This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Andrew Simon Gilbert (Melbourne)
The topic of this special feature is living and thinking in crisis, but what makes the COVID-19 pandemic a crisis? Here I argue that this cannot be answered by looking at the numerical accounting of the virus alone, through recourse to statistics about cases, deaths, or spare hospital beds. As both Habermas and Koselleck have argued (Koselleck, 1988), a “crisis” refers to a particular experience of time. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore many latent vulnerabilities to our way of life in the 21st century global North: the vulnerability of urban density, of global travel, and of healthcare systems designed for maximal efficiency during normal times but overwhelmed during exceptional times. Most markedly the virus has highlighted the relationship between vulnerability and time. This virus moves fast; there is substantial latency between transmission and detection, acting urgently now affects what can only be anticipated to happen days or weeks into the future.
As Luhmann (2017) argued, accepting actions that affect an unknown future requires trust. In public health crisis management we speak of “public trust” because we are not dealing with individuals or groups, but with the flow of information and opinion throughout whole populations (Gille, Smith, & Mays, 2017). Not only are public health measures during a pandemic profoundly disruptive to people’s social and economic activity, but their rationale and success will only become apparent in retrospect. Moreover, management of a global pandemic falls invariably onto experts and authorities, with the State trusted to manage our individual vulnerability through strategies that address the virus as a population-level problem. We all become armchair epidemiologists, one eye watching the caseloads rise and fall and hoping the curve will flatten, the other eye watching politicians and public health experts pass laws and advice through our screens.
What do we mean by “crisis”? The term originally derives from the Greek verb krino, which broadly means to select, to decide or to judge (Koselleck, 2002, p. 237). As a noun, “crisis” brings into this a semantics of time, where the fundamental obscurity of the future becomes an intractable problem for determining what one does in the present (Koselleck, 1988, 2006; Luhmann, 1984). The future is always by definition uncertain, but it is during moments of crisis that this uncertainty really matters. A crisis implies a moment in time when past events have accumulated in such a way that the present is now pervaded by an imperative to make an irrevocable decision. Such a decision will come to exert a definitive influence over the future, but in ways that cannot presently be fully anticipated (Seeger & Sellnow, 2016; Weick, 1988). This temporalized semantics of crisis has played an important role in both religious and dramaturgical thought and the contemporary concept of crisis remains deeply entangled with those connotations (Koselleck, 2002, 2006). But it is probably the medical origins of the term, which was already present in Hippocrates, that best explains the enthusiasm with which modern ideologies have embraced “crisis” as a way of explaining modernity and its problems (Gilbert, 2019; Shank, 2008). In its medical terminology, the responsibility and capacity to decide during a crisis is foisted upon a particular type of person, the physician. The physician is an external, expert observer who must work upon a precariously ill patient, the latter having been rendered incapable of self-management by the course of the illness itself. This responsibility is what in turn defines the social role of the physicians; they are whom we turn to in moments of physiological crisis.
The thrust of modern ideology has been to view society through this prism and anticipate moments of crisis as opportunities when the future can be defined, and the historical course of modernity corrected according to the ideological narrative. Crisis therefore presents a momentary possibility to perform monumental, world-defining actions (Koselleck, 1988). Yet “crisis” also suggests that, at such moments, the right kind of expertise is crucial. Failing to correctly diagnose the condition can lead to the opportunity passing, or worse, can lead to erroneous courses of action which further compound problems. From Comte onwards, much of sociology has broadly considered itself the “science of crisis”: a disciplinary pursuit of the kind of expertise needed to diagnose the problems of modernity in order to be able to prescribe their solutions (Cordero, 2016; Gilbert, 2013, 2019). To return to the medical meaning, it is best to view “crisis” not as a direct “lived experience” of a patient, but rather as a terminology through which the medical expert brings their observations of both a patient’s experience and biological events of that patient’s body under conceptual control (Gilbert, 2019; Roitman, 2013; Shank, 2008). The main difference being that, for the sociologist looking at their own social world, roles of patient and physician cannot be so clearly demarcated. They are part of what is under diagnosis, and diagnosis oscillates between the perspectives of observer and patient. The non-transparency and unfathomability of the meaning of a moment of crisis is definitive of its “crisis” (Cordero, 2016; Gilbert, 2019; Luhmann, 1984).
With “crisis” thus defined, we can apply sociological expertise to our current moment by considering it as a “crisis of trust”. The concept of “trust” is an especially attractive one in this context, because it allows us to theorize the connections between social action, the performance of power and feelings of vulnerability. My argument is that a sociological account of the COVID-19 pandemic should begin with consideration of the vulnerabilities the virus has both created and exposed, and focus on how the unprecedented public health measures of States have both created the grounds for public trust and revealed its deficits.
We can define trust as the “intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions of the behaviour of another” (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998, p. 395). The notion of vulnerability is fundamental here, as vulnerability has a circular, self-reinforcing relationship with trust (Gilbert, 2020b).
While creating an opportunity to trust, at the same time vulnerability also increases the probability of distrust as situations of high vulnerability increase sensitivity of vulnerable parties to the trustor’s behaviour and this higher level of sensitivity has the potential to erode their trustMisztal, 2012, p. 213
Trust relations occur, therefore, when a trustee is bestowed with the responsibility to reduce a trustor’s vulnerability by mitigating the conditions which rendered them vulnerable. If one is not vulnerable, then the conditions of a relationship of trust are lacking. By bestowing trust, the trustor is able to “bracket out” vulnerability and enact complex possibilities that would otherwise expose them to unacceptable risk (Luhmann, 2017). This implies a two-fold confidence: the trustor’s confidence in the trustee as well as the trustor’s self-confidence in their capacity to evaluate the trustworthiness of the trustee (Barbalet, 2009). The function of trust is to reduce the obscurity of the future by assuming that another agent will care for your interests and committing to risky courses of action based on that assumption. Yet price of trust is that by doing this, vulnerability is further intensified, and the trustor becomes to some degree dependent on the trustee and exposed to the additional vulnerability of possible betrayal. This, in turn, heightens risk for the trustee, as breaches of trust are likely to have devastating consequences for the reputation and the likelihood of being trusted in the future (Luhmann, 2017; Misztal, 2012).
As I write this in August 2020, the public discourse on the virus is dominated by its quantity: Numbers of new cases each day, numbers of dead, spare hospital beds, comparisons of these numbers with last month, and increasingly and ominously the percentage of people who have “recovered” from the virus but are still debilitated by its symptoms months later. Yet numbers alone are not what makes a “crisis” (Gilbert, 2020a). Rather I would argue that the crisis quality relates to the sudden obscurity of the future that pandemic brings, and the vulnerabilities this exposes. This allows for the possibility that exiting the crisis may not be a matter of controlling the virus through vaccine or containment, but through the gradual adjustment of our collective expectations to accept the new conditions vulnerability, both of ourselves and of institutions.
Managing vulnerability to pandemic requires epidemiological knowledge and population-level public health measures. The “crisis” requires our acceptance of this knowledge and compliance with these measures despite a lack of certainty about how effective or necessary they will turn out to have been. Responsibility for enacting this has invariably fallen upon the State, the one entity expected to operate on an ostensible principle of inclusivity and in contradistinction to individual preferences and private interests (Bohn, 2009; Luhmann, 2013). However, the success of public health measures depends upon the population’s willingness to comply with rules that profoundly and negatively disrupt their lives. Trust is central, because measures such as enforcing lockdowns of private and public spaces, contact-tracing, and quarantine are exposing people to yet other forms of vulnerability – specifically mass unemployment and the increased ability of the State to monitor and control the movement of its population – that are themselves suggestive of obscure and potentially pathological futures.
Defining the virus as a pandemic means vulnerability and mitigation of it must be understood and managed primarily as population-level problems, rather than an individual pathology. This is in disciplinary terms the domain of public health, which draws on epidemiological knowledge to anticipate possible future presents and connect them to public policy (Mason, 2016). Public health experts must consider how the virus is anticipated to spread, rates of infection and death, and the likely impact upon healthcare services given current resources. The public health objectives during the COVID-19 pandemic have been to minimize the spread and mortality of the virus, avoid the overwhelming of health services and the depletion of acute care resources. This must also take clinical considerations seriously. Health professionals are front line staff who are at risk of infection, require personal protective equipment, and vulnerable to demoralization and burn out if caseloads become too intense, or they perceive they are not being supported by Governments, health authorities or the public. Failure to adequately support and prepare staff at Sydney’s Newmarch House aged care facility, for example, resulted in a “vicious cycle” of staffing shortages that critically undermined the facility’s capacity to control a COVID-19 outbreak.
A contentious principle of public health, and one of the reasons why it is sometimes argued to be more effective under authoritarian regimes (Kavanagh, 2020; Mason, 2016), is that during public health crises it becomes permissible to override the rights of individuals or subgroups for the health interests of the whole population. This might mean involuntary quarantine, tracing people’s movements, or closing borders. But it can also have a broader sweep, including closure of businesses, loss of jobs, enforcement of social distancing, and so on. In a liberal democratic society, applying these measures depends in large part on the trust and cooperation of the public. When efforts to control COVID-19 were first enacted, the nature of the virus was still not clear, and how successful its prevention or treatment would be was, and to some extent remains, uncertain. This required trust from the public that sacrifices they made, to their freedom of movement, social lives, and economic situation, was in their own long-term best interest. If the State is perceived to breach this trust, then the consequence is not only the harm done by the virus, but the harm done by public health policies that were enacted in what comes to be bad faith.
As Brubaker notes “epidemiological time is exponential time”. Symptoms take time to become apparent if they do at all. Viral outbreaks register in retrospect – days or weeks after transmission – meaning time when the virus appears to be under control can later turn out to have been time when cases were multiplying. The crisis character of a pandemic unfolds in the gap between a past, encountered always in present perfect tense, and the plurality of future presents (see Arendt, 1961): the consequences of how we act presently will only be known after their reverberations have already passed, meaning that all present actions must constitute a bridge between what is known of the past and what are anticipated as possible futures. This raises the stakes of trust considerably because compliance with public health measures requires trust in experts’ and power holders’ capacities to anticipate what is essentially unknowable. If the authorities’ projections turn out to have been mistaken, the public are less likely to comply with further measures.
Mutual trust between the public and their State is therefore a circular self-reinforcing relationship (Gille et al., 2017). Consequently, in Australia and New Zealand, which both have geographical isolation on their side, the caseloads declined. As the return to normalcy appeared nearer on the horizon, the publics’ trust in their respective governments “soared” (Farr, 2020). The sense of vulnerability receded, and with that the future seemed less obscure and more normal.
The cycle of trust can also turn the other way and become a spiral of distrust. Luhmann argues that distrust is the more difficult position to adhere to than trust in the long run, because distrust requires a paranoid and defensive attention to other agents, while trust means a release from concern about other agents, thereby affording time and energy to attend to other things (Luhmann, 2017). An implication of this is that the advantages of being trustful are ambiguous. To trust is to take the path of least resistance and trusting both ourselves and others may lead us into complacent vulnerability.
We witnessed this here in Melbourne, Australia where, during May and June 2020, it seemed like Australians had beaten the virus and we were slowly returning to our pre-COVID lives, to what we assumed would be the envy of the rest of the world. We settled into this complacency with ease – it is simpler and more satisfying to trust that things are going well. Restaurants and bars reopened, people started visiting each other’s homes again, and many of us stopped social distancing. It was only later that we were shocked by the discovery that meanwhile the virus had been spreading throughout the community. And so, we start looking for who there is to blame. At first, it was the default scapegoat for white Australia, dark skinned migrants. Then, as details became clearer, blame was attributed to the Andrews State government, and in particular, the mistake of contracting private security firms to manage their quarantine measures. After a fortnight of living in almost normalcy, the lockdown is back, and the Andrews government forcibly detained residents of an affected public housing block in their homes in what is now being called a violation of their human rights. For now, it appears that implementing a restrictive stage four lockdown across Melbourne has the overwhelming support of the Victorian public, suggesting trust in the institution of public health remains high.
It is not surprising, then, that it is the so-called populist right, figures such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro, who have floundered the most in the face of this pandemic. These figures paved their own paths to power by drumming up crisis rhetoric, invoking fears about migrants, loss of sovereignty and the political corruption of the establishment, and using this to win over enough of an agitated public. But the populist tactic has always been to espouse and then capitalize on a crisis narrative that is itself scripted to support the populist drive to power. The arc of a populist crisis narrative turns on the leader being the only individual capable of confronting the enemies and dismantling the obstacles that are threatening a national community (Milstein, 2021; Moffitt, 2015).
During the pandemic, the populist narrative has remained focused on the leader. Donald Trump asserted in February that the virus would “disappear”. When later challenged on this, as the USA rapidly took the global lead in the number of cases and deaths, Trump doubled down and insisted that what he said continues to be true: eventually, at some point in the remote future, the virus will indeed disappear. What counts for figures like Trump in retaining the trust of his cult is not managing their vulnerability to the virus but managing the vulnerability of his dominating image in the face of detractors and critics. Likewise, after testing positive to the virus, Bolsonaro saw it as an opportunity to appear publicly and demonstrate the mildness of his symptoms while insisting lockdown measures were unnecessary.
The strategy here is to promote distrust in the public health “experts”, who are denounced as alarmists or conspirators, while encouraging trust in the leader. It is a gamble that assumes it will be less disruptive, and therefore more appealing, for most people to believe the optimistic assertions of populist figures rather than accept the grim projections made by epidemiologists and the measures recommended by public health authorities. But this has been shown to be a self-defeating posture during a crisis. Thus far, it has only worked on the true believers and alienated everyone else. The US public continues to rate the CDC as far more trustworthy than the Trump administration, and Trump’s strategy has reinforced the suspicion that the only future he is concerned with, and the only vulnerability he is willing to manage, is his own. After falling numbers in the polls, Donald Trump is now in retreat and advocating face masks while declaring that the pandemic will “get worse before it gets better”.
It has become increasingly common over recent years for academics to declare a “crisis of trust” in Western institutions. One of the main points of this crisis has been the healthcare system, with eroding trust in doctors and the institutions of biomedicine apparently evident in surveys, as well as the proliferation of “anti-vaxxer” ideology and people’s willingness to second-guess health professionals (Gille et al., 2017). More broadly, this crisis of trust has been attributed as cause for the current rise in right wing populism (Flew, 2019), with figures like Trump and Bolsonaro in particular capitalising on distrust of experts and bureaucrats to further undermine public institutions.
Something this pandemic seems to demonstrate is that trust shifts with the level of perceived vulnerability. In moments when vulnerability becomes acute, the preconditions for trust suddenly prevail and the public are willing to comply with measures which disrupt their lives and undermine their liberty. Vulnerability makes people more likely to trust authorities, not less, so long as those authorities appear capable and willing to protect their interests. The Black Lives Matter movement is testament to the reverse scenario, when black people feel vulnerable because of the police rather than protected by them. Nevertheless, if lockdowns and curfews are leading to “soaring trust” in governments, the optics of this “crisis of trust” are transformed. It becomes necessary to ask whether the declining trust in institutions over recent decades has more to do with the erosion of their functionality, due to phenomena such as creeping managerialism and privatization, rather than a supposed irrational turn in public opinion.
Andrew Simon Gilbert is a Research Fellow at National Ageing Research Institute (NARI), Australia and a Commissioning Editor for Thesis Eleven. His disciplinary background is critical theory and sociology, and his current research focus is on health and social care systems in the context of ageing populations. He is the author of The Crisis Paradigm: Description and Prescription in Social and Political Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and has recently led a project investigating Integrated Models of Care, Health and Housing behalf of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. His publications have appeared in Ageing & Society, Social Science & Medicine, and Health Sociology Review. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @as_gilb
Feature image: Max Ernst (1928),
Ohne Titel (Muschelblumen)
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