Ivan Krastev: Is It Tomorrow, Yet? Learning to Live with the Unthinkable

Article of Ivan Krastev is devoted to after-Coronavirus period. Pandemics is resembling a grey swan: it is something surprising not unexpected. Nevertheless, real dystopia will be probably forgotten. Reasons are lack of definite chronology and unwillingness to remember epidemics

I suppose it has happened to us all at one point or another. The moment when it occurs to you that you are living in the sort of dystopia that linger in the popular imagination. Perhaps you sense that some sort of Big Brother is watching over you, or that you are enveloped in a kind of Matrix.

Sometime in March 2020, during the second week of my COVID-19 confinement, a friend emailed an amusing Venn diagram. It depicted twelve overlapping circles, each representing a popular dystopia. All the famous ones were there: 1984Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s TaleA Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies. In the small area where they all intersected, ‘You are here’ was written. And we are there indeed—living through all these nightmares simultaneously. ‘In the middle of the journey of our life,’ Dante wrote in The Divine Comedy, ‘I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.’

“The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile”, notes the narrator in Camus’s The Plague, and these days, we have a decent sense of what he meant. A society in quarantine is literally a ‘closed society’. People cease working, they stop meeting their friends and relatives, they quit driving their cars, and they put their lives on hold.

The one thing that we absolutely cannot stop doing is talking about the virus that threatens to change our world forever. We are imprisoned in our homes, haunted by fear, boredom and paranoia. Benevolent (and not-so-benevolent) governments closely follow where we go and whom we meet, determined to protect us both from our own recklessness and the recklessness of our fellow citizens. Unsanctioned walks in the park may elicit fines or even time in jail, and contact with other people has become a threat to our very existence. The unsolicited touching others is tantamount to betrayal. As Camus observed, the plague erased the ‘uniqueness of each man’s life’ as it heightened each person’s awareness of his vulnerability and powerlessness to plan for the future.[1] After an epidemic, all those still living are survivors. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a classic ‘grey swan event’—highly probable and capable of turning our world upside down, but nonetheless a huge shock when it arrives. In 2004, the US National Intelligence Council predicted that ‘it is only a matter of time before a new pandemic appears, such as the 1918–19 influenza virus that killed an estimated 20 million worldwide’, and that such an occurrence could ‘put a halt to global travel and trade during an extended period, prompting governments to expend enormous resources on overwhelmed health sectors’. In a 2015 TED Talk, Bill Gates predicted not only a global epidemic of a highly infectious virus, but also warned us that we were unprepared to respond to it. Hollywood also presented us with its own blockbuster ‘warnings’. But it is no accident that there are no grey swans in Swan Lake; ‘grey swans’ are an example of something predictable yet unthinkable.

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