Until the sudden protests erupted across the Western world following the death of George Floyd, it felt like corona would never end. The novel virus was an everlasting feature of every conversation, overhanging every decision of how to spend weekends, summer travels or gym time, jammed into every section of our private and public lives. How to care for kids while remote working. How to see loved ones while in lockdown. How to make urgently-needed income when some governor deemed your employer’s – and thus your – services “unessential.”
The new normal.
I bet you still remember that time, just a few weeks ago. Everything operated on slightly different rules: there was one thing that mattered politically, personally, professionally. Every conflict and every conversation was about how to address and understand the pandemic: who bears the cost, who deserves more funds from the government’s endlessly open purse, how best to implement stimulus packages, improve supply chains to overflowing hospitals, and protect front-line workers. What actions and responsibilities we should all individually take – isolating ourselves in our homes, washing our hands and wearing masks in supermarkets, not visiting the elderly and so on.
Sure, there were some stubborn detractors as frequently discussed at AIER and the occasional editorial at the Wall Street Journal, skeptically asking about the efficacy of the policies or whether the cure was not worse than the (comparatively) mild disease: did lockdowns really help, or do they even do anything that civil society would not have done anyway? How could the initial science get things so unfathomably wrong? And why has the virus spared certain places and demographics but clamped down on others? Editorials were filled with corona talking points, and that hypnotizing number count on the side of every news broadcast drove us all mad with fear and rage and worry.
Then George Floyd happened, and brashly awoke us from our temporary spell of madness. And the pent-up anger of millions of people across the world showed itself. Social distancing didn’t matter anymore. Sitting, standing, and jumping on top of each other was suddenly fine. Bans on large gatherings that were in operation in most countries have routinely been ignored. Naturally, police forces and their leadership were somewhat reluctant to violently break up protests, partly over police brutality.
In the early days of the pandemic I remember some podcaster or media host complaining that the problems of things we usually fight over – climate change, inequality, job security, health care provision, trade wars – don’t go away, but are merely swept under the rug.
This we found out the hard way. The protests we’re seeing now are a clear backlash to the misery governments forcibly subjected its populace to since March; for this the protesters deserve lots of praise. For all our political and moral differences during normal times, we can at least rally against the excesses of a militarized police force.
What’s so refreshing about this is the perspective it yields. A reporter eager to connect the new normal with these even-newer events asked a protester last weekend if he worried about the spread of the virus: “Yes,” the protester answered calmly and matter-of-factly, “corona kills and it’s a risk we’re taking. But institutionalized racism kills too.” The “disease of covid,” remarks another protester, “is just as deadly as the disease of racism.”
We might debate the factual merits of those statements, but they remain refreshing and remarkably balanced in a year that has lost track of both. Of course, a cynic like me doubts that protesters accomplish much by standing around and shouting slogans, but at least a modicum of common sense had returned. For a few days, the headlines of newspapers like the New York Times were covered with stories about racism, police brutality, and the protests; today, sadly, it looks like it’s mostly back to corona-watching.
Rather than obsessing over corona to the exclusion of all else like we had for four months, these remarkably eloquent protesters stumbled upon a much deeper truth that most media outlets have yet to incorporate: balanced trade-offs matter. Life is not lived risk-free, and a risk-free life is probably not worth living. We all take risks in our everyday lives: we cross the street, we drive to town, we trade with strangers, we drink raw milk. We take one action rather than another in trying to reach competing aims. All of those elements involve risk; all of those elements involve passing over one thing in order to advance another.
We can be afraid and have respect for a novel virus of pandemic proportions and still realize that other things matter too – perhaps more so than a disease that seems to tread very lightly on the young and the otherwise healthy.
Halfway through the pandemic I longed for any news or academic debate that did not include the virus. Here and there, I found some. Still, the best advice since mid-March has been to zoom out, to turn – Nassim Taleb-style – to novels that have withstood the test of time, like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Those more inclined to make sense of our strange times might have opted for Robert Higgs’ marvelous Crisis and Leviathan; though non-fiction and only some 30 years old, it might still qualify as an eerie reminder of the long-run interplay between government and freedom.
Already before the pandemic the always-great Deirdre McCloskey suggested presciently that we should drop out from petty politics and instead read Moby Dick. Editors at the Financial Times provided us with their literary favorites. I didn’t fully follow these erudite scholars’ great advice: I opted for Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday for a glimpse of how rapidly a state of prosperous human affairs can unravel. Zweig, a Jewish author in pre-war Vienna, fled the Nazis several times and ended up in Brazil where, at the height of World War II, he took his life in despair over how far the Western world had deteriorated.
Nevertheless I remain hopeful that next time we’re faced with some society-wide calamity – real or imagined – we may keep our wits with us. We might, as the protesters I heard on the radio, remember that other things matter too, that one type of risk must be balanced by the harms of another, that risk-mitigating policies be proportionate to the damage, that few things warrant the wholesale closing of commerce and civil society.
Next time, we might deal with a disaster in a more balanced way than we have in the spring of 2020.