Thought experiment – a society in structural co-existence with Covid-19

The current strict lockdown policies seem untenable. On the one hand, though still supporting the restrictions in place[i], individuals are getting fed up by them and are eagerly responding to any loosening up, as in the Netherlands where on the day IKEA reopened long queues of customers appeared. On the other hand, economic and social losses inflicted by the lockdown are enormous. The global economy is expected to shrink by 3 percent in 2020 – more than in 2008 – causing widespread stress and anxiety[ii] while the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society are expected to suffer greatly[iii]. It is clear that something will have to give.

Lifting lockdown

As a result, countries are slowly lifting lockdown policies in a controlled way. But it is feared that this will lead to a second wave at some point in 2020. After this, a new compromise needs to be found that reconciles the need for continued physical distancing, probably until 2022, or at least until a vaccine is available, with the growing awareness that a so-called 1.5-meter economy is not feasible for important sectors like the hospitality business. Inspired by the success of New Zealand’s current lockdown politics that were summarized by Prime Minister Jacinda Arden as “[d]ecisive action, going hard and going early”, this compromise probably will be ruthless in nature too – if only so that politicians can show their citizens that they are in control.

Thought experiment

This is where the thought experiment comes in. A dystopian but not unlikely decisive compromise would entail the introduction of a kind of health apartheid. This apartheid would consist of the segregation of those at risk from the resilient members of society.

In this future apartheid system, lockdown limitations would mostly concern those at risk, as they are being made responsible to protect themselves while not hindering others with their weakness. For the resistant individuals, society will mostly return to normal, except for token concessions like the introduction of risk group shopping hours, comparable to the current senior shopping hours, and 1.5-meter areas, comparable to the historic smoking areas or the spaces for women in Islamic and orthodox Jewish communities.

Those at risk will be mostly at home and only appear in public spaces during their designated hours. The bulk of them will survive by doing digital jobs the resilient do not want to do, like telemarketing and customer services. As a side effect, the digital domain will be stigmatized for being the poor person’s version of reality, while the freedoms to move around and to meet people in physical proximity are the new status symbols. Everything analog will be part of a new retro trend, stressing the aversion to the lockdown experience that curbed our freedoms.

Sense of victimization

This future apartheid system is dystopian because it inflicts a harmful sense of victimization to those at risk. A UK charity already warns about this regarding the elderly in the UK who will be subjected to lockdown restrictions longer than others. This situation will leave seniors feeling that they are under house arrest.

A cool alternative

The sense of victimization of those at risk should be avoided if a health apartheid is to be installed from above. The first step is to avoid the framing of the current lockdown in which a distinction is made between those who are necessary to keep the country going and those who should sit idly at home in order not to disturb the important ones. This time around the distinction should be between those who function in a utilitarian structure and those who function in an Aristotelian structure. The utilitarian structure aims for the greatest happiness for the largest number of people – the foundation of neoliberalism. The Aristotelian structure is to aim for the fulfillment of the potential of human beings, individually and in a community. The second step is to allocate means to this alternative structure, like a basic income, so that all members of it can live a dignified life.

Following these adjustments to the health apartheid, the alternative segment of society could fulfill the social and creative void that is typically created within neoliberalism. It would be the home of the crazies and the dreamers, of the caring and the innovators. It would be a cool group to belong to.

Authors: Onno Hansen-Staszyński, Beata Staszyńska-Hansen

[i] In the Netherlands f.i. support is at 76% – a large majority but down from 81% five weeks earlier. Some specific measures face growing opposition.

[ii] In the Netherlands f.i. a large majority fears that their company will go bankrupt, while large minorities fear to lose a major part of their income or their job.

[iii] F.i. the UNFPA and partners assume a 20% rise in domestic violence during the lockdown.