Making sense in real time
Response and responsibility
Autumn is expiring in the Northern Hemisphere, the cold of winter is more noticeable in the air. The end of the year approaches, as does the second anniversary of what has become one of the biggest social experiments the world has collectively embarked on. When the pandemic has finished, and ‘normality’ - what precisely that is - has fully reasserted itself, as it surely will, I wonder whether our histories will be able to adequately capture how precisely odd it has all been.
Now a new variant appears, suddenly Omicron becomes a word we instantly recognise. Early during the pandemic, people were collectively rather slow to respond. There was this comfortable confidence - arrogance perhaps - that what was happening there was because of mistakes they had made, but not here, that won’t happen to us. And so, much of the world sat on their hands and watched when the virus first appeared in China and soon spread to Asia. Again, when the Delta variant ripped through India, the assumption was there, not here, them, not us. It appears that lesson has now been learnt, perhaps too well, and now we risk over correcting.
And so, we have a new variant that is immediately put to work, attached to increasingly calcified mentalities and narratives. For those fearful of COVID-19 it represents the next stage of the pandemic, more danger to come. For those sceptical, it is more overhyping by politicians, and the media, a tool for advancing other agendas. As tends to be the case, it is both and neither of these things, in the end, we are still dealing with this in real time, which means making decisions in conditions of uncertainty and with limited knowledge. And so, the most likely outcome is probably another confused muddle, good intentions, bad faith and much else all mixed together by Fortuna’s hand.
Given this, what is remarkable is the sense of confidence found with so many pronouncements about the pandemic. By this point, after so many twists and turns, you would have thought we might have learned a bit more humility. It appears not. Look at the world right now: a new variant appearing in Africa, Europe heading deep into another wave, while cases are astonishing low in Japan. What exactly can we divine from these disparate but concurrent experiences? We are clearly dealing with a profoundly complex phenomenon, and it appears the pandemic still has some way to run, in what form and shape we will have to find out.
For all the talk of the remarkable capacity for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus to further mutate and give rise to new variants, perhaps what is most remarkable and distinctive about the virus is its remarkable capacity to seek out and exploit the greatest weaknesses in the world as it is presently structured. With politics and culture, it has worked to sharpen divides and further polarise people. With economics and society, it has worsened market distortions and exacerbated inequalities. With shutdowns and closures, so much has been taken place online, further warping how we see the world and interact with one another. The longer the pandemic continues for, the more it continues to disrupt the way we live, the more these vulnerabilities and tendencies are exposed and amplified. And as this drags on, it is hard not to become increasingly concerned about the social consequences of COVID-19 and our collective responses to it.
While there is much we do not yet know or understand about the course of the pandemic, we have to try to make sense of it, and do so in real time. In doing so, we might be aided from adopting a position on intellectual humility. We are acting on a stage we cannot fully see, and in a story we cannot fully know. This is something Reinhold Niebuhr captured:
…modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management. It is a drama in which fragmentary meanings can be discerned within a penumbra of mystery; and in which specific duties and responsibilities can be undertaken within a vast web of relations which are beyond our powers.
Given this, what Niebuhr called for was ‘concern for both the self and the other in which the self, whether individual or collective, preserves a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” derived from a modest awareness of the limits of its own knowledge and power’. Recognising that we must act without full knowledge, accepting we have responsibilities without full control; appreciating we must care for ourselves and others. With the leaves falling and the air cooling, it is worth keeping these injunctions in mind.