Surviving the Plague Planet: Institutions Lose Control of the Future

AP Photo/Peter Dejong

As a second coronavirus wave menaces Europe, its weary population prepares to meet it anew. “After successfully tamping down the first surge of infection and death, Europe is now in the middle of a second coronavirus wave as it moves into winter — raising questions over what went so wrong.” The disease they thought was down has risen from the canvas.


Daily case numbers in the European Union and United Kingdom this week reached record highs of more than 45,000 on a 14-day notification rate… and new restrictions are being imposed in places that were well into reopening. Leaders have raised fears over the pressure that hospitals could face in coming months and the looming prospect of new national lockdowns.

The virus isn’t tired but people are. British politician Daniel Hannan argues that governments that psychologically prepared their publics for a short shutdown should brace them for a long one.

The goal has now explicitly changed from “flatten the curve” to “suppress until someone finds a vaccine”. OK, fair enough. But how would have we reacted in March had we been told that that was the aim, and that the closures might last for a year or more?

How long till the world returns to “normal” is unknown. The BBC writes that “a vaccine would normally take years, if not decades, to develop. Researchers hope to achieve the same amount of work in only a few months … Most experts think a vaccine is likely to become widely available by mid-2021, about 12-18 months after the new virus … That would be a huge scientific feat, and there are no guarantees it will work.”

But even a vaccine will not dispel the fear that another pandemic may follow. “Experts have warned that the COVID-19 pandemic might just be one in a series of increasingly frequent viral outbreaks, as the human species enters what they describe as ‘a pandemic era’” caused by the grating of man against nature.

Anthony Fauci, leading US immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and David Morens, a medical epidemiologist at NIAID, predict that widespread outbreaks of diseases and epidemics will only accelerate over the coming years as populations grow, societies expand and deforestation increases.


That’s assuming the coronavirus is not artificial in origin to begin with. Some allege it is lab-made. “Li-Meng Yan, the Chinese virologist who has been in hiding in the US after claiming that the Chinese authorities not only knew about the novel coronavirus long before the first cases were officially reported in Wuhan last December but who has also suggested Covid-19 was created in a Chinese military laboratory.” Since we are only at the dawn of bioweaponry, what horrors may lurk in labs around the world?

All courses are fraught with potential unforeseen consequences.  Even climate change programs are essentially proposals to change by massive political human intervention the damage ascribed to massive human intervention. Known as geoengineering, it too could go wrong despite expert assurances. “Human intervention with the climate system has long been viewed as an ill-advised and risky step to slow global warming. But with carbon emissions soaring, initiatives to study and develop geoengineering technologies are gaining traction as a potential last resort.”

Noam Chomsky, in a moment of self-doubt over whether man could control his own destiny, complained that “intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation.” Stuck in a complex universe he could never completely understand, man’s cleverness can become a danger to himself. Chomsky wrote:

Ernst Mayr, the grand old man of American biology … pointed out that if you take a look at biological success … as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful. By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects. By the time you get to humans, the origin of humans may be 100,000 years ago, there is a very small group. We are kind of misled now because there are a lot of humans around, but that’s a matter of a few thousand years, which is meaningless from an evolutionary point of view. His argument was, you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation.


Perhaps the greatest psychological effect of what Nick Couldry and Bruce Schneier called the “unrelenting horizonlessness of the Covid world” is the loss of confidence in the omnipotence of human institutions.

Six months into the pandemic with no end in sight, many of us have been feeling a sense of unease that goes beyond anxiety or distress … not just from not knowing when it will all end, but also from not knowing what that end will look like. Perhaps the sharpest insight into this feeling has come from Jonathan Zecher, a historian of religion, who linked it to the forgotten Christian term: acedia. …

In 2013, philosopher Samuel Scheffler explored a core assumption about death. We all assume that there will be a future world that survives our particular life, a world populated by people roughly like us, including some who are related to us or known to us. Though we rarely or acknowledge it, this presumed future world is the horizon towards which everything we do in the present is oriented.

But what, Scheffler asked, if we lose that assumed future world — because, say, we are told that human life will end on a fixed date not far after our own death? Then the things we value would start to lose their value. Our sense of why things matter today is built on the presumption that they will continue to matter in the future, even when we ourselves are no longer around to value them. …

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future,many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless.

The phrase “we can no longer trust in the future” sums up the despair which replaced a hubris at its most buoyant at the turn of the century. In reality, that future was never “ours” to lose; man’s position in the universe was always tenuous. “More than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over 5 billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to have died out.” What Chomsky realized is we were never in control, an idea that would have seemed obvious to our neolithic ancestors but shocking to a 20th-century ideologue conditioned to believe in Five Year Plans and disabused of his illusions by the virus.


Acedia has acquired particular deadliness because modern elites have forgotten its traditional antidote: faith. We are helpless against despair. Perhaps nowhere in recent history has confidence in human purpose been so completely low as during the Second World War.  Particularly dramatic was the experience of European Jews, many of whom went directly from prosperity to the hell of Nazi concentration camps. One such individual was a doctor, Victor Frankl.

In 1942, Frankl and his parents, wife, and brother were arrested and sent to the Thereisienstadt concentration camp; Frankl’s father died there within six months. Over the course of three years, Frankl was moved between four concentration camps, including Auschwitz where his brother died and his mother was killed. Frankl’s wife died at Bergen-Belsen.

Their whole world collapsed. Reflecting on how some men survived while others descended into apathy, moral deformity, and despair, Frankl recalled the words of Nietzche: “he who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” As he went to dig ditches in the frozen ground, Frankl recalled finding his Why:

Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. …

I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. “Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”


The question is whether a civilization disillusioned with health bureaucrats, soured on models, and weary of lockdowns can rediscover the motivation which kept their forefathers going. Faith is perhaps the greatest survival mechanism the human race has ever invented and we have misplaced it. Yet only by willing to go on without assurances do we stand the slightest chance of making it. Not to the old world since, just as the pre-WW2 world would never return any more than the free and easy air travel in the days before 9/11, time moves. But to a place where we can live and thrive again.

There are no guarantees in life, just the vague the intuition that we exist not merely as lethal mutations. That does not put an end to fear; but it does allow us to overcome it.  As Frankl put it, “the crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore—except his God.”

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