people, the shop assistants, the cleaners, even the baristas; it’s not only the chief executives and brokers. The last have indeed become first, at least for this brief time.

As French philosopher Simone Weil put it 80 years ago in a different context– the pandemic has served to weld us back into the chain of eternal obligations which bind every human being to every other one.

John Donne famously argued in 1623: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

And that may be the paramount lesson of the pandemic: we are not islands, we are interconnected – socially, of course, but above all by being (as Donne believed) joint bearers of the image of God. Every one of us.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.