4. sep, 2020

Doctors and Philosophers in the Covid-19 theatre

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, reacted to the latest book of Bernard-Henry Lévy, The Virus in The Age of Madness. He takes issue with BHL’s idea of too powerful doctors in this pandemic. I usually like Richard Horton’s reflections – even though he is a powerful doctor. Bernard-Henri Lévy (AKA BHL) is slightly less interesting, as a now somewhat stale ‘Nouveau Philosophe’, known for meddling in international politics with remarkably little effect, which is why some people wonder “why everyone hates BHL”.  His latest book has received mixed reviews (I like the one here), and there is indeed not much in it that has not been said better and earlier by the slightly less elegant but more effective  Slavoj Žižek in his Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World. But BHL points his complains especially at the transformation of physicians into “supermen and superwomen”. Horton versus BHL? Who to love, who to hate?

COVID-19 is for an important part an “epidemic of fear”. But that is not to be blamed on the doctors – although there are surely some virologists and epidemiologists who are celebrating their streaks of vanity ‘ad nauseam’. They are however eagerly offered the floor by the media – who in this time feed on fear even more than usual. The politicians who should be in control lose themselves in weakness and confusion – mostly brought about by the lack of vision, as Horton rightly writes.

Health has indeed become a public obsession, and I find it embarrassing to see how all other issues (from culture to climate) are wiped away to make room for the most basic individual survivor instinct.  But again, it is not the doctors  who wish to extend “an incestuous union of the political and medical powers”. Better arguments can be found in Barbara Ehrenreichs ‘Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (2018), where she writes about the illusion of having agency over ‘our bodies, our minds, and even over the manner of our deaths.’

Doctors share, with all of us, the symptoms of a change in our societies that has been coming for a long time and is accelerated by an accumulation of crises: climate, inequity, and health. That change has more to do with a search for a new common ground that helps to unite people in trying to make sense of it all, now that religion and even neoliberalism have gone to waste. In this transition the truth that problems caused by a certain way of thinking will not be solved by the same way of thinking is, I think, obvious.

That openness for another way of thinking is what I miss in Hortons reply to the Philosopher. I like his call for including social and economic inequalities in the new policies and programmes needed, but a call for fairness between generations is nice, but will not do. The inequity that cuts across all the elements of the crisis is indeed accelerated and made more visible by the pandemic. But it is not the pandemic that dehumanised us, as Horton writes. The pandemic is the whistle blower, the canary in the coalmine, warning us for new and more effects of climate change. And yes, doctors and medical scientists have an important voice in shaping plans for a way of life that is less exclusive and more equal. But so does everybody else, from any walk of life.

Perhaps even some really ‘New Philosophers’?

Willem van de Put, 4/9/2020