It was different for Daniel Defoe in the 17th century London. “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now,” he wrote in A Journal of the Plague Year. Information overwhelms us as we struggle to leave the Plague Year behind and step into a new year, our hope still clouded by fear. Information, when it comes in multitudes, puts a clause in the best of scenarios we wish for the year after the plague. Unlike Defoe, we read and listen and, in the end, allow scepticism to foreshadow knowledge, optimism to be tempered with doubt.
A passage to the new is marked by uncertainties only science can name.
Let’s begin with the brighter side. Science has kept pace with the virus whose nastiness we are yet to fully comprehend. Usually, a vaccine comes along after the worst has passed. Now there are many, of varying scientific ancestry. They come at a time when the new information about the mutating virus—desperate for receptive host bodies—has already panicked the world. The speed and urgency with which the vaccine has arrived shows what’s possible in a world different from Defoe’s: our determination to overcome is as strong as the persistence of the virus. The mysteries of life are explained by philosophers in abstractions that take us to further mysteries; science demystifies them to useful information that we can manage and control. As we look back with dread, and anticipate a bearable tomorrow, we realise that it’s knowledge that sustains life. That’s no small consolation.
Still, we take hope in moderation. Why is it that many continue to frown upon science—and all of them are not necessarily idiots? Why is it that knowledge doesn’t always spawn trust? Is it that a lack of trust is a libertarian position, an expression of freedom in a world of mutual dependencies that compromise on individuality? Trust is an attitude virtuous societies can’t do without, and—don’t we know?—virtue is the most required item in a pandemic world. Virtue has been monopolised by the kind of liberal radicals now known as progressives. Virtue, or its clashing definitions, has not united the world in the grip of a pandemic. It has made popular response to the pandemic a fragmented political statement. It is the politicisation of virtue that has contributed, more than anything else, to the trust deficit.
Take the image of Joe Biden, the next president of America, getting his Covid vaccine. This is what leadership looks like, his vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, tweeted along with the photograph. Getting a vaccine jab, president-elect or not, in another time, would have been a private matter, and not an abiding image of leadership. No longer. Everything has changed, from the idea of leadership (Narcissus as media victim) to the authenticity of expertise (science as elitist conspiracy), during the four years of Donald Trump’s performative presidency. Today’s vaccine-scepticism is a logical extension of anti-maskism and lockdown ideologies. This scepticism owes a great deal to the power struggle between political leadership and expertise. Trump’s America may have institutionalised the struggle, but, in varying degrees, it continues to influence popular response to the expert advice on Covid-19 elsewhere as well. In America, racial politics and ideological bloodlust may have made the response louder; elsewhere, India included, it’s more an instinctive reaction to the urgency with which modern science intervenes for our lives. Some are more frightened than relieved by the science of new vaccines. Trust is too human to be gained by the miracles of knowledge alone.
In our separateness, and from our designated zones of aloneness, we have found the common cause of staying safe—and formed the fraternity of the living as another year beckons with its own mysteries
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That’s where the leader steps in. How leaders win popular trust could be a science in itself. The most popular of them gain it by making it seem that they expect nothing in return. The textbook dictator expects complete submission, and claims full ownership of the popular mind. The dictator legitimised by manipulated institutions of democracy—a familiar type that goes with the tag ‘populist’ today—enforces the politics of trust. A pandemic makes the enforced idyll of public trust look real, for there’s nothing more useful for a populist autocrat than a threatened nation. The state rearmed is a prerequisite for standing up to the enemy, which, this time, is the virus. So trust the leader who has declared war on the pathogen. (Yes, when it comes to illness, as Susan Sontag has famously argued in her essay, the metaphor is drawn from war. Elsewhere in this issue, Arshia Sattar returns to our epics to show us that there are other kinder ways to narrate a pandemic.) When we look back, we realise that few even from legitimate democracies scored high on the trust quotient. There were still some who deemphasised the omnipotent “I” and refused to be scientific revisionists—and believed in the honesty of a conversationalist rather than in the shrillness of a liberator. Their victory is worth toasting.
Arguments about our responses and remedies are unlikely to come to a close with the year, and, maybe, when we are too exhausted to carry on, we may seek each other. As Anne Applebaum writes in her new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, “no political victory is ever permanent, no definition of ‘the nation’ is guaranteed to last, and no elite of any kind, whether so-called ‘populist’ or so-called ‘liberal’ or so-called ‘aristocratic,’ rules forever.”
In the relativism of life, our unshared fear is the only constant. More than the protectors of the Threatened Nation, it’s the Unsettled Me that’s more receptive to ideas and attitudes that keep us alive, and aware—even if with a dash of doubt. We are in it together—that’s what we used to say. In our separateness, and from our designated zones of aloneness, we have found the common cause of staying safe—and formed the fraternity of the living as another year beckons with its own mysteries.