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  • Writer's picturestephen schecter

Observations on the Pandemic (I)

A former student of mine wrote me recently on Facebook. So, Professor, he ironically asked, what does a sociologist have to say about this coronavirus pandemic? It seems like a perfect laboratory opportunity. He might almost have said experiment. I smiled to myself, not liking conspiracy theories very much, but I do recall telling my students that modern society was created first and foremost as a laboratory for sociologists. I saw my former student remembered the phrase. And in one respect he was right. To a sociologist, the coronavirus is an event that can reveal to us, once we stop to think about it, how our society actually functions. The key point is to start thinking; and since the chief medical response to this virus has been to counsel people to self-isolate and keep their distance from each other, what better way to spend one’s time alone than to do just that?

I started thinking. I do it anyway, but the Facebook message from my former student acted as a spur. Then too, I was touched by his goodbye greeting at the end of his message. The irony was laced with sincerity, and beneath the sincerity, kindness. Thinking of kindness, I took Albert Camus’ book, The Plague, out of my bookshelf and started to read it. Reread it actually, for the fourth time, but this time in French. I had found a second-hand copy in a Montreal bookstore years ago and had not opened it since I bought it. I was touched to find two bus or trolley transfers fall from its pages, transfers from my childhood, the paper kind the conductor had to punch. The paper was like thin newsprint. You never see them anymore, nor even that kind of paper. There are lots of things you don’t see any more. But you can remember them. Memory too is a way of thinking, though tricky. And thinking for a sociologist, for this one at least, means observing.

In Camus’ novel the narrator, the doctor who cares for people during an outbreak of bubonic plague, explained that as a doctor he had to concentrate on being objective, analysing the situation in all its aspects so as to best understand how it was going to be arrested, if at all. The death of a child made him cry, but he could not give in to his emotions or he would be useless to his patients, to the city, to understanding, treating and halting the disease. He was interested in symptoms, in the number of cases, number of deaths. As a doctor, he had to think. To observe. I too am a doctor, a doctor of sociology, the kind of doctor that does not cure anybody. But then, that is not my business. My business is observing, even to the point of being unkind.

So what do I observe? The computer does not like that question. The language software underlines “so” in blue and “observe” in red. I presume the “so” is considered too colloquial and the “observe” requires a complement, as in “I observe the commandments.” I like writing colloquially sometimes, and I do think one should be observant as a way of living. Being observant is an advantage, not only with respect to religion, though religion does train you to be observant outside of prayer. Given that is where observance started, it is little wonder sociology grew out of religion. I see I am already thinking, and I have not even gotten around to society. I will. It is the chief object of my observing. But since even I, a sociologist, cannot see a society, I limit my seeing to its manifestations. People send me notifications of texts via the internet. I watch the television reports on the coronavirus. I listen to people talk about what they are doing or not doing, the disruptions to their daily lives, the way the virus impinges on them. I think: I am part of the laboratory opportunity about which my former student wrote. I think: I am living in Camus’ novel, living a variant of it. I think: but with slightly different observations.

China. The virus started in China, but the authorities suppressed information about the virus for a month. The ruthless Communist Party leadership arrested the doctor who warned about it and charged him with anti-social behaviour. Between the end of December and the end of January hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers in Wuhan and Hubei province had time to visit relatives in other parts of China for the Chinese New Year and spread the disease. Overseas Chinese workers had time to return to Italy too. Others no doubt flew to Iran with whom the Chinese government loves to do business. Birds of a feather and all that. By the time the virus became a known epidemic the damage was done. Today, two months later, who can believe any of the statistics the Chinese government releases, the World Health Organization’s imprimatur notwithstanding? Any attempt to get a grasp on the epidemiology of the disease seems biased by faulty figures. Not so in the West, where the societies are not run by totalitarian gangsters but operate as democracies. Once again we see the difference between an open society and its enemies. But will people in the West, and notably its intellectual elites, really see it? Gao Xingjian wrote a novel, One Man’s Bible, in which he described the horrific events of Mao’s cultural revolution. He won the Nobel Prize, but that novel was not enough to dissuade western high-tech companies from bending to the will of Chinese authorities when setting up business there, nor did it slow down the expansion of American supply chains from cookware to pharmaceuticals throughout the empire of Xi Jinping. Perhaps once the pandemic has run its course, western governments will think twice about letting Huawei run our 5G networks.

Western governments cannot suppress information about the outbreak of a lethal virus. They don’t have the luxury of their Chinese counterparts to arrest doctors who sound the alarm, imprison critics at will, send in soldiers to enforce total lockdowns. They do have emergency powers they can invoke, but even in that case they rely on the consent of the governed for those measures to work. Unlike the Iranian mullahs, our leaders cannot simply lie their way out of a crisis. Not because democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people, although the belief in that formula is some kind of bulwark against autocracy. There are simply too many countervailing powers in a democracy: government and opposition, competing interest groups, a free press and an uncensored internet. Yes, even in the era of fake news and left-wing bias, there are too many sources of free information for a government to lie about statistics during a pandemic. One sees these constraints at work in the way democratic governments respond to the crisis: encouraging, if not begging, people to self-isolate and stay at home as much as possible, appealing to their civic responsibility, asking people to be kind to others, as if they were quoting directly from Camus’ novel. We get daily reports on new cases and mortality rates, in the hope we all learn the importance of flattening the curve and help to do it. The government even puts in place policies to provide economic relief to individuals and businesses, worrying about immediate needs and planning for longer term recovery. We are with you, the Canadian Prime Minister reminds his fellow citizens every day. The ingratitude which fuels democratic politics on a sunny day gives way to solidarity in a time of crisis. Most impressive. And most instructive.

Not everyone responds appropriately. A friend who phones from Montreal to pass the time tells me of speakeasys that have popped up in that city where people evade the ban on congregating in groups. Restaurants and bars welcome clients through alley back doors so that they can still drink and smoke and party their response to possible contamination. When I go out to shop in my city, I see that people distance themselves in lines outside grocery stores but forget to do so when lining up at the cash. And everyone has seen pictures on television of people of all ages gathering on beaches and at parks, as if the warnings about keeping your distance were not for them. None of this surprises me. People are generally not trustworthy, not because they are inherently bad, but because they are inherently blind to their emotions. That is the one thing we are all in together. But that is not society, which is definitely not made up of people. A hard idea to wrap your mind around, I know, but that is what I have learned as a sociologist. Even in a pandemic I do not expect all people to conform to what epidemiologists know and public health officers say. I think it of some interest that because of it, some people may learn something about how a plague spreads and how it can be arrested. In this case, the need to social distance so as to prevent the pandemic from peaking in one shot and overloading the health system. But will they transfer that knowledge to an appreciation of how their society functions once the plague is gone? Will they share my admiration for all that works in democracies or will they revert to grumbling as usual, without understanding the useful role that grumbling serves? Even more interesting, will the professional grumblers, many of whom are sociologists, change the way they look at the world, or will we go back to the usual slugfest between left and right?

When we talk of democracy people think it is a system of government in which the people are sovereign. Their sovereignty is expressed through elections. But Saddam Hussein’s Iraq held regular elections and the country was a dictatorship. China and Iran both have elections. Egypt held elections in 2012 and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, a result which then U.S. Secretary of State Clinton attributed to democracy. But elections are the end result of democracy, not its starting point. The hallmark of democracy is power bifurcated at the top. In other words, the emergence of an official opposition capable of replacing the government at legally enshrined intervals. The division of power between government and opposition inevitably entails the inclusion of people in the political process, historically known as the extension of the franchise to universal suffrage and hence elections. Paradoxically, in a democracy the people and the government are at loggerheads. Each needs the other, but each irritates the other. The people delegate power to the government through an election, but invariably the government makes decisions that are collectively binding which will step on some people’s toes. Conversely, the people make demands which far outstrip the capacity of governments to satisfy. Hence the grumbling on both sides. Governments are seen as heartless, corrupt, useless; the people are seen as ungrateful, unreasonable, overly demanding. In the interstices, however, lie both freedom and progress. It is rather miraculous when you think about it: that a government is formed in the first place out of so many individual sovereignties, and that things actually get done which produce a society that grows every day more prosperous and complex. People like the prosperity, dislike the complexity, because people are notoriously unreliable, but so the society advances, fortunately because society is not composed of people, as I have already said, but of ways of organizing difference.

Throughout history societies have been organized according to differences of kinship, rank or function. Democracy is simply the political formulation of a society that is functionally differentiated. Functionally differentiated societies are modern societies. They are no longer organized according to differences in kinship or rank. Instead each social sphere carries out a different societal function by virtue of the valued resources that circulate within it and according to the rules specific to their circulation. Put simply, money can’t buy you love and these days it cannot even buy you an election. A good thing, you might say, if you value freedom, but not so good when it brings disappointment in its wake. One of the consequences of living in a democracy is that personal freedom is enhanced, but so is personal responsibility for the choices people make. A pandemic certainly drives that point home. The problem is people are always tempted to unload the responsibility part on society, which politically means on the government. Critics on both the left and the right wind up attacking politicians for their venality, even though venality is hardly the worst of sins. But these critics are on the search for scapegoats for our ills, even if the scapegoats are only carriers of an ideology and the interests such ideology is purported to serve: liberalism, conservatism, socialism, capitalism, globalism, populism. The recent ideological rage rampant in American politics since the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency testifies to that. A man whose favorite words are tremendous, beautiful, and the greatest ever has been compared to Hitler and vilified for wanting to establish an autocracy in America. And even in the midst of the Covid19 pandemic I read articles wondering if the aftermath will halt the drift to populism or will the West revert to multilateral cooperation. As if cooperation with China or Iran would be a good thing for the world. What about Syria, where a dictator’s brutal war on his own people has ravaged the country and left it helplessly exposed to the coronavirus? What did multilateralism achieve there?

Perhaps one of the unanticipated benefits of the current epidemic will be a collapse or at least weakening of dictatorships across the globe. Perhaps people will come to understand that you do not pander to countries like Iran that plunder their own people to export war and hatred abroad. Perhaps they will understand that however poorly formulated by politicians, it might be time for democracies to band together as a trading bloc because it is not commerce that softens warlike habits, but democracy itself, forcing people to deal with problems while integrating difference into the body politic. But then people will have to see democracy for what it is: not a prescription for utopia which always remains unfulfilled, but a political system which brings paradox in its wake. Not the best system of government, as Winston Churchill once quipped, but certainly better than any of the others.

Such, my dear student, is where my thoughts on the pandemic have taken me. They will not stop there, I know, because once you start thinking about democracy you wind up thinking about human beings too, even if society is not made up of people. But that surely is enough for today.

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