Few phenomena have had such a profound global impact as the current covid-19 epidemic. In no time at all, human life has been totally reorganized. How did this happen, what are the consequences and what can we expect in the future? We asked Mattias Desmet, psychotherapist and professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University.
Patrick Dewals: Nearly a year after the covid-19 crisis began, what is the state of mental health in the population?
Mattias Desmet: At the moment, there are few figures available that track possible indicators such as antidepressant and anxiolytic use or the number of suicides. But it is particularly important to place mental well-being in the crisis of eu covid-19 in its historical continuity. Mental health had been in decline for decades. There has long been a steady increase in the rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. And in recent years, there has been a huge increase in sick leave due to mental suffering and burnout. The year before the epidemic, one could feel this discomfort increasing exponentially. This suggested that society was heading towards a tipping point where a psychological « reorganization » of the social system was necessary. This is what happens with corona. Initially, it was found that people, without knowing much about the virus, conjured up terrible images of fear and a real social panic reaction ensued. This happens especially when there is already a strong and latent fear in a person or population.
The psychological dimension of the current crisis is seriously underestimated. A crisis acts as a trauma that removes people’s historical awareness. Trauma is seen as an event in itself, when in fact it is part of an ongoing process. It is easy to ignore the fact, for example, that a significant portion of the population was relieved in a strange way during the first containment; they felt free of discomfort. I regularly hear people say: » Yes, it’s heavy, but we can finally take a break. The routine of daily life having ceased, a certain calm has settled in. Confinement has freed many people from a psychological rut. This created an unconscious support for containment. If the population had not been tired of their lives and especially their jobs, there would never have been support for containment. At least, not in response to a pandemic that is not that serious when compared to the great historical pandemics.
Something similar was happening when the first lockdown was about to end. At that time, there were regular statements such as: » We are not going to go back to the way we were before, get stuck in traffic jams, etc. ». People did not want to go back to the normal pre-corona situation. If we do not take into account the discontent of the population with its existence, we will not understand this crisis and we will not be able to solve it. In the meantime, I feel like the new normal has also become a rut, and I wouldn’t be surprised if mental health really starts to deteriorate in the near future. Perhaps especially if it turns out that the vaccine does not provide the magic solution that is expected of it.
The cries of despair of young people appear regularly in the media. How serious do you think they are?
It is important to note that containment and measures are totally different for youth and adults. Unlike an adult, where a year is over in the blink of an eye, for a young person, a year means a period of time during which he or she goes through an enormous psychological development. Much of this is done in dialogue with peers. Today’s youth are going through this period in isolation and for the majority of them, this may well have disastrous consequences. But everything is complex, also among young people. For example, people who previously lived with social anxiety or social isolation may now feel better because they are no longer outsiders. But in general, young people are probably the group most affected by this crisis.
What about fear in adults?
In adults, there is also fear, but the object of the fear, what is feared, is different. Some people are most afraid of the virus itself. In my street, there are people who hardly dare to leave their homes. Others are afraid of the economic consequences. Others are afraid of the societal changes that these measures will bring. They fear the rise of a totalitarian society. So did I (laughs).
Are the mortality and morbidity rates associated with the spread of coronavirus such that you understand the intense fear reactions?
Illness and suffering are always serious, but the magnitude of the suffering is not proportional to the reaction, no. Professionally, I am involved in two research projects on Covid. That’s why I worked quite intensively with data. It is clear that the mortality rate of the virus is quite low. The numbers the media shows are based on, say, an enthusiastic count. Almost all of the elderly who died, regardless of the underlying medical problems they already had, were added to the list of covid-19 deaths. Personally, I know of only one person who has been recorded as dying from covid. He was terminally ill with cancer, so he died with covid rather than from covid. Adding these deaths to the covid deaths increases the number and increases the fear in the population.
During the second wave, several emergency physicians called me. Some have told me that their department is definitely not flooded with coronavirus patients. Others told me that more than half of the patients in the ICU either did not have covid-19 or had such mild symptoms that if they had flu symptoms of comparable severity, they would have been sent home to recover. But given the panic that reigns, this proved impossible. Unfortunately, these doctors wished to remain anonymous and their message was not broadcast in the media and public opinion. Some of them later told their story to a VRT journalist, but unfortunately nothing has come of it so far. I should also mention that there were other physicians who had a completely different opinion and who could very well identify with the dominant narrative.
The disappearance of the possibility to criticize the way of counting and the sanitary measures, even within the academic world where the scientific attitude requires critical thinking, is striking. How do you explain this?
Make no mistake: many people in academia and in the medical world are watching with amazement. I have a number of friends in the medical community who don’t understand what is going on. They say: » Open your eyes, can’t you see that this virus is not the plague? But too often, they don’t say so publicly. Moreover, for every critical voice, there are thirty others that follow the dominant discourse. Even if this means that they have to give up their critical scientific attitude in this matter.
Is this a sign of cowardice?
For some, this is the case, to a certain extent. In fact, three groups can be distinguished everywhere. The first group does not believe the story and says so publicly. The second group does not believe in the dominant discourse either, but they accept it publicly anyway, because they dare not do otherwise given the social pressure. The last group really believes the dominant narrative and has a real fear of the virus. The latter group is certainly also found in universities.
It is striking to see how scientific research, also in this crisis of covid-19, brings to the surface very diverse results. On the basis of these results, scientists can defend almost diametrically opposed facts as the only truth. How is this possible?
The research on covid-19 is indeed full of contradictions. For example, regarding the effectiveness of mouth masks or hydroxychloroquine, the success of the Swedish approach or the effectiveness of PCR testing. What is even more remarkable is that the studies contain so many implausible errors that it is difficult to understand how a normal, sensible person could have made them. For example, when tracking the number of infections, we still talk in terms of the absolute number of established infections. But even a schoolboy knows that this means nothing until the number of established infections is put in proportion to the number of tests performed. In other words, the more tests you do, the more likely it is that the number of infections will also increase. Is that so difficult? In addition, it should be kept in mind that the PCR test can produce a large number of false positives if the ct values are too high. All these elements make the inaccuracy of the daily figures broadcast by the media so great that it leads some to suspect, wrongly but understandably, a conspiracy.
Once again, it is best to place this phenomenon in a historical perspective. Because the problematic quality of scientific research is a much older problem. In 2005, the « replication crisis » broke out in science. Various commissions of inquiry, which were set up to investigate a number of cases of scientific fraud, have found that scientific research is riddled with errors. Often, therefore, the conclusions proposed by the research are of very dubious value. In the aftermath of the crisis, several articles were published with titles that left little room for doubt. John Ionnadis, professor of medical statistics at Stanford, published « Why most published research findings are false » in 2005(1). In 2016, another research group published « Reproducibility: a tragedy of errors »(2) in the scientific journal Nature, on the same topic. These are just a few examples from the vast literature describing this problem. I myself am well aware of the fragile scientific basis of many research results. In addition to my master’s degree in clinical psychology, I earned a master’s degree in statistics, and my doctorate focused on measurement problems in psychology.
How was the criticism received in the scientific world?
Initially, they caused a shock wave, after which people tried to resolve the crisis by demanding more transparency and objectivity. But I don’t think it solved much. The cause of the problem lies rather in a particular form of science that emerged during the Enlightenment. This science starts from a too absolute belief in objectivity. According to the followers of this vision, the world is almost absolutely objectivable, measurable, predictable and controllable. But science itself has shown that this idea is untenable. There are limits to objectivity and, depending on the scientific field, these limits are encountered more quickly.
Physics and chemistry still lend themselves quite well to measurement. But in other fields of research, such as economics, medicine or psychology, this is much less feasible. The subjectivity of the researcher has a direct influence on the observations. And it is precisely this subjective core that we wanted to banish from the scientific debate. Paradoxically — but perhaps also logically — this nucleus flourished in its place of exile, which led to the totally opposite result of what was hoped for. Namely a radical lack of objectivity and a proliferation of subjectivity. This problem persisted even after the replication crisis, and they were unable to find a solution on the merits. The result is that now, 15 years later, in the covid crisis, we are in fact facing the same problems.
Are today’s politicians basing their anti-corona measures on faulty scientific assumptions?
I think so. Here too we see a kind of naive belief in objectivity turn into its opposite: a radical lack of objectivity with masses of errors and inaccuracies. Moreover, there is a sinister connection between the rise of this type of absolutist science and the process of mass formation and totalitarianism in society. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, the German-American philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt describes how this process took place in Nazi Germany, among others. Emerging totalitarian regimes usually fall back on a « scientific » discourse. They show great interest in figures and statistics, which quickly turn into pure propaganda, characterized by a radical « disregard for facts ». Nazism, for example, based its ideology on the superiority of the Aryan race. A whole series of so-called scientific figures supported their theory. Today we know that this theory had no scientific value, but at that time scientists defended the point of view of the regime in the media.
Hannah Arendt describes how these scientists deteriorated to a dubious scientific level and uses the word « charlatans » to emphasize this. It also describes how the rise of this type of science and its industrial applications has been accompanied by a typical societal change. Classes have disappeared and normal social ties have deteriorated, with much undefined anxiety and discomfort, loss of meaning and frustration. It is in such circumstances that a mass is formed, a group with very specific psychological qualities. In principle, when a mass is formed, all the fear that pervades society is linked to a single « object » — the Jews, for example — so that the mass engages in a kind of energetic struggle with this object. On this process of mass formation, a completely new political organization is formed: the totalitarian state.
Today, similar phenomena can be observed. There is a huge psychological suffering, a lack of meaning and an absence of social links in society. Then comes a story that points to an object of fear, the virus, after which the population en masse links its fear and discomfort to this object of fear. Meanwhile, the call to join forces to fight the murderous enemy is constantly heard in all media. Scientists who bring history to the people receive impressive societal power in return. Their psychological power is so great that at their suggestion, the whole society suddenly renounces a whole series of social customs and reorganizes itself in a way that no one would have thought possible at the beginning of the year 2020.
What do you think will happen now?
The current policy related to the coronavirus temporarily restores some social connection and meaning to society. Fighting the virus together creates a kind of intoxication. This intoxication causes an enormous narrowing of the field of vision, which makes other issues, such as attention to collateral damage, take a back seat. Yet the United Nations and various scientists warned from the start that collateral damage could cause many more deaths worldwide than the virus, for example from hunger and delayed treatment.
Massification has another remarkable effect: it leads individuals to put aside, or rather, to psychologically ignore, all selfish and individualistic motives. We come to tolerate a government that suppresses all personal pleasures. To give just one example: hotel and catering establishments in which people have worked all their lives are closed down without much protest. Or: the population is deprived of shows, festivals and other cultural pleasures. Totalitarian leaders intuitively feel that tormenting the population perversely reinforces the formation of the masses.
I can’t explain it in detail here, but the process of massification is inherently self-destructive. A population that has been seized by this process is capable of enormous cruelty to others, but also to itself. She does not hesitate at all to sacrifice herself. This explains why a totalitarian state — unlike dictatorships — cannot continue to exist. It ends up devouring itself, so to speak. But the cost of this process is usually a very large number of human lives.
Do you think you recognize totalitarian traits in the current crisis and in the government response to it?
Yes, certainly. If we distance ourselves from the history of the virus, we discover a totalitarian process par excellence. For example: according to Hannah Arendt, a pre-totalitarian state cuts off all social ties from its population. Dictatorships do this at the political level — they make sure that the opposition cannot unite — but totalitarian states also do it within the population, in the private sphere. Think of the children who — often against their will — denounced their parents to the government in the totalitarian states of the 20th century. Totalitarianism is so strongly focused on total control that it automatically creates suspicion among the population, causing people to spy on and denounce each other. People no longer dare to talk freely to anyone and are less able to organize themselves because of the restrictions. It is not difficult to recognize such phenomena in the present state of affairs, among many other characteristics of emerging totalitarianism.
What does this totalitarian state ultimately want to achieve?
In the first place, he wants nothing. Its emergence is an automatic process linked, on the one hand, to a great malaise within the population and, on the other hand, to a naive scientific thought that considers that total knowledge is possible. Today, some think that society should no longer be based on political speeches or ideas, but on scientific figures, thus rolling out the red carpet for a technocracy. Their ideal image is what the Dutch philosopher Ad Verbrugge calls intensive agriculture/human breeding (‘intensieve menshouderij’). In a biologically-reductive, virological ideology, continuous biometric monitoring is indicated and man is subjected to constant preventive medical interventions, such as vaccination campaigns.
All this is done to optimize your health. And a whole series of medical hygiene measures must be implemented: no handshake, wearing a mouth mask, constant hand disinfection, vaccination, etc. For the followers of this ideology, one can never go far enough to reach the ideal of the highest « health » possible. In the press there were even articles in which one could read that it was necessary to scare the population even more. Only then will they comply with the measures proposed by the virologists.
In their view, stirring up fear ultimately serves the common good. But in devising all these draconian measures, policymakers forget that people — including their bodies — cannot be healthy without sufficient freedom, privacy and the right to self-determination. Values that this totalitarian technocratic vision totally ignores. Although the government aspires to a huge improvement in the health of its society, by its actions it will only ruin the health of the society. This is a fundamental characteristic of totalitarian thinking according to Hannah Arendt: it leads to exactly the opposite of what it originally aimed at.
Today, the virus creates the necessary fear on which totalitarianism is based. Will the availability of a vaccine, and the subsequent vaccination campaign, not eliminate this fear and thus put an end to this totalitarian outbreak?
A vaccine will not solve the current impasse. This crisis is not a health crisis, it is a deep societal and even cultural crisis. Moreover, the government has already indicated that after vaccination, the measures will not automatically disappear. An article in the press(3) even said that it was remarkable that countries that are already well advanced in the vaccination campaign — such as Israel and Great Britain — are strangely stepping up the measures. I rather foresee this scenario: despite all the promising studies, the vaccine will not provide a solution. And because of the blindness caused by massification and totalitarianism, the responsibility will be placed on those who do not conform to the dominant discourse and/or refuse to be vaccinated. They will be used as scapegoats. We will try to silence them. And if this succeeds, the dreaded tipping point in the process of totalitarianism will come: only after having completely eliminated the opposition will the totalitarian state show its most aggressive face. He then becomes — in the words of Hannah Arendt — a monster who eats his own children. In other words, the worst is probably yet to come.
So what do you think?
Totalitarian systems generally all have the same tendency to isolate methodically. For example, in order to guarantee the health of the population, the « sick » part of the population will be isolated even more and locked up in camps. This idea was actually put forward several times during the covid crisis, but was rejected as « not feasible » due to too much social resistance. But will this resistance continue if fear increases exponentially? You may suspect me of being a fantasist, but who would have thought at the beginning of the year 2020, that today our society would be in the current state? The process of totalitarianism is based on the hypnotic effect of a story, a discourse, and it can only be broken if another story is heard. That’s why I hope more people will ask questions about the real danger of the virus and the need for the current corona measures. And will dare to speak about it publicly.
How is it that this fear reaction does not occur with the climate crisis?
The climate crisis is probably not very suitable as an object of fear. It is perhaps too abstract and we cannot associate it with the immediate death of a loved one or ourselves. And as an object of fear, it fits less easily into our medical-biological conception of humanity. A virus is therefore a privileged object of fear.
What does the current crisis teach us about our relationship with death?
The dominant science perceives the world as a mechanistic interaction of atoms and other elementary particles that collide by pure chance and produce all kinds of phenomena, including man. This science makes us desperate and helpless in the face of death. At the same time, life is seen and experienced as a mechanical phenomenon totally devoid of meaning, but we cling to it as if it were the only thing we have, and for that reason we want to eliminate every risk or risky behavior. And that’s impossible. Paradoxically, trying to radically avoid risk, for example through covid-19 sanitary measures, creates the greatest risk of all. Just look at the colossal collateral damage caused.
You perceive the current societal evolution in a negative way. How do you see the future?
I am convinced that something beautiful will emerge from all this. The materialist science starts from the idea that the world is made of particles of matter. However, this same science has shown that matter is a form of consciousness. That there is no certainty and that the human mind cannot fully grasp the world. The Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr, for example, argued that elementary particles and atoms behave in radically irrational and illogical ways. According to him, they could be better understood by poetry than by logic.
Politically, we will experience something similar. In the near future, we will witness what will probably be the most ambitious attempt in history to control everything in a technological and rational way. In the long run, this system will prove to be ineffective and will show that we need a totally different society and policy. The new system will be based more on respect for what is ultimately elusive to the human mind and on respect for the art and intuition that were at the heart of religions.
Are we now in a paradigm shift?
Without a doubt. This crisis announces the end of a cultural historical paradigm. The transition has already been made in part in the sciences. The geniuses who laid the foundations of modern physics, of the theory of complex and dynamic systems, of chaos theory and of non-Euclidean geometry have already understood that there is not one, but many different logics. That there is something intrinsically subjective in everything and that people live in direct resonance with the world around them and all the complexity of nature. Moreover, man is a being who, in his energetic existence, is dependent on his neighbor. They already knew it for a long time, now the others again! We are now witnessing a final resurgence of the old culture, based on control and logical understanding, which will show at a rapid pace what a huge failure it is and how incapable it is of really organizing a society in a decent and humane way.
Interview by Patrick Dewals, political philosopher
*This interview was originally published on the website dewereldmorgen.be, an alternative media in Flanders. We thank them for allowing us to translate it into French and publish it.
Translation proofreader: Ludovic Joubert
- « Pourquoi la plupart des résultats de recherche publiés sont faux », https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
- « Reproductibilité : une tragédie d’erreurs », https://www.nature.com/news/reproducibility-a-tragedy-of-errors‑1.19264.