May 2020


What lessons will we learn from the virus?

By Don Watson
Image of Parliament House, March 24, 2020

Press conference at Parliament House, March 24, 2020. © Sam Mooy/Getty Images

Hope is essential, but optimism can be deadly

Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it
to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside.
Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires.
James Salter, Light Years

Who knows what lessons we will learn from the virus? Probably none: at least none secure from myth and misrepresentation. None able to withstand the appetites of self-interest and politics. The lessons will be whatever we are persuaded to accept or believe.

“Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world?” Winston Churchill asked in his last speech to the House of Commons. He was thinking of children and the new hydrogen bombs and wondering if God had “wearied of mankind”. Sixty-five years later, cue mordant laughter.

Yet we’re still here, still living amid the proof of humanity’s bone-headedness and unmistakable evidence of genius; faintly aware that we are of Nature and at its mercy, and also of the extent of our dominion over it. But never like this. It’s as if some freak thing has possessed our heads and made our world a stage to dramatise the great conundrum. We tread in such uncertainty and in such an altered landscape we dare not think too many thoughts.

Pity our poor leaders confronted with the new reality. In the first weeks they did what comes naturally: they gave us optimism. The Chinese began by pretending it wasn’t there and shooting the messengers. The Brazilians said it was a “fantasy”. The Italians said, “Go to the piazza.” The Iranians said, “Go to Qom.” The Australians said, “Go to the football.” President Trump said go wherever you like, it’s a Democratic “hoax”, it will vanish “like a miracle”, it’s nothing to worry about, we have it under control, “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” etc. Optimism has killed thousands.

Hope is essential for human beings, but optimism is voluntary. George W. Bush and the neo-cons that ran him were optimists. It’s a medium for fanatics, predators and cynics. It’s the cake Marie Antoinette is alleged to have recommended. For a slogan Barack Obama chose “Hope”, but when he gave his country back to Wall Street, he chose Optimism – and the country got optimism’s incubus, Trump.

Another deadly optimist, V.I. Lenin, said something to the effect that certain events in history are like lightning: for a moment they reveal the world not as it seems but as it really is. Reveal it to him perhaps, but the masses had to make do with slogans. Communism equals optimism plus slogans. Yet the metaphor retains some force. Dark as these times may be, the pandemic has cast rare light on the powers that govern us in ordinary times, and revealed them for what in the main they are: performative claptrap, lies, a waste of time.

Optimism is a refuge of the scoundrel, like its thug relation, patriotism. Boris Johnson called up British bulldog and the Blitz; the Italians, the evening aperitivo; Trump called it the “Chinese virus”, the “foreign virus” and urged the view that the United States, being the United States, really didn’t have a problem; in Australia they reminded us that we were “all in it together”, and that people whose behaviour was not in keeping with this tenet were “unAustralian”. Hoarding groceries was particularly unAustralian, which seemed strange since hoarding is a governing principle of a free enterprise society, and providing for one’s family is recommended everywhere.

In any event, it at once became apparent that we Australians, like the Chinese, British, Americans and everyone else, are decidedly not all in it together. Cliché is another sanctuary from complex, uncertain reality, and just as base and useless as the others.

Australians with ready cash and credit, with superannuation, country houses, no rent or mortgages to pay and jobs that can be worked from home, are in a different boat to the legions whose livelihoods are precarious, including more than a million casual workers and migrant workers who will get nothing from the government bailout.

Those with the internet are better off than the 2 million without it. Lockdown for months in a big house with a yard is not the same as lockdown in a little house or flat without one. The countless variations on this score require minimal imagination or sympathy. Prospects for the elderly are not the same as those for the young, and each generation sees the COVID world, and the world after COVID, through a different lens. Life for doctors, nurses and hospital staff – many of them casuals and migrants – is infinitely more grim and demanding than it is for just about anyone else. We are no more all in it together now than we were before the pandemic – in truth we are less in it together, and likely will remain so when the crisis passes.

One lousy cliché is bound to spawn another, so we shouldn’t wonder when we are served incessantly the one about being “at war” with the virus. Inevitably, the evil and obnoxious crook in the White House has cast himself as a “wartime president”. The pandemic he downplayed a few weeks ago he now calls the greatest crisis in American history – and he, it follows naturally, must soon become greater than Lincoln and FDR. It is not – we trust – in our prime minister’s nature to make such claims, but at least one national commentator has already declared he might yet be “Australia’s most important wartime leader”.

War metaphors infest the language at the best of times. In general it’s just laziness, a haven from the strain of thinking. Yet it might be that people who inhabit the realms of power and influence, and come to assume that all life’s important questions are answered in the language and manoeuvres of politics and money, find war the most congenial alternative because it leaves them in charge. In Operation Sovereign Borders, though a uniformed army chap stood adjacent at press conferences, the real general was the minister, Scott Morrison. Now, however, political leaders must surrender intellectual authority to science and its practitioners, and the moral high ground they scramble for to doctors and nurses. They have been overcome by truth and knowledge. Never was it more true to say that the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

This is not a war. If pandemics bore any relationship to war, nations would prepare for them. War and preparations for it are incessant and obscenely expensive state activities and a lucrative trade for immense corporations. But this pandemic, though long predicted by scientists (and Bill Gates, among others), and portended by HIV/AIDS, Hendra, SARS, MERS and Ebola, arrived as if all of a sudden by spaceship from another universe.

The prospect of a pandemic – even the near certainty of it – has no purchase in spheres of power governed by such universally agreed imperatives as budget surpluses and winning elections. It turns out that until the pandemic was here in concrete fact it could not provide the kind of political and pathological payoff that war and the language of war does.

Irksome as the thought may be, whatever gratitude and praise we may mean to heap upon nurses and doctors and hospital orderlies and paramedics, we give them less than they deserve when we ascribe to patriotism or military precedent their care and compassion for the sick and dying. War might seem to elevate their selflessness, but once pushed into such exhausted mental territory it is diminished and falsified.

It is true that, like war, the pandemic requires discipline and a degree of regimentation, but so does learning a language or a musical instrument. So does education. The “enemy” in this crisis has been ignorance and untruth. This is the main difference: in wars, as they say, truth is the first casualty, but in the two months of the pandemic truth has steadily asserted itself and the casualty has been humbug. Knowledge has steadily replaced it. One by one the standard falsehoods and manoeuvres have been pushed aside, among them the ideological underpinnings of political debate in the past decade and a half.

The budget would return to surplus as promised. The outrageous sums Labor threw at the GFC would not be thrown at the pandemic. Let there be no talk of wage subsidies and the like. Free childcare – are you joking? But what had been standard Coalition talking points for years were suddenly as chaff before the wind. The government would be spending amounts of money that made Labor’s outrageous sums look like a little light berley. It would spend a large proportion of it on wage subsidies paid to employers. It would spend as much as circumstances demanded.

The principles of Coalition philosophy are not the only ones contravened by the government’s measures. A Labor government would have had to shed its own attachments to neoliberal economics, not to say the same political habits that afflicted the government’s early response.

Having seen our decommissioned manufacturing industry struggling to produce face shields and masks for health workers – what would have taken them a day four years ago took one car company more than a fortnight – and the inadequacy of global supply chains in a crisis, might both sides of politics rethink their shared hostility to anything resembling protected industry? Will public investment in science become respectable again? Will science itself become respectable? Having seen the power of Nature, and recognised that bellicosity, denial and posturing are futile defences against it, and for the time being allowed that scientific knowledge is humanity’s best hope, will we take the lesson to climate change as well?

Yet because they portend the old debates resuming, the old faces taking up their old places to perform their hackneyed, cheerless scripts, these questions don’t have much appeal just now. Some of us have fallen for the
scientists, the knowledge flowing on our screens, the honest reasoned arguments and, no less, the varieties of genuine humanity we have been seeing. The citizenry has sprouted heroes, among them the eloquent Senior Nurse and Disaster Manager at St Vincent’s Hospital, and the respiratory physician who sent shudders through ABC’s Q&A audience by telling them what this disease does to human beings. The times are strange because they are uncommonly real.

For evidence of this reality, which the best spin and marketing can never approach, go to the video made by the NHS respiratory team in a Belfast hospital. It is the plainest and most moving of advertisements. They stand in the foyer and one by one beg their fellow citizens to “please stay at home”. It’s just possible that when we’re allowed out again, some of us will be in no hurry to go.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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