We have to wait for a vaccine, duh! But, wait a minute, isn’t that like waiting for Godot? I’m crossing my fingers we pull it off in 2 years or so. I wouldn’t bet on it though. Not more than I would bet on climate change being solved by some magical technological break-through. That means: not at all. So we will have to learn to live with it. The question is how. Not just accepting it as a reality. That would not work for climate change either. No, we have to do something about it. There’s the oddity of our current exit strategies: they’re not about doing something about it, they are about not doing a lot of things we might normally want to do, in hope of a technological breakthrough. This is fine for now but the stakes of what we are not doing anymore are high. Let me visualize the stakes via the photo on the right. When the stakes are clear I will try to sift out the things that are fine if we never ever do them again and the things that are absolutely deal breakers if an exit strategy means we have to stop doing them for an unspecified amount of time. The conclusion will be a suggestion of an exit strategy out of the current exit strategies which are nothing but indefinite taxying on a runway without any real hope of ever taking off again.
It’s a suit. It was for the school prom of my 17-year youngest son. Netflix watchers will catch a cheeky reference to Peaky Blinders. The suit was bought early March and it’s hanging here in anticipation of a once in a lifetime moment that probably is never going to come. One may well say this is a typical complaint of a middle-class, middle-aged White Western guy about a luxury most people won’t have and therefore can’t ever miss. It is (and my kid will survive it without noticeable trauma). That is why it is a good illustration of the ‘stakes’: as heartbreaking it is that young people need to forego on experiences that are life-shaping, it is nothing compared to what people across the world miss out on. Basic food, social proximity and the comfort of being able to die in circumstances which allow for mutual comfort and closure. These are not the things which make the news reports: flying, shopping and ‘the economy, stupid’ fill up our news. It is very much like the climate change discussion in a sense; where the car, the plane and our consumption (for instance of fancy comfy open fireplace) are the top stories and the disappearance of basic shelter for people of Tuvalu is just a side note. Because burning fossil fuels is freedom, taxes are slavery and who cares about young people being able to come of age with a right mix of nervousness and joyful anticipation or old people enjoying their last days reminiscing with their kin. I am going out on a limb here and assume the reader gets what I think to be real deal breakers and … what not.
So, I’m not arguing against a ‘new normal’. What lockdown has shown us is that there are a lot of things which we thought were indispensable for our freedom and that we now know to be things we would not only gladly dispense with but are also things we can shed with a snap of our fingers. We have at least found 1. the solution for climate change, 2. a reason to pay for more taxes in order to better protect our social security and 3. a way out of these awkward moments of figuring out what kind of physical interaction is the best suited to this or that kind of social encounter. This to just name my favorite three. The bottom-line being: “It’s not the economy, stupid!”
Unfortunately our exit strategies are at complete odds with these stakes. They herd us like cattle to a ‘new normal’ in which we forego the deal breakers but maximally safeguard our old economic ways. These exit strategies are designed to balance physical and economic ‘public’ health. They reduce us to mere viral and economic vectors whose private life is not of any more consequence than a nuisance of noise disturbing the epidemiological models. Of course this is not how they are marketed by our experts and administrators of biopower, no they are marketed as ways we need to act in the short term so as to preserve as much as possible of our ‘old normal’. Because, in the medium term we will crack the code of this virus just like many still think we can crack the code of climate change. This is though the purest form of hybris of Western modern man. We have no clue whether we will ever crack that code – we did not crack the HIV code and it was not for a lack of trying – let alone that we would have a clue when we would crack it. And if we crack it, it is far from sure that this slow mutating Coronavirus will not have had ample time to mutate away from the vaccine, just like influenzas do, every year over and over again. Don’t take that just from me, this is what Peter Piot said in The Brussels Times (Peter knows a thing or two about viruses):
“The Commission is strongly committed to developing a vaccine. Let us be clear: without a corona vaccine we will never be able to live normally again. The only real exit strategy from this crisis is a vaccine that can be rolled out worldwide. Despite all our efforts, it is still not certain that it will be possible to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. In the worst case, we will be able to do nothing but try to limit the damage.”
Let that sink in. Our only real exit strategy is to continue the current exit strategies in which we are reduced to viral and economic vectors for an indefinite amount of time! When early on in this people flocked to reading The Plague of Albert Camus, I suggest they start their reading of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. We can play with the pebbles to remind us of times gone by where social distance was not the rallying cry of a brave new world where we keep calm and carry on even if all the deals we really ever cared about were broken.
So, what then is the right exit strategy? I will be brutally honest: I have no clue. That does not mean though that we cannot imagine one. If there is one thing not even the most brutal of pandemics can strip us out of, it is our human imagination. If the current exit strategies are not sustainable and premised on magical solutions that may never come, then it’s up to us to figure out an alternative with a clear end in mind. Remember climate change: we will not solve it by magical technology but only by changing our ways in ways that safeguard what are real deal breakers and dispense with habits flowing from our addiction to fossil fuels. In the same vein we should take an end in mind (say, December 2020) and figure out what it takes to get rid of the sword of Corona hovering over our heads. To make sure this is not a text jumped on by anti-vaxxers, one alternative could well be having an ethical discussion of speeding up development of a vaccine via provocative studies: just read this and that.