French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) famously said that facing our mortality is the only way to properly learn the ‘art of living’. He was right. This book is about what we can learn from COVID-19 about the art of living, as individuals but also collectively as a society: this crisis could potentially change our lives for the better, ushering in a more just society. The book will explore a number of key themes through philosophical lenses. Chapter 2 asks whether coronavirus is a misfortune, or an injustice. Chapter 3 focuses on the largest cohort of victims of coronavirus: people in old age. Chapter 4 asks whether life under coronavirus is comparable to life in the so-called ‘state of nature’. Chapter 5 explores the likely impact of coronavirus on the global phenomenon of populism. Chapter 6 investigates the relationship between post-truth and coronavirus. Chapter 7 focuses on the role of experts during this crisis. Chapter 8 looks at the spike of incidents of domestic violence during the lockdown via an analysis of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Chapter 9 explores four key lessons that must be learned from the COVID-19 crisis: that politics matters; that central states are necessary; that taxation is important; and that radical reforms, including the introduction of a universal basic income, are crucial. Chapter 10 considers what philosophy can contribute to the debate on COVID-19, and why we have a moral duty not to become ill.
The Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero famously said that ‘to study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die’. He influenced the sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who wrote an essay entitled ‘That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’. This chapter explores our relationship with death through the philosophical lenses of these two thinkers, before giving the reader a short summary of all the chapters in the book.
There are two ways to think of a human tragedy: as an injustice, or as a misfortune. A misfortune is usually associated with inescapable external forces of nature, and as such the desolation it leaves in its wake is blameless. An injustice, on the other hand, is caused by fellow humans; it is intentional, controllable, and therefore not blameless. Poverty is an injustice not a misfortune. COVID-19 has exposed the true character of our society: its remorseless injustice. No one is responsible for the existence of COVID-19, but collectively we are responsible for the fact that pandemic preparedness plans were grossly insufficient, and the response to the crisis inadequate. All the inequalities, biases, prejudices, and wrongs of modern society have been irrevocably exposed by COVID-19.
We live in an ageing society. The average age of death from COVID-19 is over 80. Care homes have taken the full force of this epidemiological tsunami. In Ireland 63 per cent of fatalities from COVID-19 related illnesses have occurred in nursing and care homes, not hospitals. It is now beyond doubt that in the way most countries prepared for the pandemic, nursing and care homes were not a priority, as reflected by the present mortality rates. Society’s relationship to people living in old age has never been under closer scrutiny; thus there has never been a better time to go back 2,000 years to the philosophical work of Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Old Age (44 BCE). This pandemic has fully exposed the lack of respect our efficiency-obsessed modern society has for people in old age.
The potentially devastating impact of COVID-19 on the world economy is beyond measure. The risk is that if the economy collapses it will also bring down civil society with it. Political philosophers have a term for this: we are being propelled towards the ‘state of nature’. This chapter suggests that extreme crises do not bring out the best in people. A negative, almost nightmarish account of the state of nature has a long tradition in the history of philosophy, and at the centre of it we find the widely maligned but often misunderstood seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. At the risk of defending a highly controversial figure, this chapter suggests that Hobbes still has a great deal to teach us about life under COVID-19.
Before we had COVID-19 we had populism. Modern-day populism is founded on a specific but crude and somewhat distorted understanding of the social and political landscape, where only two political groupings exist: the perfidious elite, including experts and scholars, holders of the reins of political and economic power, and the excluded masses. An irreverent, nonconformist agenda explains populism’s attraction, especially right-wing populism. This chapter argues that the COVID-19 pandemic may have exposed the underlying weaknesses, incompetence, and long-term inadequacy of many populist leaders around the world.
In crises, we rely desperately on the truth, and there is no room for fake news or post-truth. Or at least, there shouldn’t be. But that has not been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. This chapter will start by distinguishing between lies and post-truth, before highlighting the subversive nature of post-truth, which aims to delegitimize truth. Not even COVID-19 is immune from the toxic rhetoric of post-truth.
In normal times, we follow the advice of experts. In times of crisis, listening to public health experts, and acting accordingly, becomes an ethical imperative. After the outbreak of the most serious public health emergency in living memory, governments around the world are making decisions based on the advice of public health experts. The problem is that sometimes experts disagree, including scientists. Experts disagree on the best way to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. When this happens, politicians have the power to choose which experts to listen to. This raises important questions about knowledge and trust in science, experts, and politicians.
Incidents of domestic violence skyrocketed during the weeks of lockdown. This phenomenon was universal. In Ireland reports of domestic violence increased by almost 25 per cent after the coronavirus lockdown period began. This chapter focuss on one cultural event that captured the imagination of millions of people during the lockdown, especially in the UK and Ireland: the televised adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The impact of domestic violence on young lives is one of the main themes in Rooney’s book.
This chapter gives some consideration to what social, political, and economic changes need to be made, domestically and globally, after this pandemic crisis is over. If everything post COVID-19 goes back to being essentially similar to life pre COVID-19, we will have wasted a unique opportunity to eradicate some of the worst underlying conditions of social injustice which inflict misery on billions of people across the globe. There are at least four main lessons we must learn from the COVID-19 crisis. First, the importance of politics. Second, the necessity of a well-funded state. Third, the imperative to raise taxes to give the state adequate resources. Fourth, the requirement to introduce new radical social and economic reforms.