The virus threat cancels frontiers. The vulnerability of our hyperconnected planet becomes exposed with computer and biological viruses alike. In both cases, the physical or political boundaries of territories and societies seem incapable of containing infection, making us aware of our shared fate, and perhaps also reducing the morbidity of a different virus, in this case social in nature: contagious nationalisms spreading from one country to the next. Coinciding with the final stages of a Brexit that weakens Great Britain as much as the rest of Europe – shaken also by the rise of different identitarian populisms –, and while a toxic cybersphere endangers the foundations of representative democracy, the eclosion of the Wuhan coronavirus places us before the mirror of our fragility as species, linking insecurity with fear, and in the end showing global governance as the only true defense.
The dimension of the Chinese government’s response to the epidemic, with the lockdown of millions and the speedy building of prefabricated hospitals for patients – leaving images like the swarm of diggers working around the clock on site, recalling the random agitation of organisms rather than a mechanical ballet – proves insufficient as soon as the virus escapes frontiers. The WHO has declared a global health emergency for the fifth time in its history, and while epidemiologists look for patient zero and determine the perimeter of quarantines, laboratories across the world rush to develop a vaccine. The massive flows of tourism or business and the crowds gathering at sport events or congresses create the best environment for sharing ideas or experiences, but also for the free circulation of pathogens, and only strict social discipline can supply firewalls.
Viruses are fought with transparency, goes the wishful motto often heard these days, because only accurate information can help control disease and avoid panic; but nothing is said about the advantages of authoritarian organizations, capable of mobilizing resources without social and political debate, because the administrative machinery can react timely to a pyramidal hierarchy. Democracies, in contrast, depend on public opinion, which can be distorted by the sentimental drive of hedonistic societies, where the extreme autonomy of what Houellebecq called ‘elementary particles’ makes it difficult to subordinate them to shared objectives. Sloterdijk called for the need to redomesticate a human species gone wild, but perhaps this defiant proposal was only a way of expressing the conflict between freedom and the bondages required for the survival of those of us who form the ‘society of risk.’