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Knowing when a pandemic arrives, and how to survive it when it ‘leaves'

Updated: Dec 12, 2021


Living through the last eighteen months, and so the first eighteen of the current pandemic of course, and whilst living in both Wiltshire and Berkshire, and, writing for SERRC, has afforded much time for reflection. That is, reflection on what, if anything, the world has learnt about plague and civilisation: the landscape here evokes feelings and so questions about ancient civilisation, and thus pensiveness about the past. This has evolved into thinking about what we as a society have learnt from the pandemic with regard to knowledge and our history. This has been further developed for me by other writers, and of course the incessant media coverage of the pandemic; A previous essay, A Quiet life was in fact inspired by When a Virus goes Viral by Steve Fuller who argued the discourses on health service survival had taken precedence through the 21st century’s availability of media, social and otherwise.

In my previous essay, I discussed the centrality of plague to our civilisation. In a book review, whilst critiquing the anti-expert and science position, I pointed to resources as available as the Netflix series ‘Pandemic’ in order to argue that we could, should have been prepared for it, as should our governments; thus decision making, should, in theory, at least, have been entirely possible. The essay also discussed the plagues of Greek antiquity, and drew parallels with today through a piece written by [1]Simon Schama about the Great Plague of the 1600s. It also argued that the history of the world is the history of migration; migration driven by plague, by looking for example at the bubonic plaque of 5000BC, which is argued to have changed the gene pool of Europe. This essay argues that ‘not-knowing' or ‘unknowability’ is an unlikely defence for governments faced with SARS-COV-2. As well as travelling through history with assistance from some of the voluminous writing on plague, this essay explores and evaluates the scientific and medical knowledge of plagues, pandemics, and the virus that caused the present global pandemic.

The Past, the Present, and the Future of Knowing

This essay, as readers may already have surmised, is of the view that because we did and do ‘know’ about pandemics of the past and present, we have a responsibility not just to act but to say, nay write that we do, and on all aspects of ‘knowing’, not just science and medicine. This essay is not a critical reply to any one theoretical perspective on knowledge; it is however inspired by one. In an attempt, and only an attempt to juxtaposition a different view with that, this essay explores the value of history and philosophy as well as science and medicine in understanding the world we live in today.

Popper (1945) argued that the history of the world was one of bloody rulers, dictators, rising and waning empires, and we can only attempt to change the smallest part of it, and moreover, the one closest to us: we are so small in space and time after all. It is with this sentiment in mind that this essay argues for a more pragmatic understanding of our ephemeral existence on this planet. This is the epistemic humility that this essay proceeds with.

Humility in Knowing History

Already however, it feels immodest to suggest such a thing, especially being a simple theory based writer in sociology. However, the value of writing in itself as part of philosophical discourse and self-enrichment has been promoted for many centuries. Moreover, contributing to knowledge as an individual in a collective project is raison d’être enough. This essay argues that we ‘know’ much about our world, its history, and that science and medicine have many of the answers, just as history and philosophy do for the present and future. Perhaps paradoxically, I’d also like to re-examine the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno (1966) in an attempt to understand what not-knowing in the present can tell us about the future, and, what it can do to elucidate the concept of epistemic humility; although because negative dialectics presupposes a latent intent in actors through the psychoanalytic theory of Freud, the concept of unknowability might prove elusive.

Daydreaming in Chalky Downland

My writing since the pandemic has been firmly rooted in history as have my thoughts, like those of so many others, long for salvation from the ‘nightmare’ of the pandemic. Why take such a view you might be asking at this point? Because here in Wiltshire as in Berkshire we are surrounded by the white horse covered, chalky downs, that display the Neolithic and Bronze age remains that take the form of ethereal stone monuments which can surely only have the effect of wonderment on us all at how we, as a civilisation, have overcome so many existential threats.

The Grim Reaper Advances

In writing this however, I want to put a subsidiary argument forward, and that is that psychologically the pandemic has all-but ended for us in the West, save for the battle with variants the media constantly foist on us, as we arguably assimilate the same psychological condition of survival as our ancestors must surely have done to go forward: the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has just announced the delay of lockdown restrictions ending, and in doing so he said the virus was undefeatable and here to stay[2]; in other words it is permanent, and so at this news presumably we must engage with a process of rationalisation and internalisation of living with death; as our ancestors surely did too. Thus one could wonder in a counterfactual just how we would be fairing without the wall-to-wall media coverage. Would we in fact be feeling a whole lot better about life as perhaps our ancestors may have done?

Paradoxically, in thinking about ‘not knowing’, and examining the view that we might be better off admitting our impotence in the face of the overwhelming odds the pandemic seemingly presents to us (as the prime minister advises), perhaps a state of not-knowing seems preferable to knowing our fate. Indeed, it could be argued our ancestors didn’t know much, and nor did their rulers about whether they’d die or survive the plague. Was this then a better state of affairs? In many ways perhaps it was, but then our world is different in so many ways, not least because of the virus unleashed now and the potential – we know exists - for many more deadly viruses.

Perhaps the fatalism of Fuller’s Nietzschean Meditations Untimely Thoughtsat the Dawn of the Transhuman Era (Fuller, 2018) offer us a way out: suicide as an act of altruism; cryogenics and zombie life, or a life as a brain suspended in silicon, separated from our bodies and free to orbit the earth like satellites offers us a way out from a planet exhausted from our demands and extractions. But if we are clever enough to know the science, technology and medicine to do this it seems knowledge is developing as the science driving the Enlightenment Project determined it would: never ending development until we are so much greater than ‘man' , superhuman even, and we can truly fly above the clouds; and so, no need to worship at the henges then.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Fuller has cited Voltaire’s invocation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 many times; this demonstrated our impotence in the face of the natural world and proof of a godless world (although it of course also meant power was/is in our own hands). In the Dialect of Enlightenment (1944) Adorno and Horkheimer presented a damning indictment of the promises of that movement, the supposed liberation as did Marcuse (1955, 1966): we were not set free in advanced capitalism but slaves to a system and knowledge that couldn’t give man dominion over nature, and repressed our inner desires. However this essay argues we do now have dominion at least over this virus. So how did we get here, to find ourselves in a global pandemic that is and what do we know about the SARS-COV-2 virus and how to combat it? Thus this supposed state of impotence drove us to have dominion over our own destruction and pollution of the world’s eco- systems. The following section explores the origins and knowledge of the SARS-COV-2 virus argued to be a consequence of this environmental assault.

Wuhan: a mystery?

So the pandemic started in Wuhan but where and how? Was it in the wet market where this novel virus (in fact coronavirus’s were discovered in the 1960s and are closely related to the common cold) crossed the species barrier from bat or pangolin to human in food sources, or did it escape accidentally or deliberately from the virology institute there? What we know for sure is that the virus has been genetically sequenced and shows no sign of human, laboratory manipulation. More importantly, the sequencing allowed the search for a vaccine to begin. Why vaccines were developed so quickly? Because the SARS-COV-1 outbreak in 2001 and MERS, Middle-Eastern Respiratory Syndrome gave scientists and medicine the warning they needed to speed up research and development of a vaccine.

The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was developed because scientists working on the Ebola virus were able to direct work on the monkey cold virus to the SARS-COV-2 virus and trick the human immune response to think the spike protein of this novel coronavirus was entering the body. Why did scientists have a head start? Because it has been known by them and governments that a pandemic was coming, it might have been thought it would be flu pandemic in some quarters but nevertheless the writing had been on the wall for years. Indeed, just looking at history and timing the intervals between pandemics was warning enough, but our intrusion into nature, the opening up of Pandora’s box so to speak, had led arguably to SARS-COV-1 and the Ebola outbreak in Africa. We knew, scientists, medicine knew, governments knew. Thus unlike our Enlightenment predecessors we are not impotent and science does have the answers to overcome our disruption of the natural world's ecosystems.

The secret government exercises to prepare for such an event as the pandemic, Operations Alice and Cygnus in the UK, and Donald Trump’s invaluable roll-out of Operation Warp Speed (now under Biden, ‘Covid-Response’) to deliver vaccines and halt the virus tell their own story. Decision making was possible because a pandemic was only a matter of time; when, not if – preparations had been made. Given this knowledge, is it really possible to say nobody knew what they were doing or going to do to stop a humanitarian crisis, the like of which we have been lucky enough not to have experienced before in our time? It seems unlikely, so why such non-decision and poor decision making? Indeed, rather than flying the plane while building it, it seemed as though we were crashing the prototype built specifically for our salvation. How can we apply negative dialectics to answer the failure of so many of our political class, particularly here in the UK?

The End?

So if we look through the prism of a future counterfactual, in which we imagine ourselves a hundred years from now (presupposing were still alive that is) look back at the decision making of our leaders what might we make of them? The purpose of this essay is not to critically analyse the performance of the State, specifically the UK government but to question motives, more correctly, intentions. Negative dialectics presupposes that history is non-directional, unlike the traditional dialectic it sees not thesis, antithesis or resolution, indeed, quite the opposite. There is no resolution but a negation any unfolding moment of history: appropriately given the state's failure, it is the negation of the negation; actors, governments, rulers, dictators are on the road to nowhere, so to speak. Actors have unconscious desires driving decision making so that history reflects not a deliberate policy directive as modern parlance would have it; but perhaps as the famous imagery of Coleridge[i] shows us, history is like the waves, illuminated behind us by a ship’s lantern on a stormy night; we know only what has happened later or at the end our voyage.

So if we focus on the UK for a moment to analyse the politicians actions through the lens of negative dialectics to illustrate not-knowing. As stared, the purpose is not to look at specific policies or non-policy but to look at actors responses: the failure to look and understand what was happening across the globe, the failure to follow South Korea in implementing a serious track and trace program; the failure to close the borders, the failure to stock pile enough PPE; the failure to implement face-mask wearing when all experience and advice suggested otherwise. No it is the psychological aspect that is focused on here.

Fortuitously, there are a plethora of media recordings from the early days of the pandemics, showing the responses of government leaders. One showing the prime minister, Boris Johnson seems to typify the government’s response: [3]The prime minister is shown visiting a medical laboratory and followed by the media he is shown flustered and using the interrogative asks, “it only affects old people doesn’t it". To which the reply came “yes”. Can we explain how, in the face of so much contradictory evidence the prime minister would believe, or at least say this? Is it possible that the prime minister, seemingly caught like the proverbial rabbit in the head lights was just that, flustered and flapping? Or was he so aware, too aware of the impending doom that he was performing a calming exercise for the public? Or was he in fact busy with Brexit and still basking in his election success, and Caribbean holiday with his fiancée?[4]

Or perhaps as Galeotti (2018) has argued this is a case of political self-deception where leaders for many complex reasons act against obvious contradictory evidence, either for political gain, to lie, to hide something, because the truth is so awful, or even out of naievety. Galeotti in discussing a very different time and event, the Vietnam War, shows how the US government at one stage believed that the North Vietnamese would simply give up South Vietnam and hand over power in entirety to the latter. Could it be that the prime minister believed the virus would simply run away as it were? Or perhaps like so many of us confronted with extreme threat we simply close our eyes and wish for it to disappear. Or was hubris at play in this very obvious iteration of ‘non-decision making’? What were his latent desires or was this the incompetence and cock-up of a political class still in throw to the notion that they knew better science and expertise? Or is this a case, of epistemic arrogance rather than ignorance as Kosiki and Torkkola (2021)[ii] define the former and latter? It seems that ‘unknowability’ or ‘not knowing ‘ has some resonance here when interpreted through the prism of negative dialectics.


However, the science and medicine knowledge of today suggests everyone and their aunty knew what was coming and the evidence from countries previously exposed to coronavirus’s demonstrates it was containable. Thus I must now contradict my argument at the end of the essay, A Quiet Life, where I suggested the salutary lesson of the pandemic is that we are far from being masters of the universe. Now, given the knowledge that science and medicine has been working away for years in state and private labs, the salutary lesson must surely be to trust expert knowledge and be wary of politicians who hold our lives in their hands. Very interestingly, perhaps the most salutary lesson to take from this pandemic, is the one the history surrounding the prime minister’s hero, Pericles[5] teaches us: be resilient, because as the prime minister himself said, the virus is here to stay, thus the pandemic is now over unless we want to live in a state of existential crisis all our lives.


Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. 1944. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder.

Adorno, Theodor W. 1966. Negative Dialectics. New York: Continuum.

Fuller, Steve. 2019. Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era. Basel: Schwabe Verlag.

Galeotti, A.G. 2018. Political Self-Deception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marcuse, H.,1955. Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston; Beacon Press.

Marcuse, H., 1964 One Dimensional Man. London: Routledge.

Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato. Vol. 1. London: Routledge.

Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath, Vol. 2. London: Routledge.

[1] [2] [3] The prime minister and his aids were also accused of a reckless and callous herd immunity policy. [4] [5]

[i] [ii]

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