In times of crisis, such as the times we are struggling to endure now, one can easily see the need for quick problem solving. When the pot breaks, we reach for glue. When one’s car breaks down, one calls a workshop. In a pandemic crisis, we need Medicine (the discourse as whole) to respond. Quickly. We need vaccines, ways of treating and combatting the virus. We need all the doctors, nurses, janitors and cleaners we can find. And we need to rely on the experts. Suddenly, we see them. Sanitizers, nurses, researchers.
But we also need to rely on each other. The whole idea of not being responsive in situations such as these makes little sense. We are at a time when bonds are tested and communities come together or come apart. And we are called to think – about culture, capitalism, eating animals, health care systems, politics, economics, death, inequalities, travel habits, borders, and who our neighbors (in the profound sense of the term) are. But we are also called to think about what knowledge is; what it does, achieves, and what we do with it, and – more importantly – what we don’t do with it. Things are interconnected. These questions, which pertain to the ways we relate to, and rely on, each other, are not distinct from questions about expert knowledge or difficulties concerning politics, tourism, economics and the nature of knowledge. Put it this way: there’s a way in which moral concerns are never wholly disconnected from factual ones (which is not to say that there are no truly factual questions or that all factual questions also are moral at root).
One way in which this can be seen is by reminding us about the fact that, in one way, this crisis is not news. It’s in the news, but we have been warned. We just didn’t notice, or we didn’t care, or the facts weren’t seen, or we managed to push things aside – and I don’t think this can be reduced to a question about human psychology.
I came across one article, written in 2007, by a group of microbiologist in the wake of the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. They end their article by saying:
Coronaviruses are well known to undergo genetic recombination (375), which may lead to new genotypes and outbreaks. The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.[i]
Of course, it is striking to read these sentences now, as a thirteen year old premonition. What I would like to underline here, though, is that they talk about a problem that is “well known.” The “large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats” was present, and known – not a feared possibility. And it was clear to these microbiologists that this reservoir, combined “with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China,” is a time bomb. So what they said in 2007 is that this is a well-known bomb that most likely will explode.
Perhaps you now might want to ask: “Why didn’t they tell us?” But they did. They did exactly what researchers are supposed to do. Research and report. And these kinds of scientific reports have fed into popular culture as well. There are a number of books and movies that have imagined the scenarios that science has warned us about. One of the most heavily discussed among people who have a fang for conspiracy theories and supernatural abilities is Sylvia Browne’s The End of Days,[ii] which “predicted” this crisis in 2008 in a Nostradamus styled prose. And there’s no shortage of dystopic movies that latches on to these forms of knowledge too. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion[iii] is one of the movies that is mentioned a lot these days. The presence of mutating viruses and the knowledge that eating animals increases the dangers of pandemic crisis have been well-known facts for a long time.[iv] And no one has ever doubted that a pandemic disease that shuts down schools and most business is economically disastrous. So we knew. Knowledge itself is not what has been missing.
So is this the question: “Why didn’t we listen?” When it comes to the knowledge that SARS viruses are several, mutating, and likely to spread from humans to animals, one of the answers is that it is unclear what we should have done. Viruses are and will be around. Flus come and go. Of course, one of the things that could have been done would have been to shut down the animal markets in China, since we knew that was a “time bomb.” Researchers in the field of animal ethics have warned about this too, for years. Mad cow disease, Swine Flu, SARS – these are all results of problematic human-animal relations (to put it diplomatically). After this exploded, China closed down these animal markets … but only for a little while. The dogs and the bunnies, the cats and the bats, are now back on the market place.[v] This is all disturbingly similar to our knowledge about climate change. There’s no shortage of facts that ought to alarm us all in that case too. But no matter how many scientific reports we have in circulation, no matter how many Greta’s there are, no matter how many meeting politicians have, we keep flying, eating meat, driving cars, and companies keep going at length in digging new loop holes. (We needed a pandemic fear for our own lives to pause it.)
But let us now pause and think: I have talked about a “we” that supposedly hasn’t been listening. And I have been talking about a “they” (e.g. “the scientists”) that had the information. And it looked like a simple question: Why didn’t we listen to them? But that assumes that there’s a simple link here between two clearly distinct groups, and that “knowledge” is a thing that just has to be transported from the one to the other. But knowledge and human action are very rarely that directly connected. Furthermore, there are national and international organizations that collect these forms of information. They have committees that calculate risks and send reports to politicians. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of difficult decisions that our politicians have to deal with. As an experiment, try to put yourself in a politicians shoes. On your agenda are dozens of “issues” – stretching from income-distribution, welfare systems, climate change, war, hunger, an escalating refugee crisis, Brexit trade deals, and so on and so forth. And now there’s a report from WHO that speaks about a large reservoir of SARS-viruses in China. Consciously or unconsciously, most of us would not have made that our top-priority. It’s all too easy to sit at home and point fingers, when the order of the world has already unfolded.
Somewhere in the midst of this, there’s also the question of media. When I say that knowledge wasn’t what was missing, I don’t mean to say that we all had access to it, had read it, and knew about it in a direct way. This marks out a difference between the discourse around climate change and the fact that a Corona pandemic was known to be likely to happen. Climate change is also something that goes on all the time, whereas pandemics (thank God) are not always around us. So if you ask if there could have been a Greta Thunberg of Corona pandemics, my guess is “Not likely.” And perhaps this is a psychological question: we are not equally afraid of things that may, or are likely to, happen, as we are of things already realized. Looking the other way is, at least, much easier.
But that doesn’t stop this from being true: The warnings have fed into popular culture, and anyone interested enough could have checked them up. And I do think it is very important to notice that popular culture very often mirrors our reality, describes who we are, and what threatens us, even if it’s not a “representational” discourse. The ideas that feed popular culture, and make it comprehensible, are rooted in our world too. This, together with the fact that the risks of a SARS pandemic have been calculated by experts, point to another disturbing fact: Facts are not enough. It’s how we relate to facts that matters. But what, really, does it mean to “relate to the facts properly”?
From the perspective of moral philosophy, it may seem that we should seek to find a quick fix here too. We have a problem that requires a solution – we know the facts, but don’t act properly. If only there was a moral rule, with a universal validity, that we could discover! But what, seriously, would then be achieved? The problem with rules and laws is precisely that they fall short of moral decision making. The moral decision is precisely what “kicks in” at the point when the rule or the law is in place. Should I follow it, obey it, or not? As long as we have our eyes fixed on the idea of a moral quick-fix – which one so desperately would like to find when one finds oneself face to face with horror – it’s likely that we will fail to acknowledge that laws and rules grow out of something, and are subject to change. They are adjusted so as to fit our practices, the way we live. We may find this disconcerting or hopeful, but I think that we need to turn our attention to the slow changes of life as a whole too, and to how human actions and interactions are rooted in cultures and languages and traditions. It seems evident: presenting someone with facts about animal farming, climate change, is absolutely necessary, but not enough. Our ways of being together have roots that reaches far deeper down than that. We need both the quick-fix and the long-term thinking.
In reflecting upon how the slow changes of our form of life come about, facts and arguments play a decisive role. But we also need to think about how words and ways of living form the backdrop to facts and arguments. Words like “food” and “health” and “environment” and “thriving” and “nature” and “communality” and “human being” are not immediately connected to each other at the level of argument and semantics. But at the level of life as a whole, they are. These are the kinds of interconnections that we need to think about, if we want to be able to understand why facts are not enough. We need to do this too, if we want facts and arguments to do their work.
[i] Vincent C. C. Cheng et al., “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews 20, no. 4 (October 2007): 683, doi:10.1128/CMR.00023-07.
[ii] Sylvia Browne and Lindsay Harrison, End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies About the End of the World, reprint edition (New York: Berkley, 2009).
[iii] Steven Soderbergh, Contagion (Warner Bros., Participant, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, 2011).
[iv] “The Best Way to Prevent Future Pandemics like Coronavirus? Stop Eating Meat and Go Vegan ǀ View,” Euronews, April 1, 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/01/the-best-way-prevent-future-pandemic... “Professorn: Inga pandemier om alla hade varit vegetarianer,” Aftonbladet, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.aftonbladet.se/a/P9A1db.
[v] George Knowles, “Chinese Markets Are Still Selling Bats,” Mail Online, March 28, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8163761/Chinese-markets-selling....