Brad Evans is a Professor in Political Violence in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.

Humanity is at a cross-roads. One path leads to a lasting authoritarianism that's driven by technological fetishisation. The other path to a new planetary awakening, which brings us closer together and leads better political, ethical and spiritual relations amongst the world’s people. The former is driven by the politics of fear, the latter by a commitment to each other that shows the best of what humanity is capable of. The past few weeks have revealed to us how catastrophes are not simply a challenge for governments and societies. They reveal most fully what’s already broken. It’s not like we haven’t imagined these types of global pandemics before. Hollywood has been awash with presenting them to us for nearly two decades.

What is remarkable is how many people have been willing to accept the new conditions of global lockdown. While necessary, it’s also providing a certain immunisation to things that can so easily become normalised. And yet people do resist what they find patently intolerable. That would certainly be the case if governments imposed indefinite draconian measures that appeared to be unjustified. But that is very different from saying that people will do whatever it takes to help one another in times of crisis. Indeed, as the truly beautiful and heart-rendering example of Chinese then Italians singing to each other from their balconies has already shown, there is a marked difference between forms of directly physical as opposed to social distancing.

Despite all the warnings, what seemed to be an overriding concern for countries, notably the United Kingdom and United States, was how we might carry on with life as if it was business as usual. It seems our societies are incapable of stopping. We have no contingency in place for putting things on hold. This is now proving to be our social and philosophical undoing.

The comparisons with 9/11 here are striking. The magnitude of the event has overwhelmed us. But unlike then, this is not a war (though the metaphorical allusion to an “invisible enemy” remains), and unlike then, we now have the time to reflect, time in fact seems to be all we have right now.

Global crises do have a way of making us all come face to face with conditions of vulnerability and our interconnectivity to one another. As we therefore start to feel increasingly anxious about our health, food security, sanitation and our desires to live free from danger, is it not time to better understand and empathise with those for whom this virus would simply be yet another chapter in the normalisation of anxiety and insecurity experienced on a daily basis?   

So, what might an alternative approach look like? A good start would be to consider the remarkably humane example shown by Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp, who reflecting on how the pandemic would affect his team’s chances of lifting the Premier League for the first time in nearly 30 years, responded by saying that he would give up the title in a second if a single life could be saved. This is precisely the kind of ethical leadership the world needs moving forward. 

If there are two things, we can take from this crisis it is that major changes in our lifestyle are actually not beyond us, and that ultimately the artificial construct of borders are largely irrelevant. I am also reminded here by the philosopher Simon Critchley who continually asks us to demand the impossible. What seems unimaginable in one moment can actually enter into our collective consciousness. So, here are a few possible suggestions we can make, which would allow us to take the more humane path and steer history in an alternative direction.

  1. Let’s use the crisis to recognise we all share this planet together and everything each of us does has an impact upon our neighbours. This could lead to the opening of all borders and in the spirit of global cooperation.
  2. Despite the language, lets resist at every opportunity the narratives of war. This only paves the way to the normalisation of militarism, which can also have devastating political consequences.
  3. While technology has been helpful in allowing us to connect in times of separation, we need to be continually vigilant to increased surveillance and to those who argue these measures could become a more permanent basis for human interaction, which proves truly invasive into our daily lives and so detrimental to meaningful relations across society.
  4. We need have a global commitment on food insecurity and social wellbeing in our societies. This means accounting for the lived reality of insecurity many faces on a daily basis. The marker of our societies should not be measured in wealth, but how we treat the most vulnerable.
  5. As a society we should be now ever increasingly appreciative of the equally important role of both science and the arts in this world. While we hope the science may protect us, it is the arts we also turn to from music, poetry, literature, film and paintings to help us make sense of the emotions we feel and make us feel human again. But we need a more concerted programme for research and development into these areas to combat decades of underfunding, so the power of education can be truly mobilised. And what a better opportunity than right now to insist upon universal and free education for all. 
  6. And arguably most of all, we need to tackle directly the desperate problem of isolation many would have been living through in their homes or on the streets were it not for the lock-down. We can only defeat this virus together. That alone should instigate a lasting approach to deal with loneliness and alienation, especially amongst the elderly in our societies.

Critics will already be shouting here about this idealism and how we pay for all this in the long run? The answer is simple. The demilitarisation of planet. If you trade in life and death because they have equal value and profitability, then you are now clearly on the wrong side of history. What’s needed is a revolution in how we think and relate to the world. A truly radical and compassionate rethink that is driven by the politics of community, decency and human dignity.

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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: COVID-19, Culture and policy, Political ideologies, Security and defence, UK politics

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