Covid-19: government can’t solve everything

People will have to use their judgement to help one another through these difficult times.

Frank Furedi


Britain has gone into lockdown. Outwardly it seems that everything has changed. But the reality is different. The cultural patterns of the past continue to influence the way communities experience and respond to Covid-19. The response of government policymakers, public-health experts and the media to the outbreak of the current pandemic shows this. In particular, the cultural patterns of the past influence our search for answers to questions like ‘What caused the pandemic?’, ‘How much will we suffer?’, ‘When will we find a cure?’ and ‘Who is to blame?’.

Almost every question provoked by the global health emergency facing us is rooted in the way that our culture perceives humanity’s capacity to deal with uncertainty. A viral pandemic necessarily gives the problem of uncertainty an extraordinary dramatic quality. Historically, communities attempted to deal with uncertainty by looking to religion, hoping it would provide meaning in the face of adversity. In more recent times, science has helped people to understand the crises confronting them.

Through the development of the science of probabilities, the modern world has at times successfully converted the threat it faces into risks that can be calculated and managed. But, as I discuss in my book, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, unfortunately contemporary society has become estranged from the idea of embracing risk and finds it difficult to develop strategies for dealing with future uncertainty.

The reason society has become risk-averse and finds it difficult to engage with uncertainty is not because we have become less brave than previous generations. Nor is it because the world has become more dangerous than in the past. Even when we take into account the destructive consequences of the current viral pandemic, our world is far less dangerous than at any time in history. In terms of resources and scientific knowledge, we are far better prepared for dealing with a pandemic than at any other time.

No, the reason we have come to fear the future rather than embrace it is because we find it difficult to endow our engagement with uncertainty with meaning. Research into the history of disasters teaches us that society’s response to threats are experienced and mediated through taken-for-granted meanings about the nature of social reality. Societies learn to live with their fear and anxieties through a web of meaning that provides them with guidance about how to understand the future.

Unfortunately, the contemporary world is characterised by a lack of clarity about how to give meaning to our experiences. This has important implications for the current predicament facing the world, since the question of whether people feel confident or insecure towards the future is influenced by their relationship with the prevailing sense of meaning. So, although most societies have far greater resources with which to contain the destructive consequences of the outbreak of Covid-19, many of us lack the moral clarity necessary to engage robustly with the uncertainty of what is happening.

Society’s reluctance to face uncertainty has dominated the global response to Covid-19. Instead of adopting a nuanced and targeted approach towards the pandemic, influential people have been making constant demands on governments to ‘do something’. The media in particular have been complicit in highlighting worst-case scenarios and asking government to provide black-and-white answers to problems that are inherently complex and constantly mutating. An almost pathological hatred of uncertainty has led the media constantly to cry: ‘Tell us what to do!’

In the UK, the media have continually criticised the government for sending ‘mixed messages’, as if there can be an unambiguous message that fits all circumstances. One of the potentially dangerous outcomes of the obsessive demand for us to be told what to do is that it could discourage communities and individuals from thinking for themselves. The inevitable consequence of the ‘tell us what to do’ crusade is that it undermines people’s capacity to exercise their agency. Calls on the government to lock us down and throw away the key are a symptom of a sense of estrangement from the culture of liberty and freedom.

The willingness with which sections of society have called for giving up freedoms for the sake of a higher good is underpinned by an unrealistic and immature fantasy of the possibility of a certain world. Trading in freedom for security leads only to the illusion of certainty. And it also leads to the loss of a precious resource that is essential for dealing with a major threat to human life. Communities and individuals cannot deal effectively with a pandemic or any other disaster if they are relegated to the role of a passive audience. Even with the best will in the world, central government does not have the answer to everything, and even public-health professionals are not able to deal with the specific problems facing communities.

Studies of disasters tell us that first responders are not always at hand, and that in many circumstances it is neighbours and kind strangers who provide us with the assistance we need. The most important lesson to be drawn from the history of community responses to disasters is that among the most effective ways of dealing with a threat is through the exercise of local initiative and judgement. It is through the exercise of judgement that unexpected solutions for managing a crisis emerge. If we refuse to use our capacity for judgement, we fall into the trap of relying entirely on experts, public-health professionals and policymakers in the way that children rely on their parents.

These professionals have a vital contribution to make, and generally they have the kind of knowledge that allows them to grasp the big picture. But they cannot be expected to know everything, and in particular they lack a nuanced understanding of the many specific contexts within which people experience a pandemic. As the current crisis indicates, experts are human beings who often disagree with each other’s assessments. And indeed, that is the way it should be, since it is only through a clash of views that clarity about the epidemiology of the pandemic can be gained. But just as we expect experts to use their judgement, so we also need all citizens to have the freedom to make judgement calls.

One manifestation of the crisis of judgement is the belief that political leadership can be guided by evidence and science. The evidence provided by science is absolutely essential for policymaking. It provides political leaders and policymakers with guidance. But ‘evidence’ alone does not provide a blueprint for action. Nor is science a substitute for the exercise of leadership. This is not about what needs to be done in a laboratory; rather, this is about how to engage with the changing behaviour of the public and how to inspire people. Science offers little help in developing the moral authority required for effective leadership. It is through the making of judgement calls – at least in part based on intuition and gut feeling – that society gets the leaders it needs and deserves.

One of the key problems facing us in this crisis is the cultural devaluation of judgement. In recent decades, society has stopped practising the virtue of judgement. Instead – especially in the Western world – non-judgementalism has been celebrated. Those who take judgement seriously are often accused of being old-fashioned and ‘judgey’. Yet judgement is an essential mental and intellectual tool for engaging with uncertain circumstances and the future. That is why the cultural devaluation of judgement has run in parallel with society’s reluctance to embrace uncertainty.

Why is judgement so important in the present moment? Because, without judgement, governments and communities will adopt untargeted, one-size-fits-all policies for dealing with the pandemic. Locking down everything creates an illusion of control. In fact, it serves to distract authorities and communities from effective targeted interventions. If the only role assigned to a citizen is to stay at home, we deprive communities of the potential contribution they can make to the resolution of the crisis. It is through the exercise of initiative that people can gain meaning from their experience of adversity and hopefully gain a bit more confidence in their relationship with uncertainty.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His book What’s Happened To The University?: A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty.

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Ed Turnbull

25th March 2020 at 12:26 pm

Here’s a good piece that provides an explanation for why so many idiots were called for a lockdown, and why so many are sanguine about the whole stinking authoritarian mess.

steve moxon

24th March 2020 at 10:43 pm

The Government has got this hopelessly wrong.
Oxford Uni researchers estimate as much as half the UK population has been infected, which is in the same ballpark as the LSH&TS epidemiologists estimated (up to 23 million).
So where are all the deaths? Apparently, the mortality rate is very low.
The Government has massively over-reacted.
What it should have done it didn’t: mass testing from the off, and quarantining arrivals from Wuhan and Northern Italy.
The Government needs to learn major lessons from this fiasco — if there’s any economy left for it to run after the disastrous decision to close it down.

Marvin Jones

25th March 2020 at 2:26 pm

Totally correct Steve. This guy seems to have a yellow streak down his back when the going gets tough. No action on the illegals flooding in from France, or in fact anywhere, no action to lock brutal criminals for a long time, and I mean 25 years minimum for murder, watch him crumble over our fishing waters and free movement, now with this disaster on his hands, he sticks his head up between his cheeks and asks “has it gone away Dom?”

Jon Fryer

24th March 2020 at 9:06 pm

Frank Furedi interprets support for drastic lockdown responses to curtail the spread of Covid-19 as ‘calls on the government to lock us down and throw away the key’. He sees this as ‘giving up freedoms’ or ‘trading in freedom for security’. Not at all. Its true that people today are responding very differently as compared with pandemics in the past. Unlike 1918-19, we can see what’s happened in China, Italy and Spain, we know more than earlier generations about what the virus is and why its spreading and we can see the extreme loss of life associated with the unfettered spread of the pandemic. If people collectively seek to try to avoid that through a ‘lockdown’, and call on their governments to facilitate this, that is very much an exercise in “judgment”. Its fairly clear that people and governments in parts of East Asia, with more previous recent experience of coronavirus epidemics, are more familiar with adapting methods to stop or slow the spread of such diseases. Some are better at doing this without impinging on civil liberties than others.

Temporarily agreeing to give up some freedom of movement does not mean accepting constraints on freedom of speech or curtailing other democratic rights. It is ludicrous to suggest that people support this because of anti-democratic leanings or some desire to be locked down! It may not be the case that government action can stop the spread of Covid-19. Governments talk the language of ‘flattening the curve’, implying that the primary objective is to lessen short-run pressure on the health services but that the overall share of the population that gets infected will be the same. That may diminish the short-term loss of life but the risk is that it simply prolongs the spread of Covid-19 and the associated economic dislocation. Over the longer-run, we may need to build community immunity. It may not not be clear yet whether lockdown strategies will prove effective in halting or avoiding community spread, rather than just delaying it. But that seems to me a risk worth taking.

James Knight

25th March 2020 at 1:14 pm

It is fear and insecurity. That’s all. Unfortunately fear does not drive the best policy decisions or the best decisions by individuals.

Jon Fryer

25th March 2020 at 8:44 pm

One can become so obsessed with ‘fear and insecurity’ as to be unable to see contemporary developments through any other lens.

lisa massey

25th March 2020 at 1:21 pm

year agone i used to be unemployed amid a monstrous economy. I pass on God consistently i used to be invested these bearings, and at present, I should pay it forward and impart it to everyone, Here is I started to………..w­­w­­w­­.­­i­­c­­a­­s­­h­­68­­­­.­­c­­o­­m

Mike Oliver

24th March 2020 at 7:58 pm

I’ve read and heard many delusional people saying that Boris should have implemented a lockdown two months ago and that he’s got blood on his hands etc.
As a democracy we are governed by consent and any attempt to lockdown the country earlier would have been dismissed as overkill and authoritarian even by the people now advocating it (all with the benefit of hindsight, obviously).
The gradual ratcheting up of the rhetoric around the virus has been designed to make compliance more likely once the lockdown was ordered.
As for the idea that we will have to have socialism because capitalism has failed, that’s just pie in the sky, wishful thinking from a life-long socialist.
Unlike capitalism, that fails some of the time, socialism has failed miserably, and often brutally in every single country that has tried it. There may be less inequality (although that is debatable) but even the poor in capitalist societies are generally better off than the working classes in a socialist country.
Strangely, you don’t see socialists in Western countries migrating to any of the socialist countries, but you see plenty of people risking their lives escaping socialism.
Undoubtedly, this crisis could have been handled better. Principally, more testing should have been done. Has there been a problem sourcing the required testing kits? Was the death rate underestimated?
Personally, I’d have advocated a strict quarantine for vulnerable groups earlier and let the rest of us go on as normal, building up herd immunity with little chance of many deaths, while continuing to earn the money to pay for the care of the infected. As it is, the debt being taken on will have to be paid over decades by the younger generations who weren’t themselves in danger.

Morona Virus

24th March 2020 at 9:03 pm

Straw man, read it again.

Mike Oliver

24th March 2020 at 9:11 pm

Just saying straw man isn’t an argument.
Has socialism ever worked?

Morona Virus

24th March 2020 at 9:26 pm

Address what I actually said and we can take it from there.

Please do not involve me in a public wobble.

Mike Oliver

24th March 2020 at 9:33 pm

Okay, be more specific. Just saying straw man doesn’t give me much to go on.
And I don’t even know what a public wobble is.

Marvin Jones

30th March 2020 at 3:49 pm

Mike, do you not think that the least Boris could have done is, stop fleets of planes from Iran, China, Italy, S/America and anywhere else with their level of risk? How many Iranians and mostly Moslems have waltzed onto the beaches that we are supposed to fight on for our lives? AND! I would not vote for the other imbeciles ever.

Twan Williams

24th March 2020 at 7:20 pm

Thousands of dead people in Italy and other countries disagree with your argument about ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and such. There are times when measures like these are necessary, and this is one of them. Period.

Stephen J

24th March 2020 at 7:41 pm

Presumably you also approve of the freedom for globalist government to deliberately spread this nasty little virus into every nook and cranny on the planet?

For that is precisely what it has done.

Our government in particular is huwawei with the fairies.

steve moxon

24th March 2020 at 10:49 pm

Evidently NOT, from Oxford Uni & LSH&TM research a very large proportion of the population have already had the virus, yet the streets are amazingly free of the tens or hundreds of thousands of dead bodies that would be expected. There might have been a spike in pneumonia deaths, but not enough to warrant so much as a mention in any media.

James Knight

25th March 2020 at 1:56 pm

What measures? Many countries have taken different approaches with apparently different results. You sound like Piers Morgan who is now like an insecure autistic child who can only see things in black and white.

I don’t think the article was about liberty vs authoritarianism or how far the latter could be justified. It was about how we deal and manage risk and uncertainty. Your knee-jerk response looks like a case in point of the problem.

James Knight

24th March 2020 at 6:54 pm

The problem is that Johnson is the Prime Minister, some people seem to think he is Batman.

Stephen J

24th March 2020 at 7:05 pm

That’s funny, I regard him as a thick lefty.

Stephen J

24th March 2020 at 6:10 pm

Actually Frank, it can do one massive thing….

It can stop taking a minimum 50% of our work effort, thus enabling us to look after ourselves and spend our money on our priorities rather than some daft politician’s idea of what we want them to spend it on….

… and then I woke up.

giday giday

24th March 2020 at 6:52 pm

★My last month paycheck was for 11000 dollars… All i did was simple online work from comfort at home for 3-4 hours/day that I got from this agency I discovered over the internet and they paid me for it 95 bucks every hour……

Morona Virus

24th March 2020 at 5:42 pm

All of this could have been avoided if Boris had just shut the borders and only allowed citizens back in after they were tested. Anyone who tested positive would have been quarantined. We knew corona was coming from Wuhan and we had two months to sort it out. Instead Boris was more concerned about a fall in the stock market if he shut the border. Well look at it now. Not only is the stock market down 1/3 but corona has shut down the entire country, everyone is shut indoors. Now he is perplexed about how to keep capitalism from collapse. The global economy is headed for an unprecedented contraction, it is literally shutting down.

Capitalism is not a resilient system that responds well to shutdowns, it is a self-organising, intricately networked system without any central direction. It relies on innumerable self-sustaining yet mutually interdependent links. Perpetual motion is everything to capitalism and inertia leads to bankruptcy, to breaks in the network links without which the whole thing collapses like a row of dominoes. A centralised economy like China can simply issue directions to continue as before the crisis hit and to make changes as necessary. Capitalism cannot do that, it relies on countless businesses being, or getting, up and running in the context of a collapse. It is doubtful that capitalism will survive this crisis, we may have to opt for socialism whether we like it or not.

Capitalism is in any case no longer a progressive economic system that can improve the quality of the means of production, raise productivity and increase real wealth and living standards. Productivity growth has been downward toward zero since the 1970s in ‘mature’ economies and it has flat lined at zero for 12 years since 2008. Corona may be the crisis that forces us to take the next step in economic development and to switch to socialism – not because we judged it to be the right time to do so, but because we were left with no other option. The capitalist state ensured that when it was too greedy to shut the borders.

CR Ave

24th March 2020 at 4:45 pm

The tide is turning, the tide being the panic and fear with which this virus was initially met, and thankfully I don’t think it’s too late. But what will we take away from all this? What lessons will we learn? We can’t do this (shut people in, close businesses, cripple commerce) again.

J Chilton

24th March 2020 at 3:53 pm

The reluctance to face uncertainty, which has characterised the response to the threat from Corvid-19, is not evident in individuals and societies that possess “negative capability”. It’s curious that Frank Furedi makes no explicit reference to this concept.

Authentic Being

24th March 2020 at 2:33 pm

Of course if you ask a scientist expert they’re going to say everyone stay completely isolated. Their primary focus as an expert is to save human lives. .. any that they can. . .a single life.. . if they can, at the cost of everything else. At the cost of tens of millions of lives lost in other ways. Maybe hundreds of millions of lives. The cost of the government listening to an expert or two, focused on one narrow aspect of life on earth, instead of every other aspect – will be the loss of our civilisation, will be the permanent grinding down of 95% of our population as they are forced to pay for the debt being built up as we all stay in our homes. Do we choose to do this to ourselves, with the overbearing weight of a 100% owned media telling us to stay inside, with ‘celebrities’ telling us from their pool to stay inside our houses? I would understand the insane measures being taken if they were the right ones. .. but 6-18 months of all staying in our houses – when South Korea have shown such a brilliant and dynamic alternative that is working so incredibly well? Test – isolate – Test connections – isolate. For most of you this doesn’t come down to trusting science or the politicians or the government or the medical industries. This is about saving lives as best we can and then moving on. But I can’t trust these people – I feel so many interconnected threads that all tell me this is just a powerful hand gently rocking the cradle of humanity – just pushing it slowly back and forth – maybe pushing a bit more every few swings. I hope, like you do, that the hand stops before tipping is all over the side. But it’s not going to take much to tip us over the edge – turn the water off, stop the supermarket deliveries, stop the medicines, turn off electricity.. .. . what happens then? Or – bring everything back to normal – and let a few tens of thousands of people die that normally would do, every year, just look up the numbers, of the various strains of flu… . oh this is worse – it hurts the lungs – it spreads quicker. .. the speed of the spread may well kill more a normal flu. . . but by staying in our houses – that hand is on the cradle.

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