Partnership between pandemics

Lorraine Daston, Jeffrey C. Alexander and Adam Tooze

The The Rafael del Pino Foundation and the Gaspar Casal Foundation organised, on 16 June 2021, the live dialogue through entitled "Society in the midst of pandemics" in which the following speakers will take part:

Lorraine Daston, Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Jeffrey C. Alexander, Professor of Sociology at Yale University

Adam Tooze, Professor of history and director of the European Institute at Columbia University

Lino Camprubí, Researcher at the University of Seville (moderator)


On 16 June 2021, the Rafael del Pino Foundation, in collaboration with the Gaspar Casal Foundation, organised a dialogue entitled "Society between pandemics", with the participation of Lorraine Daston, Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science; Jeffrey C. Alexander, Professor of Sociology at Yale University, and Adam Tooze, Professor of History and Director of the European Institute at Columbia University.

For Lorrain Daston, crises, such as the Covid-19 crisis, are different from disasters, such as an earthquake, because they are perceived differently. The first difference is that a crisis marks a turning point in human affairs. Secondly, a crisis requires decision-making, whereas a disaster does not. Whether a disaster becomes a crisis is not a matter of good or bad luck. It is a matter of perception, of whether society perceives that what is happening can affect the quality of life, that it can be a turning point and that there is no choice but to make decisions.

Without statistical information there would have been no Covid-19 crisis. Death and suffering happen all the time in the world, but they are not crises. What made this case a crisis was not only the casualties, but also the comparison between regions and countries that statistical data allows, so that everyone could see how it affected them. Everyone had this information for breakfast. The media updated the statistics all the time. Finally there were the maps, which let everyone know which countries were doing well and which were not.

To emphasise this aspect of national competence in managing the crisis, we know that the information that was presented was from nations, but it made no epidemiological sense. It was the presentation of information in this way that turned a disaster into a crisis. Leaders had to respond, and were compelled to act, knowing that they were being judged not just in national terms, but in relation to their peers in the rest of the world.

Medical statistics have been used since the 16th century with the London plague. This allowed the crisis to become a reality and decisions were taken such as closing the city, decreeing the quarantine of homes where there had been contagion, or the immediate burial of those who had died of the disease. We also see another novelty, the diagnosis of the crisis. Bubonic plague probably wiped out 50% of the population it infected. Compare this with a mortality of just 1% for Covid-19. Some historians will doubt that this was a crisis, because it cannot be compared to the pandemics that ravaged the world before. This is not what is important. What is important is the public perception, which had changed. That perception of what is acceptable and what is not makes something a crisis or not.

In the face of the Covid-19 crisis, advocates of fiscal austerity authorised huge amounts of money, air traffic was halted and people were forbidden to leave their homes. This was supported by the population, which allows us to see the change in perception among society.

It is no longer considered natural for a pandemic to end in 1% mortality, even if it is the elderly, and politicians can no longer say that nothing can be done. Responsibility is now greater and crises demand a political response.

Once the crisis has been diagnosed, the question is who does what. Political leaders turn to the experts. This was seen in the Paris plague with regard to its causes. In the current crisis, you have to think about the politicians who made it look like they were paying attention to the experts and the international scientific community that made it possible to do the necessary follow-up to get the vaccines in record time. Those who doubted the validity of vaccines disappeared. Scientists had to share their knowledge.

Is this going to last long? It must have been very satisfying for the scientists that the public paid attention to them, that there was a lot of money for research. But those most exposed to the public began to see that being famous is not so wonderful. It had to be seen that saving lives had to come at the cost of the economy, so the politicians passed the responsibility to the scientists. They discovered that the uncertainty involved in scientific research could enter into the political game, to the advantage of both sides. As journalists focused on uncertainty, the public saw that scientists disagreed with each other.

Much of the public was confused by the disagreement between scientists over masks, transmission, drugs, and political leaders were able to exploit these disagreements, leading the public to conclude that the debate was political. This approach of uncertainty ran up against the idea that truths were not subject to constant revision in the light of the latest findings. Citizens of rich countries that have lowered the acceptable threshold of risk below 1% have learned that reality is inherently uncertain.

According to Adam Tooze, we should not be distracted by the current debate about the origin of the Covid-19 crisis. No matter where it came from, it is something we have seen before. Whether it was an accident or not, there was a similar case in 1986. These accidents can happen in America, in China, in Europe. We can think of it as a human-induced event.

What we are doing is summarising the experience of the 1970s. It is a crisis that is evident now, but we underestimate the need to prepare for such a crisis. There is something in modern society that makes us underestimate the risks. The US and the UK always boast that they are prepared for everything, but this is not true. There may have been failures in the Trump administration, but they did not realise that the risk was going to affect all countries, not specific countries, developing countries. In the late 1980s this was called organised irresponsibility. As neoliberalism is to deny that responsibility, it made it worse.

Risk awareness does not help if we worry about something very different from what is about to affect us. Some people were worried about climate change because we did not understand the temporalities of these risks. We were preparing for that, but not for the Covid-19 risk. The UK government had to prepare a plan for the next decade to prepare for Brexit, climate change and Covid-19, as if it did not represent a crisis of more dramatic proportions than climate change. There is no climate change that can be like what we experienced last year. It seems that this is not enough for politicians to understand what is structural and what is not.

Those who studied these issues before the crisis also failed to see the impact it could have, they did not imagine how unprepared we were. It was thought that the risks would be in the emerging markets. This fantasy lasted until March last year, when Italy decided to close the country. The risk was underestimated in all countries of the world. The problems that this would bring with globalisation were not foreseen.

This is an economic crisis caused by us. It shut down India, not just Germany or the United States. The evidence suggests that it was a bottom-up defensive reaction that caused there to be confinements. It was a self-protective reaction of households and businesses.

All we needed was a global communication to transmit the data and the government responded by enacting the confinements. The fall in GDP is not an economic loss, but an equilibrium adjustment.

The fact that we have to choose is the very definition of a crisis. Some decisions were challenging. They were terrible and some systems were not robust enough to make that choice. For macroeconomics, the consequence of different actions has a spillover effect that goes beyond the individual decision. In markets we already saw changes in February, before the shock. A classic collective action problem, where everybody tries to exit through the emergency door, leading to a deeper crisis than in 2008. Central banks had to intervene heavily to prevent what happened in 2008. Every week they bought as many assets as in one month during the previous crisis. The system was stabilised by different interventions.

For Jeffrey C. Alexander, what has happened could be called a collective trauma, affecting society as a whole, families, regions, countries and globally. As this interpretation explodes, there is a conflict with the narrative. Exactly what was happening, who were the perpetrators, what about the victims, what should be done to ensure that this does not happen again? These questions have not been answered, but there is a debate in society. We also have to talk about the reform of society, about the future of liberalism.

If this debate had not taken place, Trump would have remained president. Biden's victory is the result of a cultural process that is changing America.

Many people died. Conservatives have argued that it was no big deal. In other words, it was an approach to reality that was being taken very seriously. But statistical information has to be turned into a discourse that some people like and some people don't like. One issue that made people angry was whether this is a failure of society, whether society is made up of selfish people. Heroes emerged who care about others. Who the victims were is an issue that gives rise to complications. Are they individuals or are we all united as a society? That gives rise to the question of what we can do, how to build society again.

The idea is still that the Chinese were to blame, but there is another narrative from the left that Trump is to blame, that neoliberalism is to blame. It is not a medical crisis, but a crisis of a governmental system that has destroyed the capacity to respond. This gives rise to a series of moments of existential angst: are we competing with each other for resources or can we work together? What about the victims? Are we willing to sacrifice? The West is facing it again as a crisis of selfishness.

These issues of solidarity that come up with trauma allow us to open up. It varies a lot depending on which country we are in. This gives rise to the experience of solidarity and lays the groundwork for neoliberalism to move into the background. You have to focus on the narrative, who is the subject, what are the implications for each other.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.