The most common platitudes in the midst of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic apparently run along the following lines: “listen to the science,” or “facts are facts.” Such assertions certainly have a ring of truth to them. At the same time, however, such euphemisms distort some of the more fundamental issues that must be addressed. SARS-CoV-2 has not only exacerbated a host of social and political problems but, even more than these, has brought to the surface a pervasive epistemological and anthropological crisis.
The very nature of this crisis strikes at the heart of the prevailing COVID-19 public policies in the United States.
There are two primary reasons why the prevailing policies ought to be seriously called into question. The first concerns the inability for citizens to properly contextualize what we know about the virus. The longer we are guided by policies that make the data appear a particular way, the more likely it will be for citizens to become unintentionally open to manipulation.
The second reason is that the prevailing policies have been harmful to individuals and local communities. The policies have excluded certain fundamental components of life that are vital to human flourishing. It is not simply that COVID-19 public policies have been destructive for individual and communal health (physically and mentally). Rather, the policies themselves tended to neglect the very nature of what it means to be human. And in so doing, our economic, social, mental, physical, and religious lives have suffered in disastrous ways.
The precise nature of this two-fold crisis requires further elaboration. The crippling force of the epistemological crisis is on display with the constant barrage of numbers and data. Our diminishing capacity for attention is consistently attacked with hourly updates on the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and death rates. Additionally, the metrics we are told to focus upon often shift, becoming a moving target. The initial worry in the early stages of the pandemic was hospital capacity and the infection fatality rate (IFR). Over the last several months, the policies and narrative have shifted towards an emphasis upon cases and various non-pharmaceutical interventions to slow the spread of the virus (mask mandates, social distancing rules, plexiglass installations, and reduced capacities for businesses and public gatherings). For example, in the world of professional and collegiate sports, each week we are informed of new cases of infection amidst players and coaching personnel. Little to nothing is known of the actual condition of those who test positive. All that needs to be known is that they tested positive.
Apart from the perceived stigma of contracting the virus that such constant reporting indicates (i.e., an individual got the virus because they did something wrong), the average person is likely to be be either puzzled or frustrated by all these numbers and shifting points of emphasis. Understandably, one wonders what to make of it all. “I don’t know what to believe anymore” is a rather normative judgment these days.
A palpable result of this confusing condition more often than not is the conflation between what seems to be the case, and what is actually so.
Since “facts are facts,” then whatever the news tickers or political “experts” reveal to us must be understood as something which is self-evident. There is no interpretation needed beyond the appearance of what we see, or might be permitted to see. And it is precisely at this point that our epistemological crisis comes to light: the public conversation of the”facts” with respect to COVID-19 presupposes almost no reference to a theory of how to understand and interpret those facts.
The specific aspect of this crisis recalls the work of the Scottish political philosopher Alasdair MacIntrye. Our observations of the world, said MacIntyre, presuppose a theory of what we are actually observing. We are incapable of properly seeing what is right before us without possessing certain received concepts that makes the object, and the world as a whole, intelligible. Imagine telling someone who has no experience, or concept, of track-and-field that the fastest recorded 40-yard dash time is 4.22 seconds. Some preliminary theoretical framework is necessary for one to contextualize how fast this really is. Otherwise, the time recorded is relatively meaningless.
In a similar vein, the supposed self-evident judgments regarding various statistics such as deaths, or even the sheer number of infections, is not possible. Nuance to further understand these statistics presupposes (and necessitates) a more substantive lens that expands our judgment and understanding. And the lurking and difficult reality beneath this is that many people do not have such a capacity.
We must acknowledge that the conditions fostering this inability to intellectually contextualize the frequency of information concerning the virus is not accidental. There is an intentional effort to bombard and overwhelm the public with a plethora of data in order to make citizens incapable of being able to understanding what they are seeing. And it is this recognition that aligns with the second part of the crisis, which is more anthropological in nature.
Since the gap between appearance (“what seems to be the case”) and reality (“what is actually so”) is rather significant, there is an ever-increasing inclination to bridge such a gap. “Facts” are more often than not being utilized by the managerial ruling class to prop themselves up as experts. Since citizens are struggling to synthesize much of the COVID-19 information, the temptation begins to solidify where reliance upon experts becomes the path to increased forms of social and political control. The elite managerial class will happily allow American citizens to put their faith in them, and in hope we will collectively chant the saving motto of being “guided by the science and the facts.”
But faith in science and trust in expertise has been crumbling, even eviscerated. What makes the contemporary notion of expertise questionable, especially in light of the Coronavirus, is that the overall policies have overwhelmingly sought to protect only a part of what constitutes human flourishing at the expense of certain higher goods.
To justify prolonged lockdowns of an economy (or even proposing additional ones) ultimately undercuts the goodness of labor and the virtuous opportunities in providing for the good of one’s family. Likewise, economic lockdowns touted as “necessary” have produced an illusory distinction between those businesses or forms of work that are “essential,” and those which are not. Such a declaration not only seems to fall outside the legitimate scope of political authority, but has been used for social control underneath the umbrella of “following the data”, as some have noted.
Additionally, lockdowns have also been an assault on the social nature of human life. The atomization of modern democratic life has given rise to despairing experiences of loneliness and a malaise about the meaning of life. Add to this all the social restrictions related to COVID-19, and such destructive realities have only been further heightened. The need for sociality is not a deficiency, nor is it reducible to some evolutionary adaptation. Essentially speaking, we cannot flourish as the kind of beings we are without the experience of being embedded in actual, living communities.
Finally, as Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, has recently argued, “the longer such a public health crisis endures…the greater the risk that the situation affect not only the bodies of human beings, but also their long-term spiritual health, the state of their souls.” The restrictions upon public worship in this country were understandable in the early part of the pandemic. Now, however, it seems that citizens are being told that there is no higher good than that of bodily health. The transcendent nature of human life does not diminish one’s physical or emotional health, but properly contexualizes it within the scope of the highest goods of the human person. If we err in this anthropological manner within the midst of a public health crisis, then our ordinary lives will only suffer all the more when we return the normalcy.
The epistemological and anthropological flaws that have surfaced in the midst of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic should be cause for both serious consternation and contemplation. The legitimate scope of expertise can certainly grasp certain human goods and illuminate their importance. Yet, it belongs to wisdom to know and understand what is truly good for the human person, so as to see the proper limits of expertise and to avoid the temptation towards idolatry. This is especially the case in the midst of a public health crisis.
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