The Great Fear of 2020

by Karl Heinz Roth

The physician and operaist militant Karl-Heinz Roth (born 1942) is probably most well-known for his book Die ‘Andere’ Arbeiterbewegung [The "Other" Workers' Movement], a study on the despised and multinational riff-raff that organised itself outside the classical workers’ movement.1 Since then Roth has written a series of timely works on capitalist crises and class composition at a global level. This research is the background for his new book Blinde Passagiere, which presents a global analysis of Sars-Cov-2 and the measures that have been taken against it, including the extraordinary attempt to lockdown half of humanity.2

Below we publish Lea Gekle’s interview with Roth, in which he presents his analysis of these measures, as well as his criticisms of the Zero Covid platform defended by some on the German left. Today, when the severe lockdown in Shanghai is producing desperate hunger riots, Roth’s book is a timely intervention. We hope, as he suggests, that it can be the beginning of a serious debate on the return of what he and his comrades in the 1970s described as “the crisis state.” In this spirit, we intend to soon publish a longer comment on Roth’s book, as well as a reflection on the psychic dynamics of the “great fear” by Florian Bossert.

LG: Your recently published book Blinde Passagiere: Die Corona-Krise und ihre Folgen considers the genesis of lockdown policies from a global perspective. How did the world come to believe that lockdowns were the only choice in order to effectively fight against the transmission of COVID-19?

KHR: There were alternatives to lockdowns and they were there from the beginning. One needed only look closely at the specifics of this pandemic, which became known very quickly, and react to them.

First, the pandemic was from the start a global event. It spread with tremendous speed, with tremendous rapidity. And it spread across several continents within a few days. This was something completely new, but it also became clear in the preliminary stages.

Second, the pandemic developed in waves. It is unpredictable, it is not linear. So you can't foresee how it will develop. And that, in turn, gave rise to completely new aspects. For example, one cannot accurately predict with models how the pandemic will continue.

A third very important aspect is that compared to other pandemics — AIDS for example — this has been a moderately severe pandemic. This means that more than half of the people who are infected remain asymptomatic or develop only such mild symptoms that they do not have to go to the doctor at all. Therefore, if this virus is not recognised and combated in time, it can spread unhindered.

Another essential factor that determined this pandemic, and still determines it today, is the fact that it is above all older people, over 70 years old, and chronically ill people who are at risk. That was also clear from the beginning.

And then of course we also know, and this would be the fifth point, that the virus develops variants, which have been very different in their own dynamics. It has become more and more contagious, but at the same time the danger of severe disease has decreased more and more. However, the virus has also been able to bypass the immune system, including that of vaccinated people, more and more. All these factors were clear relatively early on if you looked at the international research that began in February and March 2020.

The responses were clearly inadequate. They took the form of general restrictions on mobility and contact, aimed primarily at blocking the spread of the virus. That was the wrong approach. It would have been better and more consistent with basic epidemiological principles to very quickly ramp up control over infections through basic hygiene and preventative measures, but the resources were not in place for that. Moreover, it would have been best to protect those particularly at risk, i.e. the elderly and the seriously or chronically ill, through additional special preventative measures, such as the introduction of airlocks and isolation rooms in nursing homes and hospitals, installing air filters and venting devices, and through the regular disinfection of contact zones. Yet the resources for this were also lacking, not only in old people's and nursing homes but also in hospitals. These institutions were generally deregulated and commercialised, and had no ability to build up reserve capacities. Thus infected seriously ill people were simply put into hospitals and came into contact with non-infected seriously ill people there. As a result there was mass death in the hospitals and in the old people's and nursing homes. This was especially the case in the transatlantic region. This could have been avoided had targeted measures been taken instead of large-scale lockdowns. I can only reiterate that there were enough experts around the world who advocated these alternative approaches from the very beginning.

LG: In your book you argue that the outbreak of a COVID-19-like pandemic was both predictable and predicted, indeed that many plans had been drawn up for such an eventuality. How do you explain, then, that it took the world by surprise?

KHR: There are many reasons for this. For one thing, it has to do with the fact that the pandemic plans I have seen — and I have examined a great many plans — all assumed a worst-case situation. That is, they assumed that a pandemic, with whatever virus, would spread so rapidly and have such severe consequences that the health system, the public health system, hospitals, etc. would collapse within a very short time. This has to do with the fact that there were precedents: SARS 2002 and MERS 2012, which were much more aggressive. The plans were thus mis-calibrated to such an eventuality instead of preparing for a moderately severe pandemic, which was what we got.

That was the principal mistake. The pandemic plans were all geared towards maintaining the necessary political and economic infrastructure, but offered nothing for the health sector. It was an absurd and crazy situation. On the one hand, worst-case scenarios with doomsday images and, on the other, complete inaction. The reserve capacities were not built up. There were no reserves for basic hygiene: protective clothing, disinfectants, masks, etc. They had no reserve capacity to set up special departments and this created the paradoxical situation that all essential countermeasures followed the general trend, rather than attempting to respond to the specific situation.

The background to this, and this is the second level of the problem, is the global deregulation of the health system. Health care has been skeletonised worldwide, given over to commercialisation, to privatisation. It was so radically restructured that even under normal conditions everything has been operating at the limit. There were no reserves. The health system was treated like a production system and according to just-in-time standards, without any reserves. The staff, the health workers, already found themselves at the limit under normal conditions. This system was no longer able to cope with even a moderately severe pandemic. There was thus a deeper systemic issue behind the serious mistakes in pandemic planning.

LG: You have pointed to a misjudgement that politicians made during the crisis, but then you also say it's a systemic problem. In France we were struck by the inconsistency of the health advice and mandates handed down from the government. Do you think this was just a matter of the politicians being overwhelmed by an unprecedented situation, or were there more mendacious factors at work?

KHR: I think both factors played a role. On the one hand, the structure was overloaded. The presuppositions for any consistent action against the pandemic were missing. On the other hand, this very structural overload was covered up. People didn't want to admit there was any such problem and that's why they reacted helplessly at other levels. They wanted to give the impression that everything was under control, that the politicians were taking action. However, the politicians were completely confused, in fact, and not in a position to counteract and respond to initiatives that came from all sides.

Another factor — and there’s no other way to say it — is the sheer stupidity of the actors. This becomes clear when you look at how, for example, the central epidemiological institute in Germany, the Robert Koch Institute, has acted. Mistakes were made there that any well-trained epidemiologist should have known to avoid (and I am a medical doctor myself and have experience in this field). I could give more examples, but I will limit myself to the statistics. Everyone has concentrated on the so-called incidence trends, i.e. the infection rate. Yet the incidence term itself is completely misleading, because you can only identify cases that have been tested. So it is only a measure of test prevalence and the actual incidence is completely unknown. The actual number of people with the disease is much higher, because more than 50% of those with the disease have no symptoms at all and so were not tested. However, all the measures, in the areas of both treatment and public health, have always concentrated on fighting infection rates as such, instead of concentrating on those values that concern severe and fatal courses of the disease. So there was also some sort of structural stupidity involved.

Moreover, in replicating the lockdowns and shutdowns, politicians tended to always replicate the most general and imprecise measures, the shotgun, so to speak. In the case of China, for example, one did not notice that a massive and highly efficient epidemiological fight was taking place there at the same time. So they acted selectively. I would say that these are systemic causes derived from the form of society produced by the capitalist development of neoliberal deregulation. There was an immediate overtaxing of the healthcare system and a certain structural stupidity of those governing the crisis.

LG: Reading your book, I had the impression that you viewed politicians as having underestimated the extent to which human agency is generally reasonable. How would you illustrate this with examples of independent and responsible action? You refer to some states that had a different approach to lockdowns, i.e. less strict ones, and where the self-protection mechanisms worked relatively well, almost in an automatism of human action.

KHR: There was human solidarity and there was an insight into the need for action that was developed from peoples’ own social experience and social contexts. You can see that very clearly in the spontaneous reactions: millions of people suddenly bought disinfectants and protective masks, they developed protocols of basic hygiene, they avoided unnecessary contact in closed rooms — because the virus is mainly transmitted in closed rooms. My impression is that the majority of the population worldwide was smarter than the leaders. They acted out of a spontaneous self-protection reaction for themselves and others, and the leaders were not able to adopt these self-protection initiatives because they had no reserves. For instance, after a few days, there were no more protective masks because there were no production capacities at all in the North Atlantic region for these basic instruments of hygiene, which are not very profitable to manufacture.

Therefore, one can really say that large parts of the world's population acted very prudently. Of course, there were also minorities who saw the pandemic as a plague willed by God and rejected treatment altogether. Then, of course, there was the whole campaign of trivialisation. Think of Bolsonaro in Brazil or Trump in the US, where the pandemic was downplayed for all sorts of political reasons, not only out of helplessness, but also in a kind of political backlash against these protective mechanisms. Therefore, I think we can say for the first phase of the pandemic that there was the possibility to act, to support these collective self-protection measures, to educate, to launch information campaigns about the characteristics of the pathogen and thus to initiate a voluntary, self-organised approach to limiting the pandemic.

This is what happened to some extent in Japan, for example. It was very well developed in Denmark for a time. It happened, unfortunately very ambivalently, in Sweden. There, they relied on a policy of persuasion, but at the same time the Swedish crisis commission failed to specifically protect the old people's and nursing homes, especially in Stockholm. They were deregulated, they were privatised, there was no basic care, which is why mortality among the elderly in Sweden rose sharply. That in turn was used as an argument against this prudent approach.

So there were also a lot of power politics. One can see, and later historians will do so, that there were also political constellations in which one could rely on the population, where the governors supported the population while also quickly organising targeted protective measures. In Japan, for example, capacities for the production of protective clothing were ramped up. The producers of alcoholic beverages were forced to make 80% of their ethanol available as a basis for disinfectants. So, even at this level of action by the authorities, there are alternatives that have not been noticed and discussed here at all.

LG: In The ‘Other' Workers Movement you foresaw the increasing precariousness of labour that has become a global phenonenon. In your new book you point out that the problem of the lockdowns was not just that they were enacted in an authoritarian manner, but also that they rendered certain groups of people even more precarious. Who was most negatively affected by the lockdowns?

KHR: It was mainly the poor, and on a global scale. You can see that on the one hand there have been very serious undesirable developments in health policy due to the lockdowns. Basic health care for the chronically ill, especially in the periphery of the world system, has been severely restricted. All available reserves, as far as they existed at all, were concentrated on fighting the pandemic and this had the consequence that, for example in the global South, the other chronic pandemics — malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, etc. — were reactivated. Thus the side effects on the health policy level can already be observed. This also applies to the richer countries, where health care for poor, chronically ill people has been severely restricted. There are figures today that show that the so-called excess mortality in the period of the pandemic has risen very sharply compared to other, statistically standardised periods also due to these health policy side effects.

Then there are the social side effects. It was a disaster: the lockdowns, which, with all their differentiations, were introduced and implemented worldwide, led to mass unemployment. According to figures from the International Labour Organisation, some 195 million people worldwide were unemployed in 2019. At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, during the second wave and transition to the third, there were 485 million. In 2021, that number dropped significantly to 250 million, but it still had not returned to the level of the months before the pandemic, and it still has not.

What is serious here is that, at least in the rich world, gigantic social and economic programmes were launched to mitigate the consequences of the shutdown. In the developed countries, i.e. in East Asia and especially in the northern transatlantic region, these programmes largely worked. But in the developing countries of the periphery, these resources did not exist and the result was that, for example, a very considerable part of the world's working population remained excluded from these socio-political counter, protective and compensatory measures to combat the consequences of the lockdown.

The biggest losers have been the working poor in the informal sectors. There are exact figures on this. And the situation has dramatically worsened to date. It can be said that global labour relations have been further polarised by the nature of the pandemic response and the countermeasures. On the one hand, there is a relatively stable situation in the rich segments of the world system and, on the other, extreme impoverishment, for example, in Latin America, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and especially in South Asia. These polarisations have affected the working classes worldwide and have led to an ever greater fragmentation of the class. Due to the rise of the home office and remote working, there is an increasing gap between blue collar and white collar workers. Working poverty has increased. The consequences of the pandemic have as a result been catastrophic, especially for the working classes. They have suffered the most from the pandemic.

LG: Yet despite the very quickly known negative effects of strict lockdowns for many people, there were also very strong calls from some parts of the left for stricter lockdowns. Especially for complete shutdowns, including the closure of workplaces. What do you think about this position?

KHR: That was the so-called Zero Covid campaign. As far as I know, this came from Great Britain, but also from Austria and Germany. In my opinion, it was irresponsible. Anyone with even a basic epidemiological education knows that this kind of pandemic cannot be fought with a shutdown of the economy, including the closure of factories (except for those necessary for essential basic supplies). You can't shut everything down for six to eight weeks and then think the pandemic is over.

That was irresponsible, but it was also Eurocentric. Since the proposed Zero Covid policy would have to have been limited to Europe it would have meant that Europe would have had to close its borders completely during this period. My thesis is that the pandemic has shown that the state-socialist wing of the left has become a big problem for us anti-authoritarian leftists who fight for social justice and social equality. The problem is their state fixation. They have referred to China but they have only looked at the shutdown policy and the cordon sanitaire, which are authoritarian and dictatorial, and have not even noted the epidemiological measures that have been taken, such as the emergency clinics that were built within a few weeks.

The pandemic revealed an extreme authoritarian tendency of the state socialist left. As an undogmatic leftist, I had always assumed that after the demise of “really existing socialism” this traditional wing of the left would also have learned something. It hasn't, and we see it now in this crisis situation. We were all in a crisis of orientation, we all had to think very carefully: “What is happening? What can we do? How do we have to analyse the situation? Who are we there for? Who are we acting for?” The state-socialist left, in its panic, gave itself over to the authoritarian state. To this day, it demands in some cases even harsher restrictive measures — scatter-shot [shotgun] measures, so to speak — than those defended by official, established politicians and their rather bizarre crisis teams. I have to tell you honestly that this shook me badly.

LG: Is this state-fixation for you a phenomenon of the German left and perhaps also of the English left? I ask because the reaction of the left in France and Italy was at times quite different. In the French reaction to the Pass Sanitaire there was a point when certain elements of the left, e.g., the left union SUD, tried to make a critical intervention in the movement. In other words, they chose not to leave the critique of scientific and medical institutions to the conspiracy theorists, but to understand the situation as a relationship of force and intervene there. Why is this such a big problem for the German left?

KHR: It is indeed strangely a problem for the German as for the Austrian left – perhaps simply for the German-speaking left (though in Switzerland there have been similar critical reflections as in France and Italy). I had contact with the actors who started the Zero Covid campaign in the German-speaking area. Internally, I had a heated argument with them. I was initially wrong about the severity of the pandemic, but I corrected myself very quickly after reading the international literature. I tried to make them understand that transposing the Chinese shutdown to German politics was a disaster. Contact broke off very quickly and there was no possibility of dialogue at all. And that was really depressing because some of them are old friends, despite our political differences. It was not possible to start a dialogue and I have since been trying to understand what happened, because this initiative still exists and it has a very strong influence on the trade unions, especially on parts of the trade union left.

Today the undogmatic left remains isolated in only a few groups and we are looking for an explanation of this isolation, because it is becoming more and more clear that we were right in our criticism, not only of Zero Covid, but of course also of the Querdenker movement.3 We were looking for a third path, like the one you described with the example of France. The social movements and struggles have continued, taking on the pandemic crisis and looking for their own solutions. There were and are always qualified doctors in these social movements, whether in France, in Italy or finally even, although in a very minor way, in our country and in all other countries. There are, for example, internationally active NGOs, such as Medico International. We have been in contact with Medico International Switzerland, Germany, etc. to address the issue internationally. We tried everything, but in the attempt at dialogue with the Zero Covid Initiative we really failed. And I can only tell you, and this is a very bitter conclusion, we can only rejoice that these state socialists are not in power.

LG: I’m interested in this end of the ability to dialogue which you describe in your experience with Zero Covid. One gets the impression that this affects the whole space of public discourse today, even beyond the left and perhaps beyond Covid. The discussion is conducted in such an angry manner that it is hardly possible to think in a nuanced way. What explains this anger, this impossibility of critical debate?

KHR: This is a very serious problem. First of all, I would say that the increasing self-synchronisation of the media, with its control over published opinion, expresses a profound crisis of the system as a whole. We are in a situation of upheaval in which it has become clear that the neoliberal deregulation strategy of the last decades is failing. The ruling elites realise this and instead of entering into a dialogue, they wall themselves in.

In doing so, they are supported above all by the media. You cannot imagine the hate campaigns that have been waged against critically positioned scientists, for example, in the fields of virology and epidemiology. They were demonised and marginalised. On the one hand, the capacity for dialogue in the public sphere has been extremely reduced, and on the other hand, the capacity for dialogue on the left has been extremely reduced. Think, for example, of the fact that the other part of the left, the alternative environmental movement, has to a considerable extent gone to the right into the Querdenken movement. Or the fact that important, significant philosophers like Agamben appear to have lost their bearings, so to speak.

So we are in a deep crisis but I think the pandemic has only made visible something that was basically already structurally in place. I think it’s similar to the economic consequences. Before the pandemic the economy was already in a recession phase and this crisis mode was then extremely aggravated by the countermeasures and the lockdowns. The socio-political countermeasures have in turn deepened the crisis through inflated central bank balance sheets and expanding public debt. And from there, the crisis situation is worsening in an extremely dramatic way.

If you also consider that this pandemic ultimately also only expresses where this world system is currently drifting, then it becomes very critical. For the pandemic was only possible because of the intensified and accelerated destruction of nature, including through climate change (its effects for example on the change in the population of bats, which are the reservoirs of the coronaviruses) and factory farming. These are phenomena that have rapidly developed over the last few decades and which have now, so to speak, produced a pandemic appropriate to them.

Therefore, we are moving into a massive crisis situation. This is a dramatic situation because there is no intact left and because there are hardly any discussions that might bridge the fragmentation of perception. We don't have a social revolutionary theory from which we could explain, for example, to the Fridays For Future movement how the pandemic crisis is related to their concerns.

These would be barriers enough, but it is also of course a scientific problem, a problem of knowledge, since we are in a deep epistemological crisis. I see this, for example, in the science of history. There is no longer a synthetic approach able to operate on several disciplinary levels at the same time, to connect them and then come to a conclusion, as I have tried, in all modesty, to do in this book. Many people don't even understand such an approach any more. Yet there were great thinkers in the 70s and 80s, Castoriadis etc., who considered the crisis of science as a labyrinth to be navigated with a broad undogmatic discourse, but this level of discourse has somehow disappeared. At least we can no longer fall back on it to develop our own position. It is bitter for me to realise that we are currently staggering into a very deep, threatening set of developments and that we haven’t been able to develop a counter-concept as a left. Just think of the further escalation of the Ukraine war. While I remain hopeful we will find a way out of the crisis, not all of my colleagues share my optimism.

LG: At the beginning of the Corona crisis, one had the impression that the left-liberal position was to see a potential in this crisis, namely the potential of a radical restructuring of the health system, of questioning how and where production takes place, and by whom. And yet such questions seem now to be forgotten. What happened? How could it be that these fundamental questions that were asked two years ago are no longer even posed?

KHR: I think that has many causes. Perhaps also on a level that we haven't discussed at all yet, that of social psychology. I'm a historian, and I'm interested in psychohistory and what is known as the history of mentalités — that's even my favourite area. I am a follower of the Annales school, which developed this approach: Marc Bloch, Lucienne Febvre, Fernand Braudel, these are my role models. That's why I compared the expressions of panic between the big, catastrophic pandemics of the past and the current situation. My book begins with the Black Death and the catastrophe of the 1918-1920 influenza. If you go into depth there, you find constellations that recur in a very strange way.

It is clear that pandemics bring about changes in the social psychology of people. They trigger a mass situation of fear, even among experts and scientists. I don't want to name names, but some of the originators of Zero Covid were in individual panic. Two or three people from their milieu died, either directly from Covid or perhaps they were infected and the cause of death was different. So there was something like an initial panic reaction that caused these people to lose their rationality, their ability to critically orient themselves and compare situations. They very quickly looked for scapegoats. They believed rumours, the craziest and most absurd rumours. And I also believe that Zero Covid is a rumour: a rumour about what is happening in China to be imitated. Just like the rumour that Bill Gates invented the pandemic in order to profit from the development of a vaccine.

In such a situation of mass fear, all of the rumours converge and become simplified, which then very quickly builds up a friend/foe image. With the Black Death, it was the Jews: "The Jews poisoned the well." So people looked for scapegoats instead of dealing with it rationally. These are processes that lie in the social-psychological realm and that develop their own dynamic, the rumour condenses and abstracts itself further and further and then develops into images of the enemy, but also into completely simplified perceptions that block out critical rationality. It is something like an atavistic regression that spreads very widely.

And of course it was so effective because the crisis changed our everyday life so much. I was cut off from the tools of my research for months at the beginning of the pandemic. That put me in a serious crisis. I tried to solve the crisis by saying, "I can't continue my ongoing research, so now I'm studying the pandemic." Because you can do that quicker now via the internet and PubMed, the big international medical libraries. But that is not a real solution. The contexts of social life have been extremely reduced. They have been curtailed to a few contexts in which really only something like survival can take place.

I can only hope that, starting from this situation, something will perhaps get going again that will make it possible to somehow analyse this great fear of 2020. Especially if you analyse the changes in everyday life, in the wedding rituals, in the death ceremonies, which have meant profound transformations. Or the isolation of the townships in South Africa. What was triggered there? I hope there will be a broad field of research into the history of mentalities during this pandemic, if it still makes sense: The Great Fear—La Grande Peur—of 2020.

LG: A number of lockdown advocates have argued that very strict measures are the most rational response to the population's fear of the virus. Indeed, it has seemed that the Zero Covid Left viewed this fear as a potential breeding ground for fascism that had to be countered by a form of instrumental rationality. What would be an emancipatory manner of dealing with this certainly justified fear?

KHR: I think we're gradually getting to the point where I would basically just have questions for you. You raise the question of instrumental reason. We know that rationality can become an extremely destructive force and takes on barbaric features. I think that the Zero Covid campaign was one such fear reaction, where people believed that salvation was near. There was something eschatological about it and they imagined we could end the pandemic within six to eight weeks.

I think we have to think about this together and maybe our conversation could become the starting point for a discussion with Endnotes and other initiatives to think about how we might come back to a concrete utopia that could overcome this dialectic of enlightenment, taking up the emancipatory moments of the Enlightenment and developing them further. We must take up everything that has happened in the last decades, including the struggle against patriarchal structures, but at the same time connect it with a new concrete utopia, a freely associated society.

In this respect I think it is not entirely uninteresting to return to the very early Marx, who saw exactly that. The struggle against degradation, the struggle for emancipation, the struggle for social equality, etc., is a motor that presupposes concrete — in Marx's case, philosophical, that is, today, intellectual or cognitive — action, and which at the same time has something that connects people, something that connects societies, something that brings humanity to a new level of sociality. That is our task and that is why I think we have to start anew at this point and leave everything behind us and put aside what state socialism has wrecked here. I think we have — you have, you are much younger than I am — an immense task ahead of us here, which combines scientific critique with an emancipatory social psychology and a new, credible socialist programme, which is globally oriented and overcomes the barriers of nation-statehood. This is a gigantic task, but let's not give up hope. Keep going, Marcuse said.

Interview conducted by Lea Gekle on March 10, 2022