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A Failure of the Imagination – COVID-19 and Catastrophe

“I have published these words in order to prevent them from becoming true. If we do not stubbornly keep in mind the strong probability of the disaster, and if we do not act accordingly, we will be unable to find a way out. There is nothing more frightful than to be right.—And if some, paralyzed by the gloomy likelihood of the catastrophe, have already lost courage, they still have a chance to prove their love of man by heeding the cynical maxim: ‘Let’s go on working as though we had the right to hope. Our despair is none of our business.’” – Günther Anders

 

One

It was a relatively simple suggestion: stock up your pantry with two weeks’ worth of food.

When that advisory went out in mid-March, to the extent that it was taken seriously, it was met with a mixture of anxiety and cautious optimism. After all, two weeks is a manageable and understandable amount of time. Certainly, there were some photographs that circulated heavily online depicting empty grocery store shelves, and people leaving bulk stores with dozens and dozens of rolls of toilet paper, but preparing for two weeks seemed acceptable. Granted, in mid-March (at least in the US) the Coronavirus COVID-19 public health crisis still seemed like it was under control, and though few went about it happily, the idea of everyone staying in for two weeks in order to flatten that nefarious curve felt entirely plausible. Thus, in mid-March people hunkered down with the expectation that by the time their two weeks’ of supplies were exhausted they’d be able to return to a world that looked pretty much like the world they had left.

But those mid-March days of early self-isolation now feel like they were a lifetime ago.

More accurately, and at risk of being crass, they were some 75,665 lifetimes ago. And that is only the latest figure as of this writing, as of your reading it is undoubtedly higher. Furthermore as official death counts in disasters have a tendency to undercount the number of deaths, you can look at that tragic number and feel confident that the actual number is even worse. And it is worth remembering that those numbers occurred even as hundreds of millions of people obeyed the directives to stay inside in order to help blunt the speed of the virus’s spread.

Mid-March was a very long time ago. And though it genuinely seems like the efforts to flatten the curve were having a real impact (there’s a reason the numbers in April weren’t even worse), it seems like many figures in  the US government are eager to re-open things even though this crisis is far from over. Recent articles based on a CDC report that the Trump administration has been privy to, suggests that there could be in the order of 200,000 daily cases by June with a daily death toll of nearly 3,000 each day.

While 200,000 and 3,000 are galling and horrific numbers, it is worth approaching them with a slight degree of skepticism. Not because these numbers are ridiculous and this whole thing is a hoax (the numbers are not ridiculous, and this is most assuredly not a hoax), but because as wretched as those figures are, they do not represent the worst case scenario.

Alas, it could be much worse that 200,000 new cases and 3,000 deaths a day.

 

Two

The belief that things can, and will, get better is a fairly widespread sentiment.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that “better” will happen automatically or easily, and it also doesn’t mean that all people have a common definition of what “better” looks like. Nevertheless, this attitude towards the future is both quite widespread and generally encouraged. It is the perspective that permeates the vast majority of our cultural forms ranging from mass culture (where the hero always wins) to mass politics (where the politicians of your side assure you they’ll make your future better). The exact shape of the projected future remains shrouded in mystery, but the outlines can still be seen, and it looks like an improved version of today. Few people will challenge you if you express the opinion that things are going to get better, the most pushback you’ll likely receive is someone commenting that things won’t just get better without some effort. Of course, there are certain words that sometimes get thrown about to tarnish the overly optimistic such as Pangloss or Pollyanna (the most vicious being an accusation of naivete), but one seldom hears these epithets (and when they are heard the accuser can usually be laughed off). Few people ever get ostracized for declaring themselves to be optimists.

The belief that things can, and will, get worse is an unpopular sentiment.

Expressing such an opinion is a quick and simple way to find yourself exiled from polite and from most political conversations. Pessimists, after all, make bad party guests. Such grim opinions can be amusing at first, but people quickly tire of these bleak premonitions. A foreboding perspective is easily caricatured, and with it the one who voiced it. Here the exact shape of the future also remains shrouded in mystery, but the outlines can still be seen, and they look either like the ruins of today or like the austere architecture of authoritarianism. Of course we know that there are sad songs and bleak books, but only a fool would build a worldview around them (and anyone who does would surely deserve to be mocked). Should you suggest too ardently the belief that things will get worse, you’ll be slandered for your willful disregard of all the signs of improvement all around the world – beyond the material comforts that you enjoy, you’ll be reminded of a mountain of statistical evidence that can be trotted out that should conclusively demonstrate that people today are better off than people were 273 years ago. There are multiple thesauri filled with mocking words to hurl at those who are deemed unacceptably pessimistic: prophet of doom, chicken little, doomsayer, self-flagellator, doomer, Jonah, Cassandra, boy who cries wolf, troglodyte, technophobe, and the list could go on. Keep in mind, “pessimist” is usually hurled as an insult, while “optimist” is generally a badge of defiant honor.

Yet, at risk of being tarred with a lengthy list of epithets, looking at the world at the moment it certainly seems that things can, and will get worse. Of course, the dominant view is still “we’ll get through this, and then things will get better” – but even those who always articulate this view seem rather shaken at the moment.

 

Three

What the COVID-19 crisis has revealed is the extent to which an enforced cultural bias to believe that “things will get better” has left us unprepared (mentally and emotionally) for a situation in which things keep getting worse. After all, it’s easy to stock up on two weeks of extra supplies when you’ve been assured that “things will get better” after those two weeks, but it is quite another thing to put on a mask and gloves to return to the grocery store in the midst of a crisis with no end in sight (and to fear the entire time you’re at the store that you might get sick as a result of having needed to buy food).

To believe that “things will get better” is to have faith in the future, but having such faith requires having a reliable mental image of what that future will look like, and this crisis has lit that image on fire. Tens of thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have gotten sick, and you and yours may be included in those bleak numbers before this is all over. Millions have lost their jobs, millions have lost their health insurance, millions are facing total destitution, and you and yours may be included in those bleak numbers before this is all over. Many people have lived modest lives guided by carefully thought-out decisions in pursuit of reasonable future goals, but that future for which many had been patiently preparing, no longer exists. And those in positions of power can’t even seem to be bothered to spin an appealing fantasy for their worried constituents. Indeed, insofar as a political vision is being put forth by the political parties right now (at least in the US) it seems to be a choice between austerity and authoritarianism. While the Trump administration certainly deserves the lion’s share of the blame for at every turn exacerbating this crisis, the conditions that have allowed for this crisis to be so catastrophic (precarious workers, structural racism, misogyny, inequality, a severely flawed healthcare system, misinformation, distrust of scientific expertise) have built up over decades. Yes, Trump may have been playing with matches, but he isn’t the only one who has spent the last several decades pouring gasoline all over everything.

The problem is that all of those factors that have been building up for so long, and which have helped make this crisis so catastrophic, have largely been ignored under the heading of “things will get better.” To be clear, that doesn’t mean that people pretended they didn’t exist. It simply means that they weren’t treated with much urgency either. Gradual progress, slow and steady, one step at a time, that was to be the way to handle those things – after all, “things will get better.” Certainly, structural racism is a problem…but, be patient, “things will get better.” Of course, the healthcare system could be better…but, be patient, “things will get better.” Sure, it’s unfortunate that so many have so little…but, be patient, “things will get better.” Yes, we know that we’re facing an accelerating environmental catastrophe…but, be patient, “things will get better.” But, to draw on the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel, “if not now, when?” The belief that “things will get better” cheats at responding to “when?” by pushing it constantly into some unknown point in the future. The crisis has been here for a long time, it just took a pandemic to force the cable networks to start seeing it.

This crisis is far from over. The virus is still running rampant (especially in the US), the predictions are that as things begin to reopen there will be more deaths and infections (which in turn will lead to more deaths and infections), and there has long been an expectation that the virus could likely resurge in the late fall/early winter. A vaccine is far away, and there is a vocal minority already treating such a vaccine as the mark of the beast. We’re fairly clearly in a recession and it seems like only a desire to not spook the markets is keeping us from calling it a depression (the market may be rebounding, but there are over 30 million people unemployed). There’s an election in November, but who knows exactly how it will occur if the virus resurges (there has not been a nearly sufficient push for universal vote by mail). And, alas, while all attention has been focused on the COVID-19 crisis the looming environmental catastrophe draws nearer and nearer.

At the present moment a defiant commitment to the belief that “things will get better” may really be the main thing keeping some people going. But given all that has happened, we are fooling ourselves if we aren’t seriously preparing for the much more likely scenario in which things keep getting worse.

 

Four

COVID-19 represents a failure of the imagination.

Indeed, to a certain extent, the same could be said of most crises and disasters. In order to properly prepare for something horrible, it is necessary to first envision the possibility of it occurring. It is then necessary to devote sufficient attention to this as to determine whether the danger is credible, and to act accordingly. Of course, we can imagine many disasters that are sufficiently farcical as to not merit much preparedness. Case in point, many of us are familiar with the idea of the “zombie apocalypse,” but even though we can easily imagine this (thanks largely to popular culture), few of us consider it to really be a credible threat. On the flip side consider something like a hurricane, we know they’re real, we know they can happen, we know that if the conditions are right they can cause horrific devastation – and yet, time and again, we fail to take the necessary steps to prepare for them.

Lest there be any confusion, it’s not that nobody could have imagined something closely akin to COVID-19. Of late, many media figures have been praising Bill Gates for a speech he gave several years ago in which he warned of the threat of something similar to COVID-19. Yet, while Gates deserves some credit, he was largely parroting the insights that had been circulating amongst epidemiologists, public health researchers, and disaster experts for quite some time (Mike Davis’s book on avian flu came out in 2005). Or to put it another way, people have been able to imagine something much like this disaster for some time, but it was not enough to generate a real preparatory response. The proof of this is in how ill-prepared the US was for this crisis. The imagined disaster was deemed too imaginary. And, of course, this makes a certain kind of sense – politicians are also infected with the belief that “things will get better” and they tend to see little political gain in preparing for worst case scenarios that may never come to pass.

COVID-19 is not a failure of the imagination because nobody imagined it, it is a failure of the imagination because not enough people took it seriously.

The great social critic and philosopher of impending doom, Günther Anders coined a term (in German) that perfectly encapsulates the issue: “Apokalypseblindheit” which translates roughly to “blindess towards the apocalypse” (or “apocalypse blinders”). For Anders the problem was that people refused to genuinely see the potential for catastrophic disaster, and as they failed (or refused) to see it, they were unable (and unwilling) to take the necessary steps. Granted, Anders was not talking about a pandemic, he was most concerned with the cataclysmic threat posed by nuclear weapons – and much of his writing about impending doom is couched explicitly in commentary on “the atomic age.” To Anders (and many of the thinkers in his milieu) the focus on the threat of apocalyptic disaster, and the belief that people could ignore that threat until it was too late, was based on personal experience – as a German Jew, Anders knew that apocalyptic destruction was not merely a topic for scholarly reverie. Out of the experience of the Holocaust, Anders was compelled to fight against the “blindness towards the apocalypse,” to force open the eyes of those around himself to make them see that the threat was very real. Contrary to the belief that there was nothing to fear, Anders insisted that people were not nearly frightened enough, for if they recognized the true scale of the threat they would be doing everything in their power to make sure the grim possibility was not even allowed to be a possibility. And Anders work was punctuated by a common trope around those who get derided as “prophets of doom” – he expressed time and again the hope that he would be proven wrong, but felt that the only way that would happen is if people stopped stumbling about with blinders that prevented them from seeing the dangers all around them.

Anders was just one particular person, whose dark worldview was informed by particular harrowing experiences, and his writing style is infused with a general sense of moral outrage. In his time Anders was derided as a “doomsayer,” and he is little known or remembered today (especially in the English speaking world) – his legacy is most clearly seen in his influence on various better known intellectuals (Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman both draw frequently on Anders’s work). Yet, it would be unwise to dismiss of Anders’s comments on blindness towards the apocalypse. Indeed, if you dig into the scholarship around disasters you will see echoes of Anders’s thought time and again. Indeed, something that frequently appears in disaster scholarship is the extent to which disasters have happened not because nobody could have seen the danger coming, but because too few people took the threat seriously enough. A society that celebrates technological solutions, fixates on progress, and maligns those who raise the specter of risks tends not to be prepared for disasters. After all, such a society treats disasters as horrific events that breach normality, rather than recognizing that an expectation of disasters needs to be folded into normality (and therefore more needs to be done to prepare).

Why did the US not better prepare for COVID-19? For the same reason it did not better prepare for Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy, or Hurricane Maria – and for the same reason why the US is not doing more to prepare for climate change. Because we cannot imagine that the catastrophe is really going to happen. The inability, or refusal, to believe that the worst can genuinely happen, means that one will not bother to take the steps to prevent, or prepare, for that eventuality.

It was not too difficult to see something like COVID-19 coming. What was too difficult was believing that it could really happen.

Apokalypseblindheit.

 

Five

Insofar as this crisis is not over, and this crisis is most assuredly not over, it is necessary for all of us to adjust our expectations. And this adjustment requires us to put aside the comfort of “things will get better” in favor of the constant chafing of “things can, and probably will, get worse.” The reason for doing this is twofold. First, because this assessment will help us to think through the types of actions and preparations that are necessary to make it through the crisis. To be clear this is in no way shape or form to endorse a “prepper” mentality of a fully-stocked doomsday bunker (one of the other important lessons from disaster scholarship is that overcoming a disaster requires mutual aid more than self-reliance), but it is to make you think about the future in darkly tinted glasses. And part of this also involves pushing those in positions of power and authority to take more dramatic actions to assist people in need as this crisis intensifies. When you hear elected officials declaring that there’s good news, as much as you may want to believe them, go see what the actual experts are saying. The second point, is that thinking about the worst can help prepare you mentally and emotionally for when the worst arrives. We are in for a very difficult summer, followed by an even more difficult fall, which in turn will quite possibly be followed by a catastrophic winter. And you need to be steeling yourself for that possibility.

In such bleak times holding faith that “things will get better” can be a powerful way to keep yourself afloat. Yet preparing for the worst does not mean that one must don sackcloth, whip yourself, and sing funeral dirges from dawn to dusk.

Hope, after all, is not the same as optimism. In the dark times, hope is more important than ever, but what one needs to be wary of is optimism.

Optimism searches for, and finds, a silver lining in every funeral pyre and then fixates on that to the exclusion of the funeral pyre itself. It is confidence that “things will get better” based more deeply on a commitment to seeing the bright side than based on the actual state of the world. Hope, on the contrary, is not the belief that “things will get better” but the belief that “things can get better.” To be hopeful is not to be certain that things will improve, it is to refuse to accept that this is as good as it can get. If optimism says “this is the best of all possible worlds,” and pessimism retorts, “you’re right” – it is hope that responds to both by saying “a better world is possible.”

That doesn’t mean it will be easy to reach that better world, that doesn’t mean such a world can come into being without significant effort, and it also doesn’t mean that such a better world will ever actually come into being – but to hold onto hope is to remember that things do not have to be this way. However, to recognize that things do not have to be as bad as they are, you first need to be willing to fully consider how bad things are, and how much worse things can get.

It is alright to be angry and afraid right now. In truth, we should all probably be a good deal angrier and significantly more frightened. We need to expand our imaginations as we look at this crisis and genuinely come to terms with just how bad things probably will get.

But even as we brace ourselves for the worst, and brace ourselves we must, we need to remind ourselves that it does not have to be this way.

 

Related Content

The End of the World?

“The Attempt to Keep Conscience Alive”

In Defense of Jonah

Towards a Productive Pessimism

Why Don’t You Go Live in a Cave? When Technophiles cry Troglodyte

 

About Z.M.L

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on “A Failure of the Imagination – COVID-19 and Catastrophe

  1. John Yegge
    May 12, 2020

    I was so impressed with your article until Part Five. I don’t see how you can make the statement’ “this assessment will help us to think through the types of actions and preparations that are necessary to make it through the crisis” and then not endorse the “prepper mentality?” I don’t know who your disaster scholars are, but here is the lesson you need to learn about mutual aid; those that don’t have can’t provide mutual aid to those that also don’t have. Self-reliant people (preppers) have so they can take care of themselves, don’t require a government handout and can offer to others before and after the government fails to help those in need.

    Yes, all governments need to be better prepared for as much of any disaster as possible, but to expect that they will and are able will never happen. Where do you suppose the resources come from for the government to give? It comes from those who will need to receive. Another poorly run, cash strapped department squandering taxpayer money is not the ultimate answer. It costs us less to do for ourselves than what the government can provide.

    We need to do more to prepare than just think things will get better. “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

    I am a optimistic pessimist. I prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

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