Since initial reports of the coronavirus outbreak in late 2019, America has witnessed a rapid and unprecedented transformation within nearly every aspect of mainstream society. At work, many Americans settled into their new daily routines of working from home, hunched over computer screens for hours of caffeine-supported Zoom calls frequently followed by app-delivered box dinners. In elementary schools throughout the country, young children began growing accustomed to wearing masks while sitting in socially distanced cubicles to learn about the dangers of hugging, shaking hands, or breaking social distancing protocols. In organs of government, state governors around the country invoked various emergency measures to help better curtail nonconforming human behaviour; from doling out stiff fines and penalties to non-compliant small business owners, to offering monetary incentives for snitching on one’s own neighbors, to surveilling parks and beaches with aerial drones, to conducting police raids on non-socially-distanced children’s birthday parties, to imposing $1,000 fines for those citizens refusing to wear a mask.
On television, radio, and social media, daily reports from federal, state, and local medical experts constantly reminded us of the total national death toll, recent spikes in death and infection rates, and other helpful tricks and tips for how we can all stay safe in our homes by performing such crucial life-saving activities as donning a face-shield/mask combo, wearing two masks, or handwashing our mail. For our new entertainment, Hollywood mega-celebrities rose to the occasion to remind us from on high, that “we are all in this together,” playing us socially distanced concerts from their home-studios in between color-coded threat-level reminders.
Meanwhile, for the average American, independent of race, sex, or creed, daily economic and personal life as well as any semblance of the common, the normal, or the familiar greatly diminished. From local church closings, to cancellations of weddings, funerals, and bridal showers, to barring visitations of loved ones in nursing homes, to shutdowns of gyms, bars, restaurants, concerts, and sporting events, to gross restrictions on freedom of movement and small gatherings, to citizens policing one another in the supermarket grocery aisle; the vitality, tapestry, and character of American civic life became almost unrecognizable from just a year prior. Indeed, from state to technological to free market relationships, the mass mobilization of large-scale societal and institutional forces came together to radically reshape our day-to-day forms of life, values and priorities, and individual and collective ways of being in the world.
Given the breakneck speed and rushed urgency of these many changes, it is easy for us as Americans to forget where exactly we were as a country just a year and a half ago and what exactly we were originally promised by our leadership when this all began. Following initial reports by the World Health Organization of the coronavirus outbreak emanating from Wuhan, China in late 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first confirmed American coronavirus case in January of 2020. By early February, (then) President Donald Trump declared coronavirus to be a public health emergency, quarantining any Americans recently returning from China as the nation saw its first reported coronavirus death. Soon thereafter, the federal government declared coronavirus to be a national health emergency and began initiating first round testing followed by restrictions on international and state-to-state travel. At this same time, the Trump administration mobilized the US National Guard, FEMA, and local law enforcement in order to assist in these public safety efforts while repurposing sports stadiums for coronavirus medical zones and stationing floating hospitals in major city harbors in anticipation for the mass overflow of infected citizens.
In March 2020, the US government announced a 15-day nationwide social distancing effort in order to slow the spread of the virus, to “flatten curve” and prevent overwhelm of medical and hospital infrastructure. This effort, of course, extended beyond just 15 days with the CDC next recommending the additional wearing of non-surgical facemasks to supplement social distancing efforts. However, as early as April, state governors were already talking about getting to the “new normal” and issuing strict lockdowns of small business, gyms, sporting events, and freedom of movement within and without their respective states. At this time, bioethicist and chief designer of the Affordable Care Act, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, announced his prediction of an 18-month minimum until such a new normal could be achieved and national leaders were beginning to compare coronavirus to WWII.
By May, the CDC announced that COVID deaths had surpassed 100,000 and by June the U.S. saw total COVID cases hitting two million. In his appearance before the US Senate in June, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that daily COVID cases could swell the rate of 100,000 per day. And by July, the US surpassed the three million mark of those who were infected. By fall, Johnson and Johnson, BionTech, and Pfizer all announced the beginning of Phase Three of their vaccine trial testing with the Trump administration announcing a vaccine distribution plan for January 2021. In early October, President Trump was hospitalized with a fever, testing positive for the virus, but was soon discharged several days later in relative good health. In November, all three major vaccine producers announced a 95 percent effectiveness rate for their COVID-19 vaccine trials. However, by December, UK doctors announced the first reported mutated strain of the virus.
Upon taking office in January, President Joe Biden issued a 100-day mandatory mask mandate for all Americans along with his plan to get to 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office as part of his administration’s effort to “build back better.” Soon thereafter the vaccines were released to the general American public with cautious optimism that we were finally out of the woods and that we could soon return to some form of normalcy. Over the following months, however, Americans continued to witness yet another shifting of success metrics as well as a new set of health prescriptions in order to keep combatting the virus.
In February, for instance, the CDC issued guidance for citizens to begin wearing two masks as a matter of “good common sense.” And in April, Dr. Fauci continued to push for a second round of vaccines and to urge many Americans to keep social distancing and wearing a mask even after the vaccine had supposedly done its job. Throughout this entire time period, other experts continued to talk about, and still continue to talk about the urgent need for the creation of a state-mandated digital vaccine passport. And despite all of these precautions, restrictions, protocols, masks, vaccines, social-distancing measures and the erecting of an entire new COVID economy, medical experts have nonetheless assured us of their latest plans to tackle this summer’s “Delta variant” as well as their pre-emptive plans for COVID’s next inevitable mutation.
Now granted, such changes and shifting might just be an organic and natural consequence of scientific and medical experts adjusting on the fly to new and more accurate data coming in concerning the nature of the virus, how it spreads, its level of lethality, mutations, etc. On the other hand, such fast-paced changes and shifting of goalposts might lead some Americans to begin questioning the ever-steepening level of demandingness and sacrificial trade-offs asked of them for the sake of continuing to combat the virus.
Given this increasing build-up of institutional momentum, shifting of goalposts, and the possibility of further mission-creep, we should pause for a moment to ask ourselves, where is this all ultimately heading? Indeed, even if restrictions within society have relaxed in the short-run, as they appear to have, there is still reason to worry about a kind of “COVID-creep” settling in, coupled with a general attitude of passive resignation and docility within the American public at large with respect to this new normal. Now that these state, economic, and technological relations have been mobilized, one might wonder about the potential moral hazards, market incentives, and rudderless institutional inertia now in place that might continue and strengthen of their own accord in the coming months or years. One might also worry about the subtle and not so subtle background causal power such institutional and narrative forces might have on present and future bio-medical research with respect to COVID as well as the susceptibility that the so-called “objective science” might have to becoming handmaiden to such moneyed interests, bureaucratic momentum, and narratives of fear. Put simply, the average American citizen might now worry about the rise of Big COVID.
Such an institutional ratchet-effect is far from unprecedented in America’s history. Indeed, perhaps the clearest instance of such a phenomenon is the US government’s response following the attacks on September 11th, 2001. After the initial attacks by Al Qaeda, America saw an unprecedented emergence of governmental creeping on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. Domestically, American citizens saw the creation of the Patriot Act, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the emergence of drastic and invasive airport security protocols. Furthermore, we saw preventive detention and sting operations on US citizens, terrorist watchlists and no-fly lists, color-coded terror threat-level warnings, and the drastic increased militarization of local law enforcement. Lastly, the 2013 Snowden NSA leaks revealed a gross and unprecedented level of surveillance of US citizens by US intelligence agencies and apparatus.
Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, America’s armed forces saw a continuous shifting of goals, missions, and enemies; from taking out the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, to ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to removing Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya, to conducting drone strike decapitation operations in Yemen, to fighting ISIS, to presently aiding rebels against the Assad regime in Syria. Two decades and two trillion dollars later, America’s open-ended forever wars in the Middle East continue to rage on against what seems to be an amorphous and ever-shifting enemy.
Several scholars have attempted to offer an explanation of such large-scale institutional effects. In his 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan, Libertarian economist, Robert Higgs, notes the various ways in which governments organically expand as a direct respond of sudden crises and traumas. According to Higgs, “Under certain conditions, national emergencies call forth extensions of governmental control over or outright replacement of the market economy … National emergencies markedly increase both the demand for and the supply of governmental controls.”
We can see other instances of such governmental swelling in response to other past traumas in America’s history as well. The 1980s “War on Drugs,” for instance, is perhaps the next clearest example. Much like with the “War on Terror,” the “War on Drugs” sought to use heavy governmental restrictions to halt the use and distribution of illicit drugs by dramatically increasing prison sentences for both drug dealers and users. The 1986 Anti-drug Abuse Act, for instance, issued mandatory minimum prison sentencing for certain drug use, to include a five-year mandatory sentence for possession of as little as five grams of crack while it took possession of 500g of cocaine to warrant the same five-year sentence. Many critics have noted that such data showed that black Americans were targeted and arrested in such cases at much higher rates than whites. This set of aggressive governmental restrictions also resulting in cases of incarceration for non-violent drug offenses to rise from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 by 1997.
The shootings at Columbine High School arguably stand as a third example of a similar kind of state clenching in response to trauma. Indeed, the singular event at Columbine ushered in a whole new era of safety protocols, security guards, metal detectors, and live-shooter drills throughout American high-schools. Indeed, in each of these examples, with each major trauma, a new set of governmental responses emerges and is built atop of the previous ones, old patterns of life slowly wither, and a new precedent becomes normalized. Thirty is the new 20. Orange is the new black. COVID is the new 9/11.
Conservative-leaning thinkers such as Higgs, however, are not the only scholars thinking along these same lines. Indeed, Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, coming from the tradition of Foucault, offers a similar warning about the emerging dangers of what he calls “techno-medical despotism” due to COVID. He writes,
For fear of getting sick, Italians are ready to sacrifice practically everything—their normal living conditions, their social relations, their jobs, right down to their friendships, their loves, their religious, and political convictions. The threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed. How could we have accepted, in the name of a risk that we couldn’t even quantify, not only that the people who are dear to us, and human beings more generally, should have to die alone but also—and this is something that had never happened before in all of history from Antigone to today—that their corpses should be burned without a funeral?
One need not posit some secret cabal of illuminati lizard people or the creation of a clandestine 5G-COVID bioweapon to make sense of the rise and potential dangers of Big COVID. What Higgs and Agamben both describe here is primarily the banal logic of institutions and how large-scale state and economic relations often get marshalled to respond to a singular, punctuated crisis and how the residual trauma of that crisis often serves to cement new societal relations often with unpredicted and pernicious side-effects. That being said, there are certainly interest groups who stand to benefit and who have benefited from the “new normal” that Big COVID is serving to usher in.
Economically speaking, since initial reports of COVID-19, Amazon and Walmart alone have earned a combined $116 billion while Zoom has seen a rise in stocks by an estimated 600 percent. Furthermore, a recent Oxfam study reports that the 10 richest men in the world have seen their combined wealth increase by half a trillion dollars since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, according to one Yelp analysis, an estimated 100,000 American small businesses have permanently shut down as of October 2020.
Governmentally-speaking, influencers like Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and other international world leaders have made strong public appeals for the leveraging of COVID-related measures toward the ushering in of a new global socio-economic scheme known as “The Great Reset.” To quote Trudeau, “This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset. This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts, to re-imagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change.”
Meanwhile, on the US front, the 2020 presidential election response to COVID has encouraged Democrats to introduce Bill H.R. 1, opening up the discussion for mass mail-in voting becoming the new normal for future elections.
All this being said, the explanation for the rise of Big COVID might be a lot simpler. Indeed, it might just turn out that power, once attained, isn’t easily relinquished. That is, once a new status quo of power relationships begins to emerge, individuals, groups, and organizations on the winning side of such a relationship will continue to press their interests further either consciously or subconsciously. Or, perhaps some combination of all of these various reasons and explanations have helped to bring us to where we presently are in this country with respect to COVID and are likewise contributing to where we are next heading.
Whatever the initial animating reasons behind the erecting of these new institutional measures to combat COVID, it is clear by now that large-scale state, corporate, and technological forces, both intentionally and unintentionally, have coalesced around a dominant narrative and are taking society in a whole new direction quite different from the one initially presented to the average citizen. If we are not careful, then the “War on Covid,” like the “War on Drugs,” or the “War on Terror,” stands to become the newest open-ended proxy by which an entire scheme of social, state, and market relations must now be marshalled in perpetuity. If recent history is any teacher, then this newest never-ending war against an invisible and ever-changing enemy will predictably be to the primary benefit of giant, face-less entities of various state and market sorts and to the predictable detriment of the everyday person; the ostensible beneficiary of such large-scale decision-making.
Inextricably tied to this increasing institutional momentum is the phenomenon of expert overreach. Indeed, when it comes to this issue of institutional momentum, we can find several important structural similarities between the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the emerging War on COVID. In each of these instances, we see repeated themes of poorly defined and shifting standards of what counts as success, of the governmental cure often becoming worse than the initial disease, of an absence of mechanisms of accountability or “skin in the game” for the technocratic experts, and an over-application of expert knowledge to solve problems outside their given purview of expertise. In the case of the War on Drugs, the tool of law enforcement was liberally applied to solve what were fundamentally socio-economic problems. In the case of the War on Terror, the tools of drones and kinetic warfare have been excessively used to combat what is fundamentally an ideological enemy.
In the particular case of COVID, placing too much trust in the medical experts runs the very real risk of the public expecting non-elected officials to use ostensibly values-neutral science to solve problems which are fundamentally normative, ethical, or political in nature. For there is nothing about the scientific data as such which magically tells us what risks and values trade-offs persons ought to make both individually and collectively or what duties we might have to one another. Furthermore, such a dynamic also enables and incentivizes medical and scientific experts to falsely conclude that they can simply move laterally and translate their particular set of niche competencies into other domains of expertise that they have no good business commenting on. Lastly, such a dynamic of excessive trust in niche experts arguably stifles the legitimate authority and efficacy of officially-elected leadership to do the jobs they were entrusted by their constituents to perform while simultaneously undermining the opportunity for citizens to exercise their own capacity for agency and individual personal responsibility.
This last point, about the danger of personal agency and responsibility becoming stifled by excessive bureaucratic or expert overreach touches on what philosopher Matthew B. Crawford refers to as the “Ideology of Safetyism.” Crawford defines this pervasive ideology in modern culture as, “a moral sensibility and loop wherein, the safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears, making us susceptible to projects that make us more safe.” Thus, while the increase of bodily safety technically might make one safer in a strictly material sense, Crawford asks us to reconsider what personal virtues, capabilities, aspects of character, and goods of an immaterial sort might become diminished, atrophied, or compromised in constantly and continuously making such a trade.
Underpinning Crawford’s critique, is a particular conception of human flourishing and what it means to be truly human, one not easily captured by a strict material, medical, or biological description. For what is the proportionate or commensurable trade-off between physical safety and dignity? Between saving lives and actually living? Between maximizing safety and actually participating in what makes us most human?
This July 4th, Americans everywhere look forward to finally putting COVID behind us, and to getting back, more or less, to what Massachusetts Governor, Charlie Baker has referred to as “the new normal.” And while there is cause for optimism, there is nonetheless equal reason to worry about the next shifting of goalposts, the next set of trade-offs demanded, and genuine concern for what was so wrong with the old normal anyway. As to where the line in the sand should be as to when such trade-offs are no longer worth it, I cannot say. For each person and community that threshold will be different. However, some line in the sand is needed regardless. For if no line in the sand can be drawn, no ballast point able to be articulated, then the rudderless inertia of Big COVID stands to only strengthen in the months, years, and possibly decades to come. Then again, perhaps I am completely wrong here and COVID will be fully solved by mid-summer. And while we’re at it, maybe we’ll finally get all those terrorists too.
Dr. Michael Robillard is an independent scholar, philosopher, and US Army veteran. He has held prior academic appointments at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Oxford, and the US Naval Academy. His past writings have focused on issues concerning free speech in academia, civil/military relations, veterans issues, and the ethics of automated technology. He is from Whitman, Massachusetts, US. For more information, visit his personal website, follow him on Twitter @Dr_M_Robillard, and read his Substack.