The arrière-pensée at the back of our minds is just one thing – When will it end? But it will not end. It is reasonable to see the unfinished epidemics across Europe as announcing a new age of deep ecological troubles. The crisis will linger long after the cure. We need to release ourselves from the image of a single clear peak after which normal life returns.
What makes waiting for the end of the pandemic so unbearable is that even if a full-fledged catastrophe fails to materialize, things drag on. What we can learn from the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer is that the end is never final. As the camera works to record and reveal a limitless reality, the watcher can at once experience life in all of its uncertainties and simultaneously imagine a way to go on. Even Deckard, in “Blade Runner”, must ponder whether he is a replicant or a human in the end.
The ending is never the end because it partakes in the “flow of life.” The end always marks our hidden desire for indestructability. Our search to find something of necessity in our condition. As Alenka Zupančič puts it, the problem with the end of the world is the same as with Fukuyama’s end of history: the end itself doesn’t end, we just get stuck in an unnatural fantasy of fixity. And inside this immobility, every hope for a quick exit fades faster than the lockdowns that lengthen.
There are immense, almost unimaginable troubles ahead. Millions of newly jobless people. Greta’s Extinction Rebellion will accelerate. People without internet will languish in epistemic poverty. Surveillance incarceration will invade intelligent life. An emerging cognitive underclass will arise from the inequity of on-line classrooms. A creative class will rise. Remote work will be reserved for the elite who flourish in a no-touch future. Cash-free commerce will erode privacy. Ethnic and gender discrimination will lurk beneath hollow algorithms. Persons exposed to toxic waste, continuous flooding, polluted air, dirty water, and the clumping of other burdens in ‘sacrifice zones’ will demand reparations and environmental justice.
The Black Lives Matter movement will colour pedagogy and schools will learn that children use Arabic Numerals in mathematics. Judges will capsize every midnight regulation towards a police state. Spatial inequality in the provision of healthcare will ignite Bernie Saunders’ Medicare-for-all. The thirsty must pay the market price to drink wholesome water. No subsidy for water anymore. No subsidy on fuel.
“Prepaid electricity” works including “block tariffs” will require everyone to go on-line and pay for power as you go. Those unable to pay for electricity will live in economic and epistemic darkness. The impact of school closures on GDP remains uncalculated. In the UK, before the reopening of school this September, children spent an average of 2.5 hours a day on schoolwork, with 71% of state school children receiving no more than just one on-line lesson each day.
Countries that persist in prejudice and pettiness without plans to take every living soul beyond the bend in the river will fail. Cities reduced to ruins after proxy wars will supplicate to their overlords in the Black Mirror world. Those trapped inside these slum-states will remain disconnected from the Belt and Road. Others will be invaded for lithium, gold and rare earth metals. Countries that never made food security a priority will cultivate and consume genetically modified grain. Organic will have a first-class price tag. The effects of the COVID-crisis will drag under companies without the shelter of a post-COVID legislative framework for hibernation, bankruptcy and insolvency. But this doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless. A new way of life will have to be invented.
The strangest truth is that even the scientists seem to know very little about how pandemics work. With tiny data sets that cannot produce even a straight line, some speak of flattening the curve. This is the new mathematics of pandemics. And authorities offer continuous contradictory advice. We are instructed to self-isolate to avert viral contamination. But as infection numbers fall, we fear that isolation only makes us more vulnerable during a second wave. Now the knowledgeable are asking governments to lift the lockdowns. But President Macron announced night curfews for four weeks from Saturday in Paris and other major cities, affecting almost one-third of France’s 67 million citizens. We are back to square one. We want a vaccine but worry about immunity from new strains. With new cases hitting about 100,000 daily, Europe has by a wide margin overtaken the United States, where more than 51,000 COVID-19 infections are reported on average every day.
Less and less in the West, we accept death as part of our life. We see it as something we can even postpone once we prosper. So every morning, we recite the mantra of numbers: how many new infections, how many full recoveries, how many new deaths. These ghastly numbers help us to ignore the larger numbers dying of other horrible diseases. We miss altogether that outside of the virus, it’s not just life, but there is also dying and death. When will it end?