How did the smallest of creatures — the Covid-19 virus — manage to undermine the optimism and economy of our supposedly organized and ready-for-anything French and American democracies?
France and the United States were not doing so badly in their ongoing pursuit of happiness, a quest so dear to Thomas Jefferson, inscribed in the American Declaration of Independence and implicit in the French Revolution. Of course, this happiness should be seen as a collective marathon with no limit on time or distance, but we were generally moving in the right direction, grounded in political democracy, economic growth, and faith in science.
Then, bam! All it took was the rise of the smallest of creatures, a virus, to undermine our optimism and throw us off track. We must try to understand this little bug that was living such a boring life in the fur of a bat before jumping to a pangolin that ended up on a skewer in a Chinese market. From now on, said the virus, the world is mine. And since these little creatures have only one idea in their heads — but without heads, of course — that is, to reproduce infinitely, they have been obsessively busy at it for almost a year. In order to understand our enemy, Henry Kissinger once explained in a different context, that of war, we must put ourselves in their place. If you were a coronavirus, you would attack the most fragile populations, beginning with the oldest, in the densest and least organized countries, for example, India, or in countries at war such as Iraq and Yemen.
On the other hand, the coronavirus slows down, or even retreats, when it meets firm, quasi-military, well-organized resistance with no breaches. This strategy of resistance, in the absence of effective therapy and a vaccine, has been recognized for a full century. (It was first discovered by the doctor Adrien Proust, father of the writer Marcel Proust and the theoretician of the cordon sanitaire.) It requires clear communication, repetition, testing, tracing, and isolation. In order to succeed even reasonably, such a strategy demands unfailing discipline and unconditional execution. This is how China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam have nearly succeeded in fending off the assault. Our democracies, not so much. What is ordinarily our strength — debate, discussion, squabbling, negotiation — has in this case led us to the brink of defeat.
The virus’ blitzkrieg has not so much revealed the cracks in democracy itself as democracy’s inadequacy in the face of a real threat. Partisan opposition and conflicts over power are the very essence of democracy in ordinary times, but in exceptional circumstances, in the face of external aggression such as the two world wars or the Soviet threat, democracy is not inconsistent with national unity. Unified democracy has always triumphed over its non-democratic enemies. This time, no doubt because the threat is not properly understood, disunity is prevailing, aggravated in France and the United States (but not in Germany) by partisan hatreds beyond traditional and acceptable levels of rivalry.
In our democracies, when they are functioning properly, we debate the best direction to take in the face of certain realities. Now, because of social media, the reality of facts themselves is contested. Opinions of barroom pundits and self-styled philosophers are on the same footing as science. We have arrived at a paradoxical situation in which China accepts science and progress while the West no longer believes in them. American politicians, starting with the president, as well as medical doctors and intellectuals prominent in the French media, reject all scientific rigor and advance phony treatments in the name of freedom (but only their own), and oppose all collective preventative measures.
This renunciation of fact-based knowledge, which is a negation of the French-American Enlightenment philosophy, obviously sows doubt concerning the legitimacy of governments and experts. However well understood and indispensable the proper strategy for resisting the virus may be, it can no longer be applied and is shot through with exemptions and exceptions. The victorious virus rejoices, while democracy and the economy are the losers. The opposition and contestation that certain unknowing accomplices of the virus, useful idiots of the pandemic, proclaim in the name of preserving growth rather than public health is the rankest nonsense. People who are sick or living in fear of sickness will not return to school or work and will neither consume nor invest.
The facts are indisputable: Countries mastering the pandemic (China, South Korea) have succeeded in maintaining their economies. Those where the little beast is progressing the fastest are the ones where education and the economy are collapsing, as in France and the United States. The worst is yet to come if our countries stay on this path, owing to the time lag between infection and its consequences for health and for society in general.
Op-ed published in the November 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.