We have lately seen a proliferation of commentary across all the media on the theme of lessons to be learned from the current public health emergency. This is laudable. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has included unprecedented measure to control the spread of the virus. As a society, we are doing things we didn’t know we could do. All of Scotland has been put into something akin to a medically induced coma. There is hardly one of us who isn’t doing a lot less of the things that we would customarily be striving to do more of, and at least a little more of the things we usually don’t find space for in our lives. The assumption implicit in most if not all of these homilies about learning from the experience is that because the circumstances are so novel there must be some fresh or extraordinarily profound lesson there for us all. I wonder if that is so.
Many if not most of the texts to which I refer could be described as hopefully cautionary. There is much talk of the potential for the recovery process to be transformative, almost always tempered with warnings about the likelihood and consequences of failing to realise that potential. But what strikes me most is the fact that no new lessons are identified. If we are learning anything at all from the pandemic it is nothing we didn’t already know.
We already knew that the world was broken. We already knew that we broke it. We already knew that all our systems were deficient or defective or both. We already knew that our economic system was catastrophically unsustainable. We already knew that our social order was self-destructive. We already knew that our political systems were failing. We may have been in denial to some degree about all or much of this, but we knew it in the sense that the knowledge was already there.
We knew too that alternatives were possible. We did not want for fresh thinking and new models. We even attempted to adopt some of fresh thinking and adopt some of the new models, albeit is a piecemeal and inadequate fashion. We knew that we were getting it wrong. We knew that we had made horrible mistakes and that we were continuing to make the same mistakes even as we found new and even more horrible mistakes to make.
We knew that the world and everything in it is connected. But we continued to behave as if it wasn’t. We continued to behave as if our behaviour didn’t have far reaching consequences. Or we told ourselves that we had the power to defy the connectedness of everything and decide how far-reaching the consequences were. Covid-19 has acted rather like the dye that doctors use for diagnostic purposes, injecting it into the patient’s bloodstream to make the blood-vessels visible. The virus has revealed the world and everything in it as a single connected system. But we already knew that.
We knew a lot about viral infection. We knew how viruses functioned and the various ways that they spread. We knew how to combat the contagion. We knew how to prevent a pandemic.
We knew all of this. What the coronavirus pandemic tells us is that we had failed to use this knowledge. But we already knew that too. There are no new lessons here. Only the lessons of history brought into sharp focus. The question is not what new lessons are there to be learned but whether we will learn the lessons we were previously too arrogant to attend to.
I have learned to be sceptical. The lessons of the pandemic are the lessons of history. History teaches us that we are not very good at learning those lessons. And that we have an unfortunate propensity for unlearning them.
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