COVID-19’s reminder of our fragility

As I write this (May 8th, 2020), in the UK there are VE celebrations and commemorations going on, and we remind ourselves the debt we owe to the generation that fought in the Second World War. We hope we will never again have to engage in whole-society warfare against others again.

VE day is occurring this year in the context of COVID-19, with the UK still in lock-down and with 30,615 deaths we can directly attribute to the virus, but with the number of people who have died probably in the range of 10,000 higher if we look at excess mortality during the period since March. Those numbers are both numbing and terrifying.

What the virus reminds of us is our fragility. Scientists are working flat-out to understand the virus, but we are still some distance from understanding the risks that involves, or why it affects particular groups as it seems to.

However, I think there is a bigger point about our fragility here as well. With all our ingenuity, our ability to make and remake our environment, and our advances in scientific understanding, we might sometimes believe we have reached a point where we can control our world and bend it to our will. The virus reminds us that is not the case. No matter how far our scientific understanding advanced, the world will always elude us to at least some extent. To quote Boltanksi, ‘while we can construct the project of knowing and representing reality, the design of describing the world, in what would be its entirety, is not within anyone’s grasp’ (On Critique, pp. 57-58).

We construct realities based on our knowledge of the world and through our powers to intervene in it. We can impose our will to some extent, through advancing scientific understandings and technologies that would have appeared miraculous to those who fought in World War 2. But the realities that we can create can never fully capture and control the world.

COVID-19 is so threatening because it is eluding us. We cannot yet create a reality that holds it sufficiently in place for us to impose our will upon it. We don’t know if it is safe to leave lock-down, or when it will be. We don’t know if there will be a vaccine. We don’t know for sure, if we fall ill with the virus, whether we will be able to generate antibodies which will make us immune in the future. We are fragile before the virus.

But in reminding us of our fragility, it reminds us that, for all we have achieved, the reality that we have created does not capture or control the world. And the world offers other challenges. In imposing our will upon nature, the risk of weather and tidal patterns changing and overwhelming us grows more prescient as the years go by. Similarly to the scientists who warned the UK government that we were not ready for a pandemic, we are not ready for climate change, and seem to still be doing little to try and prevent it. We can never control or fully understand the world, but we can do more to try and mitigate against the loss of human life that we now see so clearly can result from our own limitations.

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