24 THESES ON CORONA

By Rupert Read.

1) This corona crisis is a global experience of lived emergency.

2) There is an equality in this: the equality of shared vulnerability.

3) The emergency is unprecedented, and not just in living memory: there has never been a high-mortality global pandemic in the age of globalization.

4) Our Governments (especially in most of the English-speaking world) have in many cases contributed to our vulnerability to this pandemic — and this makes them (politically) vulnerable…

5) The shared vulnerability we are experiencing invites us into an arising global consciousness.

6) The crisis is changing for the better our sense of what is humanly and practically possible.

7) Many of us will, though we might not want to own up to it, experience this remarkable moment net-positively.

8) Because we have been reminded of what really matters.

9) And because disasters can bring out the best in us, collectively.

10) Covid-19 is reminding us that we can be — that we are — good.

11) Covid-19 forces us to think like a community.

12) And forces us to reflect on what we usually take for granted.

13) It should force us to reflect upon the extreme fragility of the globalized world we have allowed to be created.

14) A less-globalised world need not be a more balkanised or nationalistic world: relocalisation is a positive agenda that will make us safer, post-Covid-19.

15) More precisely, the safer post-Covid world will be a glocal world: global in wisdom and co-ordination, but more locally resilient with less rapid movement of ‘goods’ and people.

16) We must preserve the positive lessons from this crisis once it is over, so as to remake the world safer, better, saner.

17) And we surely will: for a return to business ‘as usual’ is not possible.

18) Covid-19 has made what we were told is ‘politically impossible’ both necessary and actual.

19) The deepest learning it has made available to us is that there is something that matters more than ‘the economy’: namely, our care for one another.

20) The world we rebuild post-coronavirus needs to be founded in well-being, and so needs to bail out people and planet, not plutocrats.

21) Covid-19 is a warning from nature that we must heed.

22) The virus humbles us.

23) Covid-19 necessitates and facilitates the project of intergenerational reconciliation, a project that is every bit as vital in the long climate and ecological emergency.

24) And finally: Covid-19 forces us to pause.

If you want more detail — if you want to see the back-up for these 24 theses, and to think more about their meaning — then read on:

1) Right now, across the world, people are increasingly experiencing a sense of prolonged personal and social vulnerability: this is an experience of lived emergency. … For many of us, especially in the Global North, this is almost completely new. It builds on experiences we may have had for instance of worsening incidents of flooding, but goes considerably beyond them. For it touches or threatens to touch us all.

2) And thus there is something radically new for most of us across the world: a sense of equality, of a radically shared vulnerability. … (The last thing that was anything like this was the nuclear threat during the 1960s & 1980s. Corona however is breaking through to a level of shared awareness that even that never achieved. The climate crisis has certainly never yet achieved the same level of emotional and intellectual ‘buy-in’.) That equality isn’t absolute, of course: we also have ugly spectres like the super-rich diving off to bunkers, or buying desperately-needed corona-testing-kits and keeping those for themselves. But these kinds of behaviours are widely seen to be unacceptable. The attempt to buy one’s way out of the vulnerability we now face together is an evasion. Even the highest are vulnerable: thus the heir to the throne and the British Prime Minister have both contracted the virus; the PM, the leader of the land, is very seriously ill. He and we are collectively humbled by a microscopic virus.

3) The outbreak is unprecedentedbecause there has never been a pandemic with the capacity for massive mortality in our globalized time. … And so never before in our lifetimes has our sense — in a human world that had become complacent about its power — of so-called ‘progress’, been so challenged in this way. Any attempt to blindly return to normal after this should be haunted by the question, What IS ‘Normal’, now? The truth of course is that it is quite normal for us to be hit periodically by devastating pandemics: because we are material beings living in a world close by other animals who are not our inferiors. We are not disembodied minds floating in a world that we master.

4) In the English-speaking world especially, our Governments have contributed to our vulnerability. … There has been a vast failure of Government, in countries like the USA, UK and Australia, in this outbreak. A failure to observe the Precautionary Principle, a failure to value citizens’ lives and health above crude ultra-short-term-ist economic imperatives, a failure to protect. This is a depressing fact, because the corona crisis should have been much easier to address than the climate crisis: because its imperatives are far shorter in time-scale, its damage far easier to see and to attribute. But even this failure has an upside. We are realising that it’s just us: our Governments are not going to save us, but we can move ahead of them to save ourselves, to save each other. And these Governments may (should) emerge from this crisis brittle and vulnerable. There is thus a greater possibility than there was in 2019 of moving decisively beyond them.

5) The shared vulnerability we are experiencing could be reacted against by a retreat into nervous separate silos, a conceptual echo of our current physical distancing, or it could propel us into an emerging global consciousness. … A consciousness that could bring us together in our vulnerability and that manifests a more beautiful world that just possibly is starting to become actual. The challenge is for us to be led by empathy.

6) This tragic and horrific event is changing what is understood to be possible. … Consider the building of a hospital in a matter of days. Or the Government paying the wages of millions of privately-employed workers. Further: it is of course thereby already changing what is. In bad ways — consider for instance the dreadful suspension of all environmental laws in the USA during this crisis, a move in precisely the wrong direction — and in good ways, that I’ll come to in more detail soon. And: the way it works on people is going to be complex and sometimes surprising.

7) Many people (at least, many who do not die and do not get crushed by the grief that is about to engulf many of us who survive) will actually likely (on balance) experience this time positively. … Because suddenly their lives have meaning. Because they know what/who they love, perhaps for the first time. Like in WW2; for most of those who survived, it was actually one of the best times of their lives. Counter-intuitive, but true.

8) Something hugely positive about this time is that we are being powerfully reminded of what really matters. … Love matters more than ‘growth’. Your father matters more than another point on (or off) GDP. Human life matters more than ‘the economy’. If as a society we can really learn that, it will transform us.

9) Disasters can bring out the best in us. … Disasters call upon us to be our best. They make us suspend normal rules, put away self-interestedness, and to engage in altruism we didn’t even know we were capable of. We are already seeing #everydayheroism everywhere. We are about to build paradises in the midst of hells. Disasters are disasters; but they invariably contain the possibility of a silver lining, if we are ready to make it. This one is a hard disaster to make something good come out of, for sure: especially because we can’t gather together in the way we did during (say) the Blitz. But we’re finding ways of making it happen, all the same. And not just online:

10) Covid-19 is showing us that we are good! … Above all, it shows us this in the selfless professionalism of health care workers, and in the marvellous outpourings of love for those workers that have been seen so powerfully in Spain, in the UK, and more. When I went out to my front doorstep on 26 March at 8pm, under lockdown, to #clapforourcarers, to applaud the heros of the NHS, I was afraid that I’d be the only one there. Maybe everyone else had the same fear. But we needn’t have done. Most of my street was there, on our front doorsteps and at our windows; it was so moving, such a tremendous experience of community. …This gives real hope. For if, even though physical distancing can make us feel slightly paranoid toward each other, we are still succeeding in building community more than ever before, then how much easier that community-building can be, once the pandemic is over and we can literally stand shoulder to shoulder to tackle the enduring ecological challenge of our age.

11) Covid-19 forces us, wonderfully, to think like a community. … In the best possible sense, the coronavirus actually does force us to think like a ‘herd’… in the early stages of a pandemic, it is tempting to think like an individual, and so to think only: the chances of me suffering from this, at least at this point, are very remote. The chances of me carrying this and infecting others, at least at this point, are likewise very remote. So I’ll go on acting as I normally do for now. But if everyone thinks like that then it guarantees that the pandemic will spread like wildfire — and that soon it will no longer be true that the chances are remote. In fact, such individualistic thinking guarantees a public health catastrophe. What is needed instead is for everyone to think toward the community level from the beginning. And so that is how we have been learning to think. For where we haven’t, we’ve painfully noticed the cost. So: this radical experience of community will not fade away. It is there now, part of what we know to be possible, real, literally vital.

12) We ought to reflect too on what has become temporarily impossible for us: on the fabulous things we have just been taking for granted, before this pandemic: like being able to hug friends. … This pandemic is going to rip many of us apart from one of more of our loved ones, permanently. It will claim millions of lives, probably tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions. People are going to die in mind-blowing numbers, through not being able to breathe, drowning in their own lungs. Furthermore, many of those who survive may be permanently physically-scarred: we just don’t know yet. It is horrendous, especially when you consider that it was probably largely avoidable, either at source (see thesis 21) or through rapid precautionary and suppressive/eradicational action (see theses 4 and 3). We are only just beginning to glimpse the extent of the global tragedy that will unfold in the coming weeks and months. The lockdown of entire countries gives us all, however, an opportunity to pause and reflect. We need to reflect on the consequences of our ‘normal’ lives and systems.

13) We should reflect on the extreme fragility of our economically-globalised world. … The fact that a virus can spread so fast and shut down large sections of the global economy in a matter of months should deeply worry us. (This is especially relevant in the context too of catastrophic climate change, which threatens to do the much the same but on an unimaginably magnified scale). If we want to get serious about minimising harms like this, then we should scale back globalisation and reduce the extent to which countries require international trade and travel. To do this requires that we relocalise in an internationalist spirit: so with massive aid, debt-forgiveness, free green-tech-transfer, reparations even. We can only have a relocalised world that works if we have helped every country to stand on its own feet more. Countries and localities should then become more food-sovereign, more resilient. We are experiencing, under lockdown, how being connected need not equate to going places. Producing more stuff on a local or regional level will innoculate us against the types of supply-line disruptions that we can fully expect catastrophic climate change to bring. Disruptions that we are about to experience some of, due to corona. A further development of our sense of shared vulnerability. Reducing international travel will also reduce climate-deadly emissions, of course, just as corona already has. What this is all part of is: a revival of the local. Something that many across the political spectrum are hungry for. Resilience, food sovereignty, the rebuilding of real community.

14) As already implied in thesis (13), a less economically-globalised world does NOT mean a more balkanized or nationalistic world. … The corona crisis shows us that my health is your health. That there is no health without public health. No private health — only planetary health. As noted in thesis (5), this crisis and — what it affords — is all aboutinterconnectedness, interdependence, indivisibility. We protect each other (in this pandemic) often BY reducing international mobility, BY introducing quarantines, etc. So: Let’s preserve and enhance our sense of union while relocalising our systems. Let’s stay in touch across the world online while radically reducing the movement of goods and of people. We need more political and international co-operation — but that needn’t involve old-fashioned summits, with leaders flying in and making pledges that their policies contradict. We practice care for each other by strengthening more local ‘bioregional’ economies and polities.

15) Actually, it’s more complex than that: the world that coronavirus is bringing into being is most accurately termed a glocal world. … A world in which information, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, needs to be shared freely (e.g. the scientific and practical learning occurring in different countries during the pandemic), and in which global co-ordination is needed to tackle global problems (e.g. Covid-19, or climate breakdown). A world in which emergency-thinking is necessarily global, for emergency demands real mutual aid at the international level as well as within the community level — and a world in which emergency-action is necessarily largely national, regional, or local. A world furthermore in which, as outlined in thesis (14), production, commodities, and people should be largely non-global. A world of returning largely to the local for material things and making truly global the non-material. A glocal world gets the best of both worlds.

16) We should most definitely seek to preserve the positive lessons we’ve learnt about how we can live differently, once the lockdowns end. … Not just try to flip back to ‘business as usual’. My hope, and no doubt that of thousands of others, is that this global tragedy can lead to positive change, for example in work-patterns: let’s see the back of normalized long stressful daily commutes. I hope it can also prove a sustained wakeup call to how poorly prepared the world is for the climate crisis that we are hurtling toward. And I hope that we continue to build solidarity, without which emergencies will always be worse than they need to be. This is a moment of testing, a time of decision. A time to try hard to turn hopes into realities.

17) But in a way the decision is made for us: business as usual is not possible. … Radical change is coming. In fact, it is already here. The world will never be the same again. Never again will we be able to ignore the costs, the silent risks, of the project of economic globalization. Never again will it be possible to pretend that our love for one another is something marginal.

18) Covid-19 has made the ‘politically impossible’ necessary. …Never again will it be possible to pretend that there cannot possibly be the money to make things better. Covid-19 has made wildly-ambitious ideas, way beyond the pale of political normality — such as stopping the destruction of biodiversity and ending climate-deadly carbon emissions in rich countries by 2025 (the 2nd demand of Extinction Rebellion) — suddenly seem attainable: because we have seen governments move heaven and earth, with unimaginably vast economic packages, in the space of just weeks or even days.

19) The deep — and yet so simple — learning that is possible here centres on this profound proposition: We should prioritise people, not ‘the economy’. … The economy is here to serve us: not vice versa. We should practice people-protection. Because people are experiencing their vulnerability, the vulnerability of those they love — within months, virtually everyone will know someone who has died from this virus. And many of those who have died will have died because Governments such as the US and UK Government prevaricated before taking any serious precautionary action on Covid-19; and it appears a major motivation for the prevarication is that they couldn’t bear to shut down economic business as usual. We see now: that, by contrast, to their dark delusions, what ‘the economy’ really comprises is…people.

20) When we remake the world economy out of this crisis, it will be essential to remake it in a way that prioritises lives and wellbeing. … Of course, ‘the economy’ provides most of people’s food, and livelihoods and economic risk and hardship through this crisis is massive. Many people are desperately worried about their jobs and finances. We’re likely to see a global Depression. Yet what corona must surely teach us is that GDP isn’t all it is cracked up to be. The pandemic has taught us whose work society really depends on: the health workers, the food producers, the cleaners, etc. — often on low pay. They are vital in a way that those who wheel and deal in anti-social financial services are not. If we try to ‘stimulate’ the economy regardless of other social or ecological costs, we will prove that actually we learnt nothing of significance from this existential crisis. After 2008, we didn’t put people or planet at the centre of our reconstruction-efforts: and look where that got us. We can’t afford to do that again. We must learn that there are no degrees of separation.

21) Coronavirus should be heard as a warning from nature. … We are not separate from the natural world any more than we are from each other. The covid-19 pandemic has shown that we destroy the natural world at our own grave peril. Destroying the forest habitats of bats and pangolins (and caging them) pushes the coronaviruses that live on them to seek new hosts instead — in this case, humans. Moreover, it is clear that climate-breakdown probabilifies more and worse pandemics. …Will we heed these warnings? Will we pass the test? That depends. On us; it depends on me, and you, and all of us, and on what we learn while we spend this unique time #alonetogether.

22) This microscopic virus humbles us. … It reminds us forcibly that we are not masters of the universe; we are material beings, we are part of this Earth. We need to learn some more humility. We need to seek to repair what has been broken. We need to accept that we are living in a world that we will never ‘fully’ understand.

23) Possibly most important of all, Covid-19 makes essential and possible the project of intergenerational reconciliation. … And this makes possible a gift from this virus to our common future. We are, as Dougald Hine has said, experiencing a planetary crisis of parental mortality. Those of us who are not in the highest age-risk bracket vis-à-visCovid-19 are having to face, all at the same time, the prospect of potentially losing our parents or grandparents. And that potential requires of course a loving precautionary protective response. What love in the time of corona means is not needlessly hugging, so as to preserve life. The young love the old in this crisis; through healthcare, through mutual aid, through physical-distancing, through just staying in touch and loving, and so forth; the old will afterward have the chance to repay the favour. Can the old learn to love the young in the longer emergency of the climate and ecological crisis? Can those who run the world and those who vote for them learn from this intergenerational chance that it’s high time for the young and unborn future generations not to be thrown out of the frying-pan of corona into the fires of climate-breakdown? Corona is a test-case; looming climate-breakdown will be even harder to pass. Climate is so much harder than corona to deal with, for beings such as ourselves with narrow time-horizons. And yet, as hinted in thesis (10) above, there’s also a sense in which it is easier. Where corona pushes us away from each other, with climate, it is clear we have to come together in the mother of all mobilisations, to rise to the challenge. What corona offers us, in short, is the prospect of a deep intergenerational reconciliation. Nothing could be more badly needed, for us to have a future. Once we’ve saved the old, we must save the young.

24) A final thought: Away from those who are dying and key workers, corona has given the rest of us, we many ‘locked down’ in our own homes for the greater public good, an incredible gift that we are so unused to in our culture of speed: the chance to stop, for once. … The leisure society, it turns out, is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. For those of us with the luxury of non-frontline jobs and secure livelihoods, we have been forced to pause. To feel our vulnerability. This pause itself might just be the most tremendous gift we have ever received. It gives us a chance to reflect — and then, when the time comes, to start again in a better way. A way that could actually last.

To conclude, I bring these 24 theses together into a bold summary:

Amidst its horror, coronavirus brings a great gift: the chance, the requirement, to reflect in this time of global-stopping, and so to reassess the sort of society we have created: the globalised society that co-created the Covid-19 pandemic, through its destruction of habitats and its wildlife markets (see thesis 21), and through its hyper-mobility (see thesis 13). Consider the kind of oppositions that corona makes stark: people vs profit. Love, vs desperate attempts to prolong business as usual. Love for the vulnerable and rage against the heartless machine versus thoughtlessness and an unwillingness to think beyond what we knew and did thoughtlessly before Covid-19 struck. Now is the time to decide whether to bereal, or to continue trying to shut out the facts. Now is the moment to get serious in asking how and why we have allowed ourselves to become collectively so vulnerable; and how we can care for our most vulnerable right now and in the longer term.

For after all, when your house has burnt down, why would you unthinkingly rebuild it as before? We need to think about building together the house of our dreams, with love at its heart. Let’s not just flip back to living the same way as before: to the air pollution, the noise pollution, the frantic commutes, the resulting fragilities that this virus has exploited. Let’s refuse the kind of mother of all spending sprees that our governments are already planning to frantically reboot economic growth — unless that spending is designed to actually make things better. Let’s remake our world in a manner that no longer worships that abstraction, ‘the economy’ as if it is a deity. The vulnerability story — the story of our under-acknowledged vulnerability to existential threats, the story that needs to land with most humans if we are to have any chance at all of not crashing civilisation — is now present. Like the virus itself, it has suddenly leapt from the periphery to centre-stage. (If Extinction Rebellion for instance can resonate with the felt-vulnerability that has traversed the world in the last weeks, that will matter more than any direct ‘actions’ it can take at the moment. For it is our vulnerability to true emergencies of whatever kind, and above all to climate and ecological breakdown that needs, above all, to be felt.)

So let’s pause, as we gather strength for the beautiful struggle to rewire the future. The mother of all wake-up calls is bringing us together in a way that makes all things possible…

[Big thanks to Sarah Kingdom Nicolls, Victor Anderson, Ed Gillespie, Deepak Rughani, Alex Haxeltine, Skeena Rathor, Marc Lopatin, Jem Bendell and to Rob Renouf and Jeremy Parker of the XR Writers group. Like all things that matter, this piece is in a very real sense more the product of a ‘team’ than of an indiivdual…]

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Rupert J Read

Rupert J Read

Public philosopher based at the University of East Anglia. Main account: https://medium.com/@GreenRupertRead