How the Risk Society model of “progress” explains the COVID-19 paralysis, how Zombies were enlisted in the cause, and what hope there is left of not becoming Zombies ourselves.
(Note: this article was originally posted on Pearl Harbor day 2020, as a subscriber-only post on my Patreon account - to stay up-to-date with my research (except matters of urgent public interest, such as selenium and Covid-19 theories, which will always be free) in these low-employment times, please subscribe!)
“Whereas the utopia of equality contains a wealth of substantial and positive goals of social change, the utopia of the risk society remains peculiarly negative and defensive. Basically, one is no longer concerned with attaining something ‘good’, but rather with preventing the worst.
The dream of the old society is that everyone wants and ought to have a share of the pie. The utopia of the risk society is that everyone should be spared from poisoning.”
Ulrich Beck, Risk Society, 1986
In the summer of late 1968, two years after I arrived in New Zealand with my family as an 8-year old, what would become known as the Hong Kong Flu arrived. We were all sick and could barely move to feed ourselves. I remember to this day the feeling of one’s sinuses and bronchial passages being encased in and fossilized by concretions of phlegm day after day. Getting back to normal, if I ever did, took forever. The Hong Kong Flu killed a million people world-wide; 100,000 of these were in the USA. When mortuary room ran out, bodies were stacked in the subways in Berlin. Given that there are many more people alive today than in the 60’s who can be killed by such an infection, the Hong Kong Flu seems a decent approximation of the virulence of COVID-19.
Yet, Woodstock, and Altamont, went ahead in 1969, at the height of the epidemic in the USA. I’ve never seen the flu mentioned in any hippie memorial. The Vietnam War went on – if the flu is mentioned in histories of the Tet offensive, it doesn’t seem to have influenced strategy or logistics.
This wasn’t a result of ignorance. In the 1966 Star Trek episode The Naked Time (series 1, episode 4), Lt (jg) Joe Tormolen is infected by an alien virus while inspecting facilities on the planet Psi 2000. We first see Lt (jg) Joe wearing a biohazard suit (with an oddly feminine-patterned facemask – the props crew, probably, having used offcuts of material bought to scantily clad the green-skinned dancing girls on some other planet) then see him put his hand under the mask to scratch his face. Even though this will not be the route of infection, the scene is included to signal that Lt (jg) Joe is the crew member who is going to catch something.
If people weren’t any more stupid in the past than they are today – always a safe bet – then how do we explain the difference in the world’s reaction to today’s pandemic?
In my day job, I have helped a Professor of Public Health stay up-to-date with the evidence, and most of this evidence is conceptualised in terms of risk. Risk influences policy – will taxing sugar, or fat, improve population health? Hugely complicated rearrangements of hopelessly confounded data are lobbied at politicians who want to be seen to be doing something that will add a few extra days to the average lifespan, which, by the miracle of statistics, can then easily be sold in far more grandiose terms. The data sets are riddled with class bias – does eating red meat reduce your risk of cancer? I cannot tell you that, because in Western societies red meat signifies labour, labourers are more likely to be exposed to workplace carcinogens than academics and clerical workers, and no-one measures carcinogen exposure in diet epidemiology.
The differences in risk that appear are usually small, and the certainty is low, so why do we care so much? A few years ago I came across a blog post by documentary maker Adam Curtis which explains this important change in the function of society through the “risk society” predictions of Ulrich Beck, quoted above. Curtis says:
That was written in 1986 - and it is remarkably prescient. Because that short paragraph pretty much describes the present day mood in our society. A world where individuals are constantly calibrating risks in their lives, while politicians are expected to anticipate and avoid all future risks and dangers.
And everyone gives up on the idea of creating equality, which allows inequality to increase massively.
Beck’s book is extraordinary - because he came from the liberal left. Yet he is basically saying that in the face of these new potential risks we will have to move away from the political idea of progress and social reform - and instead hunker down in the brace position and try and anticipate all dangers that might be coming at us out of the darkness.
In 1968 a lot of people, from Ho Chi Min to LBJ to the crowd at Woodstock, had progress and social reform on their minds. Lockdown after MLK’s murder? Good luck with that. Suspend flights to and from Vietnam? Not going to happen for other reasons. The world’s machinery was simply being applied to different ends, and few thought it could or should be diverted to stop a pandemic.
At some point faith that the world could be radically changed, and that wars could be convincingly won, faded away. And science, perverted by the political and economic demands placed on it by the Cold War and the opportunities of consumerist capitalism, became a source of extra risk – leaky nuclear reactors, persistent pollutants, dodgy drugs, instead of the engine and arbiter of progress.
“I think the truth probably is that it was the baby boomers losing their youth - and finding themselves unable to face the fact of their own mortality - they started to project their fears onto the rest of society. But somehow people like Beck transformed this into a grand pessimistic ideology.”
Beck’s original risk society theorem was about limiting man-made risk, but a pandemic, once you can do something about it, easily becomes such a risk; for example, jet aircraft are man-made vectors for transmitting pathogens rapidly around the world. Just as Godzilla represented the risk of nuclear power to a generation of Japanese, the Centres for Disease Control decided, about a decade ago, to use Zombies in their pandemic education programs.
You heard me right – Zombies. Imaginary monsters of undead human lineage derived from Afro-Caribbean folk tradition, and introduced to modern audiences by some relatively progressive film-makers who side-stepped any possible racist implications to create a more generalized myth of “the Other”. The Zombie film is basically an exercise in imagining genocide at a remove. You wake up one day and your neighbours are mindlessly intent on killing you and there’s nothing you can do about it – a common enough experience in mid 20th-century Europe. In the usual Zombie film, the tables will be turned, as they were in Europe. There will then be a genocide of Zombies, but it’s ethical because Zombies, though in human form and formerly known to us as our fellow humans, have become convincingly subhuman. It may be cathartic, but it’s not reassuring.
But the Zombie idea appealed to educators globally, as a way of getting kids interested in scientific concepts like exponential spread. And just as a way of pleasing kids and keeping them entertained – “look up from your video game, because this lesson’s like a video game!” – which is what education is turning into (anything too rigorous rapidly becomes financially and socially “risky”). I remember the kids coming home from school and talking about their Zombie lessons and wondering WTAF?
As discussed in an NZ Medical Journal article in 2018, the evidence that teaching kids about Zombies improves their preparedness as young adults is lacking. But it certainly allows them to see pandemics in dehumanizing terms, because no-one cares what happens to Zombies.
And so New Zealand went, overnight, from being a society where any expression of concern about immigration numbers for any reason was automatically flagged as “racist” and shouted down, to being the most “Build the Wall!” society on earth, a Hermit Kingdom jealously guarding its borders, with those members of society most progressive in normal times tending to be most vocal in defence of the new isolationism and any other restrictive measure needed to eliminate risk.
Not, I should add, that NZ’s approach has been overtly repressive – unlike Australia we haven’t implemented large fines, and have avoided violent arrests, for breaches of Covid decorum. Police are more likely to tell you that your behaviour is very disappointing and they expected better from you - and no-one wants to hear that.
As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says, “Be Kind”. You can take this as a reference to Albert Camus’ The Plague or Ellen DeGeneres’ The Ellen Show, or both, depending on your background, but it’s been useful advice to fall back on. Like most of the government’s messaging so far, it’s on point, easy to conceptualise, and leaves little room for confusion.
Nor has the NZ government’s reaction been entirely regressive. The slow claw-back of workers’ rights by a Labour party which famously surrendered to neo-liberalism in the 1980s has if anything strengthened under Covid; wages and benefits have been increased as more workers have lost their jobs and small businesses have failed. The idea that everyone is in the same boat here – a kind of Covid-class consciousness - is generally accepted.
NZ is a small country, we all know each other, and back in the early 90’s now-finance minister and deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, then head of the Otago Student’s Union, asked my band to play at his 21st. As bandleader I shared a common mission with Grant as host, that of keeping the party going and the inevitable Nazi skinhead gatecrasher contingent peaceful, which when you think about it is not unlike the mission of any successful left-leaning government in a democracy.
Talking about gatecrashers, QAnon and the associated plandemic theorists have indeed made inroads here. A few thousand people attended an illegal “Freedom” march in Auckland during the brief second lockdown of that city. And the right-thinking rest of NZ society – the Lockdown Liberals, to use Anton Jäger’s phrase, are being taught to see the spread of QAnon – a lab-grown virus if ever there was one - as another kind of Zombie pandemic.
(Since I wrote the first draft of this essay, NZ investigative journalist David Farrier, who is well-informed on QAnon, has begun sharing comics by Dan Vernon portraying conspiracy theorists as Zombies. One of these portrays cancelled, delusional chef Pete Evans* as a Zombie and describes the MAGA hat as a “neo-Nazi” symbol. More realistically, and more in keeping with the neo-Nazi cartoon shared by Evans that the comic was an outraged response to, the MAGA hat will go down in history as the symbol of a grifter-capitalist grab at political power - “say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.”)
Lockdown liberals also look askance on another group in NZ known as Plan B, academics who warn that we can’t stay hermits forever, that lockdowns have both predictable and unforeseen consequences, and that we should be openly debating the alternatives whether we choose to embrace them or not.
The argument against these Covid-relativists is that it is heartless to consider the economy when lives are at stake - as if poverty no longer kills, as if life-extending medical treatments are cheap.
It's a trolly problem where the view on both lines is obscured by distance, and the categorical imperative is to preserve the lives that seem closest in time – those that would be lost to Covid – by diverting the runaway trolly off towards the lives unseen.
We’ll open the country when “we” have a vaccine, even though that will inevitably result in the infections we’ve been postponing, albeit hopefully at a lower rate. In the meantime, we seem to have done nothing in New Zealand to identify and quantify, let alone treat, the risk factors that are most likely to influence the virulence of COVID-19; from here these look like vitamin D deficiency, selenium deficiency (endemic in New Zealand), diabetes and obesity, and the polyunsaturated fat content of one’s fat stores – most of which are unintended consequences of earlier Risk Society initiatives - all of which are metabolically interlinked in their interaction with the virus, and all of which can easily be modified in whatever time we have - if the Risk Society so decides.
Ironically, we’d know a lot more about the factors influencing SARS CoV-2 virulence if we used more often the methods of the father of risk epidemiology, Austin Bradford Hill. In the 1960’s, Hill conceptualised the scientific argument against cigarettes in a way that could be seen as conclusive. Hill’s criteria are neglected today (or sometimes rewritten in order to weaken them as a form of special pleading) because, taken as a whole, they tend to screen out the small, confounded, possibly imaginary, and practically meaningless risks that are so popular for generating media articles and influencer pay-days today, like the story that inspired Curtis’s Vegetables of Truth.
We can become more like Bradford Hill, and less like Ulrich Beck, if and when we decide to stop being Zombies and start living.
* It’s a theme for another day, what caused Pete Evans, who did help expose one Big Lie and was pilloried for it by the corrupt Aussie dietetics establishment and the predatory press, to start seeing Big Lies everywhere and malign “elites” behind everything till his mind turned to mush.