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After the Coronavirus, Who Do We Want to Be?

‘It’s a good bet that, for better or for worse, tomorrow’s world will not be the same as yesterday’s’

Bernard-Henri Lévy
April 28, 2020
 JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images
JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images
 JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images
JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

It’s all happening too fast. The propagation of the virus, yes. But also the spread of another virus, the virus of 24/7 news and closed-loop social networks. In these first days of spring, there’s precious little we can be sure of, but here are a few things.

First, we’re going to have to let go of the idea of a causal link between globalization and epidemic.

It’s obvious why this idea appeals to the xenophobic inclinations of some: today’s “Chinese virus”; tomorrow’s mistrust of “foreigners” and “immigrants,” of whom I honestly wonder what home it is exactly they’re supposed to go back to.

It’s also easy to see how it might feed the great planetary Lent that has become the current trend: “too much fun; too much prosperity; our globalized world was in an overheated state that only a good, old-fashioned epidemic could cool down …”

The problem is that this idea is false.

There was no globalization when the Black Plague killed a third of Europe’s people from its origins in Genoa and Marseille.

There was no globalization during the diphtheria epidemics of the 16th and 17th centuries.

And there was even less globalization when the first recorded epidemic struck. The time was 412 BCE; the place, Perinthus, in Thrace; the moment when the Greek language invented, if not the thing itself, then at least its name (epi demos, literally “on the people,” the first calamity that, in contrast to the biblical idea of a “scourge” afflicting the “firstborn,” falls on an entire people without distinction as to age, status, or moral purity). Hippocrates, who was there, tells us that the disease began with a dry cough followed by hot flashes and suffocation. This epidemic, he said, nearly wiped out the city.

Second, nothing has really changed over the past 2,000 years in how societies try to guard against a new virus.

Hippocrates, again, in his account of the episode of the “Cough of Perinthus,” offers a list of preventive measures that might easily be mistaken for those recommended by today’s epidemiologists.

Boccaccio, in The Decameron, explains that the only way of dealing with the “mortal pestilence” is to “shut oneself up” in isolation; to stop “visiting family members”; to ensure that “citizens avoid each other and themselves.” (Should they do this to the extent of shirking their civic duties? Should they, for example, cancel an election, citing the epidemic? And Boccaccio’s strong-minded specimens who continue “rejoicing,” “singing and amusing himself hither and yon,” and “making light and caring not for what may come,” aren’t they the spitting image of today’s spring break revelers who mistake heedless hedonism for heroism?)

And as for the bouts of bubonic plague, they produced the “great confinement” dissected by Michel Foucault …

The difference, of course, is that today’s medicine is not the medicine of Hippocrates, Galen, or Avicenna.

And the chances are good that globalized research will not be long in finding a cure and a vaccine.

But in the meantime, we are where we are.

We are no better off, when nature confronts us with a new virus, than Boccaccio’s contemporaries.

Come to think of it, there is something deeply tragic in the archaic quality of our systems of defense and replies.

And this one last thing: the illusion of a post-virus world that supposedly will pick up again “as before.”

Philosophers of medicine have refuted this trope of seeing a disease as an attack that tests a healthy body and then, once the attack is fought off, restores it to its former integrity.

And, since the order of the day seems to be to offer reading suggestions, I recommend the books of Georges Canguilhem, the early “French Theory” thinker who, 50 years ago, deconstructed the substantialist philosophies of disease and showed us that a body, be it biological or social, always comes out damaged, marked, and transformed by the passage of a new virus.

In practical terms, the shock of the great epidemics played a role in the decline of the Greek democratic miracle.

The world that recovered from the plagues of the classical era inherited not only Michel Foucault’s “General Hospital,” but also a model of discipline upon which factories and prisons long drew.

The 1918 Spanish flu bequeathed many things to the world that overcame it, such as apartheid in South Africa; a love of sports and the outdoors; the need for hospitals worthy of the name; and, among writers, the melancholy of those who survived it, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nancy Cunard, and the Dashiell Hammett of The Maltese Falcon.

The coronavirus’s part in all this? Still too early to tell.

But it’s a good bet that, for better or for worse, tomorrow’s world will not be the same as yesterday’s.

For worse: a China that will presume to give us lessons on how to manage a health crisis.

For worse: a strengthened reflex to fall back to our fortress, to say goodbye and good luck to the world of the poor and the afflicted.

For better: the citizens of Milan and Paris leaning from the windows of their buildings to thank health care workers, the white knights of the republic.

Which of the two—the humiliation of the democracies or their ennoblement—will carry the day? The decision lies with each of us, guided by our sorrow and our faith.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, will premiere nationwide on May 5, 2023.