The pandemic and the public sphere

One thing that's often missed when discussing why Sweden hasn't followed suit with the rest of Europe on lockdown is the legal dimension. The Swedish constitution does not allow for a state of emergency to be declared in peacetime, and it is unclear therefore whether general restrictions of movement could be done legally. Leaving aside the question of what effect this has had on the progression of the epidemic, it is illustrative of the enormity of the restrictions which other countries have put in place in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus. Perhaps even more significantly, the pandemic has led to quite fundamental shifts in what is considered the private and what is considered considered the public sphere, in what aspects of life are considered to belong purely to the domain of individual choice and which of common good.

The chief reason for this is simple. Disease control measures are not primarily about levels of exposure and the risk posed to the individual, they are about preventing viral transmission. Face masks are the most obvious example of this: they are supposed to prevent the wearer transmitting the virus, not protect the wearer themselves. The point here is that it if this is the justification, it is no good to talk about individuals being willing or unwilling to take certain risks: the costs of those risks aren't born by the person taking them.

Almost all disease control measures have at least part of this rationale built in to them: whether you are allowed to go to a large gathering isn't just about preventing you from getting infected, it's about the impact that would have on viral circulation in the general population.

This is exacerbated by the stress the pandemic puts on health care systems. The fear of hospital wards being overrun or other treatments being put on hold (as happened in the UK, most notably with cancer treatments) provides further impetus for 'risky' behaviour to be regarded as a public question, not a personal one. Think, for example, about the fact that the slogan "protect the NHS" was a core component of the mantra used to justify lockdown in the UK.

This all may well be a perfectly necessary and rational response to the situation, and will hopefully by a temporary one. But it does represent a gigantic shift in what counts as the domain of the individual and what counts as the business of wider society, in a way that under other circumstances would be quite unnerving. What you wear, where you go, who you meet up with etc etc are now all viewed as legitimate questions of public discussion, not individual choice. Indeed, even the government's new drive to promote healthy eating is framed partly in terms of personal obligation: the healthier we are, the less likely we are to overrun the healthcare system.

Such changes in the relationship of the individual to the state and wider society could surely have profound spill over effects on politics and ideology more generally. This change has gone surprisingly under the radar thus far. Many people are perhaps rightly worried about undermining what are seen as essential measures for controlling the spread of covid. Moreover, those who do talk about these changes tend to be either cranks who peddle conspiracy theories or people who make a virtue of refusing to take responsibility for others. And I don't want to claim that this necessarily represents a kind of creeping authoritarianism: perhaps these shifts in attitudes will be temporary. But the impacts could be substantial, and they are probably worth keeping an eye on.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I have felt this for a while now. Governments probably have little choice in making these decisions. But malevolent governments can exploit the opportunities offered by health crises. We should beware the Mr Cummings of this world.