The Covid-19 barometer: towards a shift in our values?

The mask has finally come off: phase 1, the only one that, according to the new Belgian Covid barometer, can give us back our freedom to breathe without a filter, to see people’s faces again, to be with our loved ones again if they wish, to go out freely at night to meet friends or for any other reason, this phase 1 corresponds to level 1 defined as « No circulation of the virus. This level can only be achieved when herd immunity exists through an effective and publicly available vaccine(1).  » Mission impossible. 

No one can and will ever guarantee that the virus will never circulate: despite vaccination, isn’t the flu still around? This level is therefore potentially unattainable, which would imply in this case that Phase 1 may also never be reached again, or not for years. As for the vaccine, or rather the multiple vaccines, they are hastily manufactured in a context of unbridled competition that leaves at least some doubt as to whether their real efficacy and safety (their long-term non-harmful nature) are the primary objectives, but that leaves no doubt that their long-term safety cannot be studied in such a short time. Conclusion: if we accept the logic of this Covid barometer, we will not be allowed to return to a normal social life at best before having undergone a risky vaccination, at worst not before years if this virus continues to circulate. And after all, why should we stick to this virus? Why not extend these health precautions to the flu, for example? Once the principle of the Covid barometer has been socially accepted, it should be realized that there would be no difficulty in getting such an expansion accepted.

We keep quiet. Until when?

Are we going to remain without reacting in the face of such an ultimatum, in the face of such a drift from common sense? Are we going to remain without reacting when solidarity, or even morality as a whole, seems paradoxically to have to be expressed only through the rupture of the social link? Are we going to stand by while freedom of expression, divergent scientific, political and moral opinions are censored? Are we going to remain without reacting when the only scientists who seem to have the right to express themselves, the mainstream media, the politicians, almost in chorus, make our youth, that is to say the aspiration to life, the enemy n°1?

When billions of dollars go to finance the research of pharmaceutical companies and the purchase of hypothetically effective vaccines, when these billions were not, and still are not, available for the financing of hospitals, health care personnel, education and basic research, the social sector and the fight against inequalities, the cultural sector or the ecological transition? When the health measures adopted are explicitly taken in order not to saturate the health services, and when the most elementary logic would require, if we really wanted to avoid a saturation of the health services, that we invest in these services, the places, the beds, the material, the personnel? When mentioning the waste and environmental pollution caused by billions of very unreliable tests(2) and billions of disposable plastic masks that are of little use in preventing infections outside their traditional medical use and that will take 450 years to degrade, not without ecological impact on the soil and water, is considered an « inaudible » comment?

Are we going to stand by while our lives and moral values are being changed without our consent? Or should we consider that it is with our tacit agreement that our freedoms are sacrificed for an illusion of security that we will eventually lose as well? For it is to the universal values, to the rights, duties and freedoms dearly conquered (although never totally acquired) by the generations that preceded us that these special measures are attacking. What is being questioned is the possibility of exercising our duty of solidarity towards others other than through the complete destruction of society. What is wrongly asserted is the impossibility of implementing the rights to life (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(3)) and health other than by destroying the social bond and all other individual rights. What is at risk is the possibility of continuing to oppose the right to freedom of expression (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to the current practices of intimidation and censorship(4) ; it is also the possibility of opposing the right to privacy (article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to the prohibition of seeing more than one person per month (or 3 or 5 depending on the phase imposed by the health authority), to the prohibition of the right of assembly (article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and to the right of participation in social and political life What is strangely affirmed is that the right to physical and psychological well-being (article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights(5)) is abolished, sacrificed in the name of a right to health that seems to have as its only content the prevention of Covid-19. Finally, what is threatened is the possibility of resisting worrying totalitarian drifts and a perfectly aberrant health dictatorship.

Breathing fresh air, burying and celebrating one’s dead with dignity, visiting and caring for the elderly, meeting freely with family or friends for those who wish to do so, and moving about with impunity are all part of a fully human life. This was denied to us for months and is now denied for an unpredictable length of time. Avoiding physical contact with most human beings, distrusting everyone, making new encounters impossible, burrowing into one’s bubble for months like rats, containing one’s emotions behind masks at every human interaction, suppressing joy, celebration, laughter, dancing, going out: these new norms, which are to be applied indefinitely and which do not have the same effect on people’s lives, are the result of a new approach. never been applied all at once in human history to free beings are the very negation of a human life worth living. And yet, a number of us do not dispute these new standards. What have we done with our critical sense? What makes us accept and conform to rules that are contrary to human needs?

« Freedom is slavery

It is essentially by language effects that the crowds are manipulated. Today, in an extremely pernicious way, it is by putting forward the « new generation » that we are able to make the most of the new technologies. morality « , the  » responsible citizenship « , the protection of the weakest « , their  » rights to life and health « , the  » break with egoism and individualism  » and even  » the rupture with our individual liberties which would put the community in danger  » that some try to manipulate the opinion. What does E. Macron tell us?  » We are in the process of relearning to be fully a Nation. That is to say that we had gradually become accustomed to [note the use of the past tense: it would seem to be over] to be a society of free individuals(6). Our society of free individuals, it should be recalled, promoted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of the Second World War, is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights since 1950 and by our Constitution. Is it seriously these foundations of law and expressions of our moral values that politicians are questioning with our silent agreement?

Our rights and freedoms obviously give us duties: to respect the rights and freedoms of other individuals. Our freedoms end when they infringe on the rights of others. Conflicts between the rights of some and the freedoms of others, or between rights themselves, are ethical conflicts. The simplest ones are regulated by our consciousness. The more complex ones are subject to democratic deliberation and are regulated by law: I have the freedom to smoke where I do not infringe on the health rights of others. In the face of the current epidemic, no democratic deliberation has taken place to set a compromise point between our freedoms and our duties. The ethical solution is decreed on the basis of the opinion of experts in epidemiology: act for the collective good, the one who respects the sanitary measures to the letter! And yet, once our screens are turned off, alone with our conscience and our ethical conflicts, who really manages to persuade himself that he is doing good by, for example, abandoning the elderly for months on end  » to protect them from Covid « ? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A « ready-made » ethical solution without nuances, without exceptions, without cases of conscience is comfortable, because it no longer requires us to seek by ourselves to resolve the ethical conflicts we face, but is it an acceptable solution? Yes, people at risk have the right to be protected: how can we concretely put in place reasonable and democratically agreed arrangements to protect them without going through a totalitarian ethical solution?

The manipulation of opinion is also practiced today by publicly discrediting on a professional and often personal level all the spokespersons of alternative opinions, who are made to look like irrational extremists with anti-democratic political opinions, while democracy is the last thing that has been mobilized in recent months. Manipulation also involves the misuse of concepts that are either not mastered or that are purposely used to mislead the public, such as calling « eugenics » (defined by theEncyclopaedia Universalis as  » (e.g., « atheory that advocates the application of methods to improve the genetic makeup of human groups  ») challenging certain health measures(7). There is, in addition to an inappropriate use of the term, a logical error in this argument, because there are other ways to protect the weakest than denying the fact that humans are social animals and suppressing the most fundamental freedoms of citizens.

Today, on the basis of « experts » whose position is not unanimous among specialists in their field of expertise, politicians decree, without social consensus, new norms of behavior, new moral norms: reduce private contacts, reduce conviviality (defined as  » positive relationships between people, in society  »). What is being played out here, under the guise of  » collective interest  » and « the Protection of the weakest  » is the suppression of individual liberties with the agreement of all those who think in good faith that they are showing solidarity, responsibility, with all those who sincerely think that it is not a question of « protecting the weak ». no restrictions on our freedom but rather the expression of it « .(8). Whereas the collective problem we are dealing with here and now (the Covid-19 epidemic) can perfectly well be dealt with in other ways than by ending freedoms. Examples include refinancing the health sector, keeping at-risk people out of risky activities, keeping older people out of certain activities if they are willing and agree, strengthening the immune system…

Freedom versus illusory security

Researchers have long been interested in the mechanisms that drive individuals to conform and obey. They highlighted the fact that some people prefer to avoid conflict and the negative consequences of disagreeing with the majority, and that some people quickly internalize new ideas and values when the source of influence is perceived as knowledgeable in their field. Numerous experiments in fundamental psychology have revealed how disempowered and impressionable the individual is in his behavior, thoughts and decisions when an authority comes into play or when faced with group pressure and the fear of exclusion or social sanction. Asch has thus shown the incapacity, for a certain number of individuals, to assert their own opinion in the face of the pressure of a group expressing its own, a fortiori when this opinion is unanimous. Other experiments have shown the weight and influence of authority on our opinions, choices and actions. This is the case of the famous Milgram experiment where, under the pretext of participating in a scientific experiment, 62% of the participants obeyed the orders of a scientist who represented an authority in their eyes and went so far as to inflict shocks that they thought were lethal on a victim (in reality an actor), in spite of the latter’s cries and complaints (feigned).

Milgram, through this experiment, highlighted the position of blind submission in which many individuals settle when they are confronted with what they consider to be an authority. This submission leads to a behavior that disregards all their pre-existing values. Under the orders of this authority, no responsibility seems to weigh on their own shoulders. This experiment has been replicated in many countries, with significant obedience rates each time (between 50% and 87.5%). This conformist and obedient facet of man could explain a great number of collective slips and human abominations. Recalling these experiences is important: not to make us feel guilty, but to make us pay more attention: these experiences show us that propaganda and manipulation can make us lose our bearings and our individual values. And all the more so, no doubt, when propaganda and manipulation are covered, as is the case today, with a veneer of « morality » by appealing to our  » sense of solidarity « .

Some experiments also show the influence of fear of death and stress on our attitudes and decisions. In our value system, principles sometimes conflict. But stress prevents us from thinking and prioritizing these principles correctly, and we then more easily accept the « ethical » solution outlined by an authority. With less media pressure, less stress, we would probably be more inclined to make decisions more in line with our deepest values.

In research on obedience and conformity, several arguments that push individuals to obey an unjust order often come up: not to risk trouble, to do as one’s peers do so as not to be discredited, or the realization that opposing a rule alone does not have enough weight to change it. Thus, in every era, collective abuses, attacks on the fundamental rights, life and freedom of human groups have taken place, carried out by « ordinary men », men who, for the most part, individually, did not wish it. As Christopher R. Browning explains: « In addition to ideological indoctrination, the most important factor is group conformity(9).  » He adds: « Everywhere society conditions its members to respect and obey authority. In any modern society, the complexity of life and the resulting bureaucratization and specialization diminish the sense of personal responsibility of those charged with implementing government policy. Within any group, the peer group exerts tremendous pressure on the behavior of the individual, and imposes ethical standards(10).  »

The death of the social link

Is this comparison excessive and inappropriate? Is there any question of such serious deviations in obeying the current rules? Yes. It is a question of the death of the social link since it is a question of protecting oneself from others and not only of protecting others. It is about the death of certain freedoms, starting with the highly symbolic impossibility of showing one’s face in daylight. And of all the collateral damage on people’s lives and health of certain measures adopted whose social, economic, psychological and political costs far outweigh the benefits. It’s about job losses, family and personal tragedies, isolation, increased mental health problems, delayed care and premature death, etc. These tragedies are not the consequences of Covid, they are the consequences of the management of the epidemic, of the confinement, of the restriction of contacts, of the curfew, but above all they are the consequence of the lack of hospital means, because a financing at the height of the requirements of the situation would have made it possible and would allow to do without these surreal measures.

Some people do not feel concerned by this debate. This is either because they don’t feel that the sanitary measures change their daily life much, or because they only respect them in appearance and don’t actually restrict their contacts that much. The first ones have difficulty in imagining that their way of life is not generalizable to all: however, young people, extroverted people, lonely people, old people, people who are unhappy in their skin, people who are unhappy in their homes need social stimuli to keep their psychological balance. The latter, who accept the current measures because they continue to socialize underground, do not realize that if the means of repression increase, they will no longer be able to find a way out. However, current technology offers the possibility of developing means of surveillance and repression (drones, tracking applications, etc.) and the law could, for example, as in Quebec, give the police the possibility of entering our homes to verify the application of measures(11).

Are we going to obey, let it go and accept the imposed ultimatum (blackmail) in the hope that the promises of a return to normal life will be kept? Or will we understand that the hope of returning to a normal life can only be realized if we make the decision to return to that normal life and if we allow ourselves to challenge the ongoing totalitarian ethical tilt and claim a balance of values that, without exception, promote a dignified and fully human life?

Valérie Tilman, philosopher and teacher

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