The Meaning of Life and the Pandemic by Luke Fischer
Luke Fischer is the author of the poetry collections Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the “New Poems” (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the book of bedtime stories The Blue Forest (Lindisfarne Books, 2015). He recently co-edited the volume of essays Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: Philosophical and Critical Perspectives (Oxford University Press).
I am currently living in Tübingen, Germany, and these reflections on the coronavirus crisis have been shaped by the situation in Europe and considerations of the overarching similarities between the way in which numerous countries worldwide have been responding to the crisis. Although they are now being eased, the lockdowns in Germany have, in many respects, been more restrictive than in Australia, but not as severe as in Italy or France. Wherever one investigates, there are many gray areas and uncertainties around Covid-19, yet much of the public discourse has tended to reiterate one narrative. This essay is an attempt to ask and open up some vital questions.
––Luke Fischer, 16 May 2020
If an alien arrived on the earth sometime in April 2020 and, being already fluent in a number of languages, familiarised himself with the latest reports and news, he could be forgiven for coming to some of the following conclusions.
Human beings were virtually immortal creatures until a deadly new virus––Covid-19––spread across the world and became the greatest threat to human existence. This surmise would be confirmed by his first conversations with other human beings at a respectable distance of 1.5 metres.
After reading some history books on the twentieth and twenty-first century, and a little Sartre, he might identify a glaring example of bad faith. Western humanity claims to cherish democracy, which it almost believes in like a religion, but actually homo sapiens have very little trust in their fellow human beings acting responsibly out of their own freedom. Excluding Sweden and a few other countries, the majority of citizens around the world have welcomed the declarations of a state of emergency, the formation of governments with executive or authoritarian powers, a massive restriction of basic rights, extended forms of surveillance, and the deployment of police to protect them from the dangers of sitting on a bench. At present they are sequestered in their homes and passively await the next verdicts of politicians, CEOs, and a select group of experts as to what they are allowed and not allowed to do.
This alien meets a few individuals who question the official narrative and one has an especial liking for epidemiology and statistics; he paraphrases the findings of Stanford Professor John Ioannidis in the USA and University of Mainz Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, and their points about the unreliability of much of the current data. He also informs the alien that human beings were never close to being immortal (at least not physically––whether they are spiritually immortal is a whole other question) and that the average life expectancy of humans worldwide is 71 years old. This outlier also provides him with this list of estimations:
There are around 18 million poverty-related deaths each year
Around 9.5 million people die from cancer each year (this figure is an estimate for 2018)
Around 9 million people die from starvation each year
Around 2 million children die from a lack of access to clean water each year
Around 1.35 million people die in road accidents each year (and 20-50 million suffer non-fatal injuries)
Around 800,000 people die from suicide each year
Up to 650,000 people (and at least 290,000 people) die of the seasonal flu every year
Around 405,000 people die from malaria each year (this is an estimate for 2018)
At this moment (16 May 2020) an estimated 309,000 people have died ‘with’ or ‘from’ (we’re not quite sure) Covid-19. Estimates diverge widely as to how high this figure could climb. We lack reliable data!
But, the alien objects, I thought human beings were the most caring of creatures (far more caring than my alien race who dwell on a planet many light years away) in that the whole point of the lockdowns is to protect the most vulnerable members of society, especially the elderly who have pre-existing illnesses and are likely to die if they catch the coronavirus. Why, the alien asks, is so little being done to eradicate poverty and to ensure that everyone in the world has sufficient food to eat and access to clean drinking water? The outlier responds with a tilt of his head and a puzzled stare. Then he explains that the coronavirus has a rather high hospitalisation rate and that the lockdowns really have to do with the limited capacity of underfunded and understaffed hospitals––we need to ‘flatten the curve’ so the hospitals are not overwhelmed. ‘Oh’, replies the alien.
Problems of Abstraction
While much of the worldwide response to the coronavirus shows a care and concern for the most at-risk members of society, the observations of the above-mentioned alien serve to highlight a number of valid concerns: double standards, tunnel vision (humanity seems at present only to be able to recognize one crisis in the world), the rise and passive acceptance of draconian political measures, and an abstract way of thinking that fails to take into consideration the dynamic interconnections and delicate balance of human life, health, illness, and mortality. The sole ‘enemy’ is the virus and many governments have acted as if the only responsible option is to freeze almost all aspects of life to protect us from this enemy.
Many of the responses to the pandemic evince a problematically abstract way of thinking that overlooks the dynamic ecological balance of life and mortality, and the relationships that give meaning to human existence. In our fixation on addressing one problem, we are inadvertently bringing about many other problems.
In several controversial articles, the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has voiced his concerns that in the government lockdowns and the correlated passivity of citizens, the value and richness of life has been reduced to the abstraction of mere biological survival. Agamben writes:
The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country [Italy] obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick. Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.
Another thought experiment might help to reinforce Agamben’s point. Imagine a grandmother who is 82 years old. She is told that she will be able to live until the age of 85 if she resides in a sterilised cell and has no contact with her children, grandchildren, and friends. She will have an internet connection and TV and all her food will be delivered to her front door. Alternatively, she has the choice to remain in her own home and receive visits from her family and friends, go for short walks in the park (she is still mobile) and so on, but if she chooses this option she will only live until the age of 84. Which one of these options provides for a richer conception and experience of life? It should be up to the grandmother to decide, but it is worthwhile for us to reflect on this question. Of course, this thought experiment is artificial. In real life we cannot predict the outcomes. Probabilistically speaking it is fairly unlikely that one will die in a car accident. Nevertheless, due to a moment of absent-mindedness on one’s own part or on the part of another driver, one might be the unfortunate victim of a fatal crash.
In ordinary life we are always negotiating a variety of risks and ideally strive to be responsible and caring, while being aware that the elimination of all risks is simply impossible. Life is a dangerous adventure, but, hopefully, nonetheless a rich and worthwhile one.
The new coronavirus took hold of the world by storm and the challenges of treating the little understood illness of Covid-19 should not be underestimated. And in this time of physical distancing, it is vital that we find ways to show sensitivity and compassion towards those who are at-risk and who have lost loved ones. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to ask: what level of risk does this coronavirus present?
Despite the sensationalism of the media and the draconian measures of some states, we are not confronting the Black Death. It is important to note that since March, estimates of the fatality rate for Covid-19 have significantly decreased––though medical experts continue to contest the various estimates. (While in early March the WHO was suggesting a case fatality rate of 3.4%, this was based on a recorded number of cases and not estimations of the amount of people infected. Later the Imperial College London estimated a fatality rate of 1%, but since then there have been some much lower estimations [based on antibody studies in various places].) A peer-reviewed study of the worst hit area of Germany has estimated an infection fatality rate of less than 0.36% (possibly as low as 0.24%) and a recent study in California (Santa Clara County) has estimated 0.17% (the flu is around 0.1%) for that area. Significantly, Ioannidis who was involved in the latter study, early on regarded other estimates as inflated.
As a philosopher I neither have the expertise to say how high the number of deaths could rise nor to offer a detailed assessment of the effectiveness of the measures being taken. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the arguments of the medical experts in Germany (and scientists elsewhere) that, contrary to the complete lockdowns, a better approach would have been to focus on protecting the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.  The current figures in Germany clearly indicate that the elderly population is primarily at risk (the average life expectancy in Germany is 81 years old and this is the average age of Covid-19-related deaths) and, in contrast to northern Italy, hospitals have not been stretched. A particular problem in various countries has been the spread of the virus in nursing homes. Nevertheless, leading virologists have spoken of some of the precautions that could be taken to minimise the risk of infecting elderly people while ensuring that they are able to receive company.
Complexities of Health and Mortality
Health is a complex matter because the human organism is a complex, dynamic whole, in which the health of the whole is dependent on the healthy functioning of the parts and vice versa. Illness and dying are similarly complex. When one part of the body becomes unhealthy it generally affects other parts. While some people infected with the new coronavirus remain asymptomatic or show only minor symptoms, elderly people with certain pre-existing conditions are at a greater risk of developing the severe acute respiratory syndrome. Thus, each case of Covid-19 is the expression of a particular relational dynamic between the virus and its host organism.
Most of the deaths relating to the coronavirus have involved comorbidities or pre-existing illnesses. The organism of someone who is already wrestling with cancer is less able to deal with the additional burden of the virus. If such a person dies, we can ask: did she die from cancer or from the coronavirus? The correct answer is neither (taken on its own) and both. Had she not contracted the coronavirus she may have lived longer, but the coronavirus was not the sole (or even the main) cause of death. Due to the complexity and interdependence of the part/whole relationship in a living organism, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described organisms with the contradictory-sounding formulation that they are both the cause and effect of themselves. In other words, living organisms exhibit a holistic complexity in which there is no simple, one-way causality.
In some of the more detailed studies thus far of the epicentres of the pandemic, we can see that a complex of factors contributed to the number of fatalities. In northern Italy, these factors included (among others) a large elderly population, years of living with bad air pollution, a relatively high percentage of smokers, and a limited number of ICU beds. We should not assume that everywhere will reproduce northern Italy, although various other places might and will involve a similarly lethal complex of factors (as we have witnessed in some cities in the USA). One study suggests that there have been a much higher number of fatalities in cities with bad air pollution. What is the cause of death here? Coronavirus or air pollution? Both and, in each individual case, a whole host of other factors.
One of the positive outcomes of the lockdowns has been the improved air quality in many parts of the world due to the limited number of flights and other forms of transport and the correlative reduction of exhaust fumes. Though this was not their original intention, these limitations on transport have literally saved lives and are also something to keep in mind with regard to the larger crisis that humanity faces and has largely failed to address, namely anthropogenic climate change and the broader environmental crisis. But, as should be clear by now, I hope that humanity will find democratic rather than autocratic ways to address this crisis.
This should really go without saying, but given the disturbing rise of the libertarian far right in the USA, it is perhaps important to clarify that my concerns about civil liberties and democracy have nothing to do with the emphasis on negative freedom (‘the state should let me do whatever the hell I like’) of libertarians, but rather have to do with the best democratic impulses of modernity. Concrete freedom (as opposed to mere negative freedom) and democracy presuppose that individuals will act responsibly towards each other out of their own insight into the good. A mature individual does not act kindly towards others because they are concerned that the state will punish them otherwise, but because the individual recognises the value of kindness. In a mature democracy, the details of individual behaviour should not be monitored and dictated by the state. (The infiltration of the state into the private sphere is a mark of what Hannah Arendt identified as totalitarianism.) In a true democracy the individual is neither subordinated to the general will of the state (a kind of super-tyrant that maintains order and peace), nor is society a chaos of self-interested desires that disregard social goods. Rather, as the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller argued, the common good is embodied in the free collaboration of individuals. Whatever the merits or flaws of the Swedish response to the epidemic, Sweden has as much as possible pursued a path which places trust in its citizens and gives advice and recommendations rather than encroaching on civil liberties. This strongly contrasts with Germany, in which basic rights have been restricted in a manner that has not occurred since the era of National Socialism and that contravenes the constitution. In Germany, where there has been a growing critique of the legality of the lockdown, lawyers have argued that, at this point, the denial of basic constitutional rights cannot be justified.
The fact that governments in many countries have declared a state of emergency, massively restricted civil liberties, and increased the policing and surveillance of residents (what Edward Snowden describes as the ‘architecture of oppression’) is perhaps a sign of the precariousness and immaturity of their democracies. (I am not saying that no sacrifices need to be made, rather I am questioning the extent of the restrictions, their consequences, and the undemocratic processes by which they have been instantiated.)
Complexities of Valuing Life
The famous Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek has politely disagreed with Agamben’s view that the lockdowns evince a reduction of value to a form of bare life that ultimately divides people. Rather, he regards them as showing a laudable concern for the lives of the most vulnerable. However, even if one thinks that our exclusive concern should be the preservation of lives, it is not clear that the lockdowns are the best strategy––though they may be for a time in specific places. (It’s worth noting that if we applied this logic universally, we would have long ago completely banned cars and countless other things.)
In a television interview, investigative journalist John Pilger recently mentioned studies that have indicated strong correlations between emotional isolation and the deterioration of health. Researchers at Oxford University have compared the health effects of chronic loneliness to ‘smoking 15 cigarettes a day’ and estimated that in 2019 there were 1.2 million chronically lonely people in the UK. There is growing evidence that the number of people suffering from loneliness and mental health issues as a result of the lockdown measures, self-isolation, and the climate of anxiety has significantly increased in the UK and various countries around the world (Japan is an interesting exception). There is now talk of an emerging global mental health crisis. In Australia, there are significant mental health concerns for Aboriginal communities (where suicide is the main cause of death for children between the age of 5 and 17) that are suffering under the lockdown.
The realities of loneliness and depression are only one example of the need to employ a broad concept of health that includes psychological, social, and mental health, as complementary to physical health. Since the lockdowns there has also been a marked increase in domestic violence, which not only causes physical injury (and deaths) but also psychological trauma for the members of a family.
The fixation on one health issue risks neglecting equally significant ones. We should question the logic and ethics involved in delaying cancer operations (however small the tumours) in Germany because a certain number of hospital beds need to be reserved for coronavirus ‘patients’, even when the beds are empty. In India, Arundhati Roy speaks of how healthcare for other illnesses has been placed on hold and describes cancer patients in Delhi being ‘driven away like cattle’ from the vicinity of a major hospital. In Africa, there are grave concerns that deaths from malaria could double this year (in comparison to 2018) to over 700,000 because of disruptions from Covid-19.
In the pandemic of panic, many people with other health concerns are afraid to visit doctors and such deferrals can lead to dire consequences. And we shouldn’t need doctors to tell us that sitting at home all day is unhealthy.
In debates about how best to respond to the pandemic, there has often been the articulation of a false dichotomy between protecting lives by means of the lockdowns and preventing an economic crisis. Of course, the current world economy is a disaster with its grotesque disparities between the wealth of the CEOs of mega-corporations and those on minimum wage struggling to make ends meet, from the devastating environmental impacts of many industries to the excess waste and consumption of our capitalist and consumerist societies.
But there is the very real danger that once the lockdowns end we will find ourselves in a situation in which the economy is even more unjust and destructive than at present. Due to the lockdowns around the world, the number of people facing the possibility of starvation has doubled to 265 million.
In a country like the US where healthcare largely depends on employment, a massive rise in unemployment and poverty will, of course, lead to many fatalities. Since the lockdowns, over 36 million people in the US have lost their jobs and there are predictions that, unless the government makes the requisite provisions the country will be facing a second great depression (given the current US government, something like a reiteration of the bailout of Wall Street in response to 2008 GFC, while millions of people lost their homes, is a more likely scenario).
Spain seems to have made a positive step forward in its plans to implement a permanent basic income. While Australia has increased its unemployment benefits, arts funding has been slashed in recent years and artists––musicians, actors, writers, poets, etc.––are suffering greatly due to the cancellation of so many events. To offer one example, all the members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra recently lost their jobs for the indefinite duration of the shutdown. Australian universities are also in a precarious position; an estimated 21,000 researchers are facing the threat of losing their jobs.
So it is a dangerous abstraction––and perhaps a form of vague sentimentalism––to insist on the idea that to be in favour of strict lockdowns is to be in favour of life whereas to be concerned about the economy is to value money over human lives.
And what about the abstraction and inequality in the immense disparity between what a lockdown means for the wealthy and the poor? If you own a waterfront mansion with a large garden being ‘confined’ to your home is no great challenge. If you are a poor family cramped in a tiny city apartment, it’s a whole different story.
The German philosopher, Markus Gabriel, has highlighted the shortsightedness and problems of what he describes as the ‘new virological imperative’ that has been determining political decisions: all human beings should be isolated so that they don’t infect others. While virologists and epidemiologists (who themselves also disagree on the measures that should be taken) can best inform us about how to address the physical dimensions of the pandemic, they should not be the exclusive advisors on decisions that affect the whole of society, decisions that are undermining fundamental aspects of democracy. Gabriel mentions the need for input from political theorists and sociologists, ethicists and philosophers. To this list, I would add psychologists, artists, small-business owners, lawyers, economists, religious leaders, and representatives from all walks of life. Recently Germany made a positive step in this direction.
The last example of abstraction that I would like to mention is the illusion that we can replace vital, embodied, social interactions with the virtual space of online communication. A coffee with a friend cannot be substituted by a chat on Skype, the social dynamics and learning that take place between teachers and students in a classroom and in the playground cannot be replaced by Zoom. Or as Michael Leunig so aptly comments in the form of a cartoon, an elderly woman cannot walk her dog through a website instead of a park.
Towards a Context-Sensitive Approach
Within the life of an individual as well as within society more broadly, a crisis is often a painful opportunity and catalyst for much needed transformations. The inadequacies and shortsightedness of much of the response to the pandemic are a significant part of the crisis. As we move forward, I hope we can work towards realising a fairer and more sustainable economy, and a transformation of our thinking from one-sided abstractions to a concrete attentiveness to the nexuses of life. We need to find creative ways to take care––physically, emotionally and mentally––of those who are most vulnerable, while at the same time taking into consideration the complexities of the world.
The above thoughts are the concerns of a philosopher (and poet) and not the recommendations of an epidemiologist or a physician. I am not aiming to provide particular guidelines and calculations about which health factors should be weighted against others. Rather, my aim is to draw attention to the complexities of life and the dangers (in some respects of catastrophic dimensions) of simplistic ‘solutions’. In response to the wave of panic that has spread across the world (greatly propelled by the media), measures have been applied by governments that fail to take into account the relations of life and the specificities of different societies, places, and cultures. In my view, it is crucial that we learn to approach life and the great crises that we face in a context-sensitive manner that considers all the dynamic interrelations and specificities of biology, social ties, individual freedoms, societies, cultures, and environments. There is no one enemy or problem. There is no silver bullet. One size doesn’t fit all.
Life is a light-footed circle dance on unstable ground. Or, as the poet and philosopher Novalis put it: ‘The whole rests more or less like persons playing, who without a chair, merely sit one on the knee of another and form a circle.’ Let us not overlook the relational complexities that constitute and give meaning to life.
 Sourced from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
 There are many issues around how Covid-19 deaths are being counted in different countries (and debates about whether they are being overestimated or underestimated). It is well-documented that in Italy no distinction has been made between deaths ‘from’ and deaths ‘with’ Covid-19 and there are similar issues in other countries. As the present essay elaborates, there are also many deaths resulting from the repercussions of the lockdown measures (rather than Covid-19).
 One of the significant criticisms of Sweden has been that its number of fatalities is much higher than that of its neighbours, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Part of the reason for this, however, has less to do with the overall strategy and more to do with a problem in the management of nursing homes where over 50% of the deaths have occurred. Moreover, the per capita death rate in Sweden is lower than in a number of countries that have enforced strict lockdowns, including Spain, Italy, the UK, and Belgium. Finally, while there are gray areas around the development of immunity to the coronavirus, in the long term Sweden will quite likely be better placed than many other countries. Though the precise situation remains unclear, one recent study at Stockholm University suggests that Stockholm could reach community immunity by mid-June.
 Novalis Schriften: Die Werke von Friedrich von Hardenberg, vol. 2, ed. R. Samuel, H. J. Mähl and G. Schulz (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. 1960-1988), p. 242.