written by Laura Poiret
While China is just getting back on its feet from what was and still is one of the biggest sanitary crisis and epidemic of its history, the virus prettily-named Covid-19 has now found a new outbreak in Europe. We did not think that this situation could be possible in our democratic and developed societies and yet, this is happening. We feel like we are living inside a futuristic novel, or even a dystopia. What we, young Europeans, didn’t think would ever happen during our lifetime, is yet happening: freedom, the main feature of our societies, is now deeply restricted; the borders our parents and grand parents abolished are now closed again; forces of order are in the streets to control our every move; but, most of all, science, which we thought was more developed than ever at this point of the history of mankind, is actually failing us. This crisis is therefore way more than just a sanitary crisis. It is also an economic, political, and social crisis – all in all, a human crisis. Apart from being rightly anxious, it is interesting for us now to observe our societies. The Occident seems to be facing a wall, that would have appeared suddenly and which, in the hurry, is forcing it to rethink its whole way of working, of existing.
The first characteristic of the globalized societies that the Covid-19 has put into question is the economic model, both capitalist and global. When the sanitary crisis first struck the “factory of the world”, but also one of the most powerful economies of the planet, it is not only a city, not even a country, but the whole world which suffered the consequences. Trade and production were slowed down, sometimes even to a critical point. Then, when Europe and other important actors of the global economy, like the USA or Iran, were touched in turn, what has been observed in China happened to them too, but on an even bigger scale. Up to that moment, the world’s most important stock markets had already been weakened in February, before crashing repeatedly as the virus outbroke in Europe and US. There was a “black Monday” the 9th of March; and another crash on the 12th of March. On March, the 9th, The European and American stock markets recorded their worse performance since the economic crisis of 2008. On March, the 12th, the Paris stock market index, the “CAC 40”, and the Milan FTSE MIB recorded the worst decline of their history, respectively -12.3% and -16.92% The German index, “DAX”, followed closely (-11.4%). The Wall Street Stock Exchange stopped twice for fifteen minutes, before reaching on the 16th of March its worst day since 1987. The financial crisis has required the intervention of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank which announced extraordinary plans to provide liquidity to the financial system and to appease the markets. However, the financial instability persists and further economic measures from US government, EU and the other European countries will soon follow. All of that added to disagreements between Russia and Iran on the oil prices, created a very strained and anxious atmosphere in the whole world. The question we are now facing in this economic crisis (which is probably only beginning), is about the legitimacy of this system, in which we live and on which we rely. How can we keep providing each individual with the bare necessities, when we rely on a worldwide trading system that is temporarily amputated? The lack of national, or even continental resources and the inability of States to produce some materials without relying on other countries ; added to a consumer society that is used to have access to any existing food or object within easy reach, underlines clearly the limits of our current economic system. Numerous factories had to convert themselves in order to keep providing with the bare necessities that were lacking. This is the case of LVMH which turned many of its French sites into a fabric of production of hydroalcoholic gel, in short supply in France. But LVMH could do this only because it had the practical and financial resources to do it. In spite of everything, this whole situation demonstrates that, because we do not have any system of local production, trade or consumption, we are now stuck in a worrying situation, provoked by an international crisis. The partial failure of the current system is even more blatant that the very idea of producing and consuming locally has been promoted for a while now by ecologists and environment activists. It thus took a consequent sanitary crisis to put into question our global system and underline its limits – without putting an end to it. We can only hope to emerge from this crisis aware of those limits and ready to change them, or even to give it up if that is necessary.
Naturally, democracy is also suffering from the Covid-19 epidemic. This model of society, which highlights personal freedom, is now facing obvious difficulties. When the time came to count on civic-mindedness and individual responsibility to face this sanitary crisis, problems started. It was the case for Italians and Spanish, peoples so “external”, who were forced to stay stuck indoors – at first reluctantly resigning themselves to do so, thanks sometimes to preventive penitential measures. It was also the case in France, which tried to put back the confinement measures up to the last minute. But it finally came to it, when facing a crowd of French people who were sure they had all the rights to keep on moving freely. If we compare this situation to the one that took place a couple of months ago in China, an authoritarian country, we highlight the difficulties faced by the modern democracies to implement such drastic measures, which go against their values. Besides, in France, which was suffering since a few months from a crisis in its hospitals, this unprecedented epidemic is allowing doctors and hospital staff to finally be heard. Indeed, the epidemic is pointing out all the problems they were already reporting. They are now finally granted all of the government’s attention and we can only hope that this country will emerge stronger from this crisis: with a government which would have finally understood the importance of taking care of its health system; and which would have understood that a democratic society worthy of the name can not work if its doctors, nurses and nursing assistants are suffering.
The third distinctive element of modern societies that is put into question because of this historical sanitary crisis, is, of course, scientific progress. The occidental Man from the 21st century, who comes from a society built on technological and scientific advances, probably had a too strong tendency to think he/she is invincible. Reinforced by medical advances and born in a complete comfort thanks to technological advances, he/she is now like violently slapped on the face. What he/she thought was possible only in Africa (still at war against Ebola) or in Asia – all in all, only in developing countries – has eventually come to him/her as well: a pandemic that may kill him/her. Let him/her be reassured: this generation won’t be the last, and most of us will get by fine, safe and sound. But this is an ancestral fear that springs back up, that of a combat against an invisible enemy, against which we cannot fight because we do not have the right weapons. It is the fear to die, or to see our loved ones die, and not to be able to do anything against it. Feeling immensely helpless. Finally, it is about feeling ourselves as bodies before anything else, even though we try so hard to convince ourselves that we are only made of souls. This is about feeling ourselves as bodies, and being aware more than ever of our bodies’ limits and weaknesses. The occidental Man of the 21st century should thus emerge from that epidemic as a reborn Man, will it be regarding his/her relationship to Science, but also to his/her own identity.
Eventually, last but not least element challenged by the pandemic is free movement. That principle is at the core of the European Union’s values. It has already been jeopardized those past few years by the migration crisis, true challenge of modern Europe and USA, and by the resurgence of nationalisms. However, it is now completely call into question, as many States are barricading themselves. This will be one of the biggest challenge of this sanitary crisis for the “Old Continent”: prove that closing the borders is not a long-term solution, and that it should not, under no circumstances, divide us – on the contrary, we should unite to fight against this common enemy.