COVID SPECIAL | 22.12.2020

We are in this



at the end of the longest year in living memory, we look ahead.

The pandemic is not only a health crisis; it is also a crisis of concepts and confidence. Covid is not a natural disaster; humans are deeply implicated in creating this pandemic.

That’s why we have asked thinkers and practitioners from around the world for their insights and analysis. We have created a truly multi-perspective view of this existential moment – government, philosophy, law, media, history, art, public policy, academia.

There is the Digital Minister of Taiwan, Audrey Tang, who offers an optimistic account of a possible future based on the lessons of the pandemic.

There is the writer Pankaj Mishra, the philosopher Yuk Hui, the tech thinker Evgeny Morozov and the historian Andreas Malm who each see the old and the new clashing, but who have very different responses to that clash.

There is Christoph Möllers, professor for constitutional law, and the philosopher Corine Pelluchon who think creatively about the necessary transformations of liberalism at the end of neoliberalism.

Because what is freedom, autonomy, the individual in the age of the virus?

And how does Covid make us think about the human condition, care, death, and – Eugen Baer, Senior Fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE, offers reflections on this – grief?

This crisis catapulted the world in warp speed into a 21st century hesitant to begin – Wilhelm Krull, Founding Director of THE NEW INSTITUTE, explores the topic of uncertainty that is part of this moment.

What all the interviews and essays offer is the possibility - and necessity - of a different society, a nimble humanism that treats the individual as connected to the world through a web of responsibilities, and sees freedom as collective and rich in potential.

It is, as THE NEW INSTITUTE Senior Advisor Geoff Mulgan says, about our “lived experience” – the Covid Diaries that we collected from all parts of the world and present in this newsletter are a vivid testament to this necessary individual perspective of the pandemic.

Another important element for us is art – the power of imagination to create visions of a possible future: And we are grateful and proud to present a selection of world-class art specially curated by the gallerist Esther Schipper; her selection shows that the virus has been among us for a long time already.

This newsletter is an exception to the format – you can explore all of the content also on our website. And read more about our ongoing call for the programme The Future of Democracy, deadline is January 6, 2021.

These are difficult days for a lot of people who suffer from the consequences of the pandemic, are lonely or in fear about their job, their existence.

We want to present some perspective and maybe some hope. This can be a turning point, a starting point. One thing is important to understand: We are in this together.

Take some time at the end of this tiring year, have peaceful days over Christmas and see you again in 2021.

Or in the words of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been“.

Be well.

Georg Diez


Hamburg is our home.
The world is our habitat.
The future is our concern.


Covid and Data
Audrey Tang – Digital Minister, Taiwan

Covid and Democracy
Christoph Möllers – Professor for Constitutional Law, Humboldt University Berlin, Senior Advisor THE NEW INSTITUTE

Covid and Ecology
Corine Pelluchon – Professor for Philosophy, Paris, Future Fellow THE NEW INSTITUTE

Covid and Art
Esther Schipper – Galerist, Berlin

Covid and Capitalism
Evgeny Morozov – Tech Writer and Publisher The Syllabus

Covid and Climate
Andreas Malm – Climate Historian, Lund

Covid and the West
Pankaj Mishra – Writer, London

Covid and the East
Yuk Hui – Philosopher, Berlin / Hong Kong

Covid and Social Impact
Geoff Mulgan – Professor UCL and Senior Advisor THE NEW INSTITUTE

Covid and Uncertainty
Wilhelm Krull – Founding Director THE NEW INSTITUTE

Covid and Grief
Eugen Baer – Senior Fellow THE NEW INSTITUTE

Julia Scher, Security By Julia, 2018, Photo © Andrea Rossetti

Safety is a color, and that color is pink. In her work, American artist Julia Scher explores the questions and contradictions of security and surveillance, playfully pinning these two self-enforcing tendencies against each other – Covid made her revisit her iconic series “Security by Julia” to include this latest technology of cleanliness and control, the disinfectant dispenser, a constant presence and a new formed ritual in a time when trust and distrust are constantly being recalibrated.


Audrey Tang

Digital Minister, Taiwan

What did Taiwan do right in the fight against Covid?

It is important to understand that this is our second confrontation with this kind of virus. The first time was SARS in 2003, and we just panicked. 73 people died. In 2004, we set up a new mechanism to make sure that the communication is timely and the collective intelligence, the citizens' input can be implemented.

What are the central elements of your present Covid strategy?

We have acted along three principles: fast, fair and fun. Fast: There is a toll-free number that anyone can call and report for example a shortage of masks. Fair: We are ensuring through the single payer national health insurance that more than 99,9% of residents can have access to rationed masks. And finally, fun, humor over rumor: We battle the infodemic of conspiracy theories by creating memes and cute figures that people share much more on social media than conspiracy theories.

Covid is more than a health crisis: How would you describe your role as the Digital Minister?

The most important technologies in the Covid crisis are soap, sanitizers and the physical vaccine, the mask. But we did use a lot of novel data applications to battle the pandemic – like an app developed by citizens, civic hackers as we call them here. This app visualizes the availability of masks at pharmacies, enabling people to make evidence-based interpolations and base their critique on real data.

Transparency creates trust.

One key factor is alignment: Everybody can see that pharmacists, to stay with this example, really share the goal of giving as many people as possible access to masks. The other factor is accountability: Not only can everybody check the app, everybody can suggest better distribution methods.

How do you guarantee privacy?

We call it participatory self-surveillance. In high risk places like bars we do require that people make it possible to be contacted in case of a local transmission. But all information is distributed and decentralized and preserves the anonymity valued at such places.

Democracy is not very different from semiconductor design – anyone can improve it.

What makes the Taiwanese society so open to new technology, so quick to adapt?

One important factor is that in Taiwan democracy is really new, the first presidential election was in 1996. We see democracy itself as a technology, an applied social technology. The constitution is something you can tweak and change – we already did it five times and are considering another change. In a way, democracy is not very different from semiconductor design – anyone can improve it.

What is the other factor?

It is connected to the first: People who are 40 years old and more remember the years of martial law. Any technology that threatens to take society back to a more authoritarian era is an automatic non-starter in Taiwan. We'll just say: Do you want to go back to white hair?

What are non-authoritarian technologies for you?

We are very focused on democratizing technologies like free software, open-source or the distributed ledger of the blockchain. We also question historical rituals of democracy, like a vote every four years. Is that really a good idea? Do you get all the best input for the democratic institutions? We augmented the election process and introduced referenda, participatory budgeting, E-petitions, you name it.

This new infrastructure is mostly technological?

Yes and no. Participatory self-surveillance relies on broadband as human rights. The second element is media competence and digital competence – everyone is essentially media. The twin pandemic, the infodemic, highlighted this necessity to teach people.

How do you cooperate as a state institution with citizens and other societal actors?

We are building a norm around data that is social sector first – neither public sector first, which would mean state surveillance and authoritarian intelligence, nor private sector dominated, which would mean surveillance capitalism and the dependence on multinational companies. We always put people first in people, public, private partnerships.

What is the responsibility of citizens in this crisis?

We appealed to the rational self-interest of the citizens. When you say: Wear a mask to protect yourself from your own unwashed hand, this is universally applicable. When you say: Wear a mask to protect the elderly then people who don't live with elderly people or frankly don't care will not wear a mask. When we say: Wear a mask to respect each other, then people who don't want to respect each other wouldn’t wear a mask. Right? Individualism in light of self-interest is actually collectively speaking a better strategy than appealing to collectivism.

Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

everybody's business needs everybody's help.

Thank you.

Thank you. Live long and prosper.


Covid Diaries

21 Jan: Life before the outbreak

Today, I wear a mask on the subway, but I notice I am the only one. I feel comfortable even though I feel the weight of stares. Normally people in China only wear masks when they are sick, as a kindness to others. First cases are discovered in Beijing and Shenzen, and there is an ominous tone to the coverage.

23 Jan: The day Wuhan is locked down

Wuhan, a city roughly the size of London, is going into quarantine. We hear there is a rush to the highways and airports. Chongqing Reports nine Confirmed Cases of New Coronavirus Pneumonia. Nine cases in a city of more than 32 million in the metro area doesn't sound like a lot.

Journalist Kai Wood chronicles the outbreak of the pandemic in Chongqing, China

Philippe Parreno, Bioreactor and probes, 2018; On the walls: Wallpaper Marilyn; On the windows: Nine Blind Sisters; Photo © Andrea Rossetti

For French artist Philippe Pareno, an exhibition is more than a series of art works, it is a sensory process, a frame for things to appear and disappear, an exploration of open possibilities. In the context of his 2018 exhibition at Gropius Bau, Berlin, he built a bioreactor consisting of a beaker in which micro-organisms multiply, mutate, and adapt to their environment. The bioreactor was connected to computers that orchestrated the events in the exhibition. These yeast cultures developed a memory — a collective intelligence — that learned the changing rhythms of the exhibition and evolved to anticipate future variations.


Christoph Möllers

Professor for Constitutional Law, Humboldt University Berlin,

We are in the year 2030 and look back at the year of Covid – what will be the verdict of history for democracy?

It will be a very mixed verdict – but democracy might not be the deciding factor on how to solve the problem of the pandemic. We see democracies performing very differently. So far, we don't really have an explanation for that.

Do you see a problem in the democratic political process itself?

There were certainly problems, especially with the involvement of parliament, for example in Germany. Normally we have amazingly high standards when parliament has to be integrated. This was somehow a bit forgotten. There were very generous clauses that were not really detailed enough to back all the major intrusions into individual rights.

What is there to learn in this crisis about how to change or think differently about democracy?

We have been talking about sustainability now for decades – but this crisis has taught us that sustainability is something very concrete. It's really about our own freedom. It's about us not leaving our homes and being somehow imprisoned – because we haven't been thinking sustainably enough.

We have to include collective needs into our notion of individual rights.

Should we think differently about freedom itself?

Freedom is a very fuzzy concept and full of internal contradictions. On the one hand, there is the bodily and rather short-sighted concrete freedom of pursuing our desires and needs. And on the other hand, we have to think of collective freedom – which is much more abstract and long range. The pandemic demonstrates that freedom can only be protected by long-term thinking. This is also true for climate change. We haven't so far discussed it so much in terms of freedom. I think it's quite helpful to include this thought in a more general framework about what we actually mean by being free.

It seems that in the present liberal discourse there is a very narrow view of what freedom really is.

When you look at the pedigree of liberal concepts of freedom, you see that we often use a very narrow concept of liberalism. For thinkers like Thomas Hobbes or later John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, it was quite clear that freedom has something to do with collective action and being able to make collective decisions according to a standard that includes everybody. We have to include collective problems and collective needs into our notion of individual rights.

Collective freedom implies responsibility.

The pandemic has brought this discourse about responsibility back. And it is important to frame individual decisions with regard to the pandemic as something that has to do with solidarity. We are doing something together as a democratic community. We are not looking at the state giving us orders.

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, the problem of the pandemic is personal because –

I need good reasons not to see my friends.


Covid Diaries

28 Feb: A defiant spirit

Hong Kong's got an infected dog. There's no evidence it will be sick or can pass this back to humans, but fear spreads faster than COVID-19, so keep your dogs inside. […] I feel good. I've had an incredible life thus far, and I, for one, didn't survive the '90s rave scene and two decades as a touring performer only to be taken out by a virus named after a light beer. I've got a fire in my belly.

Kai Wood, Chongqing, China

Pierre Huyghe, Influenced, 2011, Photo © Andrea Rossetti (left); CDC/ Dr. Terrence Tumpey – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library, Photo © Cynthia Goldsmith (right)

This performance-based work by Pierre Huyghe from 2011 includes a person with the flu — either infected naturally or especially injected with a vaccine — who as host in the exhibition space encounters visitors, without necessarily being identified or needing to act sickly. The visitors entering the space may see the work as a source of apprehension or contagion, but also may not become aware of this looming infection. Not unlike other works of art, encountering “Influenced” may leave a more or less lasting effect.


Corine Pelluchon

Professor for Philosophy, Paris, Future Fellow THE NEW INSTITUTE

What is your main lesson from Covid?

We are all vulnerable and we all have a common destiny. A lot of people have come to realize that the connection with humans is the most important thing. This will hopefully drive us to change our lifestyles and modes of production because our way of living is not sustainable.

You are optimistic?

I am working a lot on animal and ecological issues and I know that it takes time for people to change. There are a lot of obstacles. The main challenge is to fill the gap between theory and practice and to show how it is possible to change. This is very challenging.

Can you explain your concept of vulnerability?

Our vulnerability is connected to our corporality – the fact that we eat, depend on air, on water and so on. We cannot understand humans in the light of freedom. Freedom is important – but our dependence on nature and all the other beings sheds new light on the human condition. And this has far reaching consequences because the foundation of political liberalism is defined by the human being as a free moral agent, which is of course very important and drives us into building society upon human rights.


But we have forgotten the relational dimension of the subject and the fact that ecology, justice towards future generations and justice towards animals are very important. They belong to us. The subject is not only defined in light of his will or her will to have choices and to change them – the subject is never alone. Ecology cannot be separated from existence and existence cannot be separated from ecology.

We have to overcome the dualism between nature and culture, reason and emotion, humans and animals.

How does the concept of freedom change?

The key notion of this understanding of vulnerability is our responsibility, the openness to others and the ability to be concerned by his or her fate. The question is how we can find a way of defending and promoting enlightenment and the pillars of autonomy, democracy and humanity – and at the same time overcome the foundations of the ancient enlightenment, the dualism between nature and culture, reason and emotion, humans and animals. But we cannot do it with the old tools, we have to critically examine why reason turns into irrationality.

Does that irrationality include the destruction of the very natural basis of our existence?

When we deeply think about the ecological challenge, ecology is not to be reduced to environmental issues such as the depletion of resources and climate change. These are very important, but ecology also has social dimensions, mental and moral dimensions, it is linked to a way of innovating with others and assessing the place of human beings in nature. The contribution of philosophy is to have a deep understanding of what ecology is.

Is it necessary to change the structures of democracy itself?

Of course! Democracy is a project of society. And a lot of people have the feeling that they have lost their freedom, that we cannot master everything, that the market and other complicated things determine their lives. But we have to understand that we have the power to institute the common good and to change the deep representation that gives strength to a political and economic order.

What do you mean specifically?

John Dewey saw the democratic practice not in a top-down approach, but also not in a bottom-up approach in the naive sense of the term. It requires individuals who are able to organize themselves and have critical skills. I insist upon the individual so that some social and structural changes can be done in a democratic way instead of acting out of fear or coercion.

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

one of the causes of this crisis is our interaction with animals which sheds lights on the fact that we live in a world which dehumanizes us.


Covid Diaries

17 March: Day 1

Today, I truly stepped into the pandemic. A nightmarish scene met me as I entered the intensive care unit (ICU) for the first time since the virus took hold in the city. The overnight case involved a man in his 40s with no foreign travel and no real medical history except hypertension. He had experienced typical cold symptoms for three days. Then, in the emergency room, his oxygen saturation dropped suddenly, and he was put on a ventilator. His chest X-ray was abnormally white and filled with cotton-like opacities — all the fluid and inflammatory debris were keeping him from breathing. “He’s so young,” I exclaimed more than once. And so sick. The day progressed downhill. I rushed around the hospital, responding to pages for critically ill patients. Where were these people coming from? In less than 48 hours, the number of COVID-19 patients in our hospital exploded from fewer than 20 to more than 200.

Shaoli Chaudhuri, New York

General Idea, Imagevirus, 1989-1991;On the wall: AIDS Wallpaper, 1989; Photo © Andrea Rossetti 

In response to an invitation to create works for the Art against AIDS benefit in 1987, General Idea appropriated the colors and stacked letter design of Robert Indiana’s widely quoted LOVE (1965), re-configuring it to read “AIDS.” Producing posters, wallpaper, stamps, public sculpture, and billboards, General Idea spread its AIDS logo throughout art institutions and transportation systems in the United States and Europe. Using the mechanism of viral transmission, this project spread like a virus, producing an image epidemic in urban spaces from Manhattan to Sydney.


Esther Schipper

Galerist, Berlin

What was your experience with Covid?

I was actually in Wuhan in November of 2019 to visit a collector and came back with pneumonia. In December, some people were talking to me about a strange virus in Wuhan. And at the end of January, an artist living in Beijing sent pictures of people in full protection, like from a science-fiction movie.

The art world is maybe the most globalized network of all.

Already in the light of climate change we started to talk amongst colleagues about all the art fairs we were doing, sending around the world big crates, flying all over the place like crazy. And how that was giving us the worst carbon footprint ever. It was really two-faced: One would be politically very concerned about climate change and working with artists on these topics – but at the same time jump every week into another intercontinental flight. Covid finally taught us that it was about time to develop other ways of doing business.

Later you had Covid yourself, didn’t you?

It felt like nothing else I ever had before. The minute the symptoms started I knew I had it.

Can you describe it a bit more?

I had extremely high fever, which in my age, you don't have often, from normal to more than 40 degrees within a couple of hours. It’s strange. You have the impression that you are inhabited by something which is doing things to you.

A lot of people around me started to work with their hands, started to draw or to build things.

Can art tell us something in this moment, Covid or the fragility of life?

There is something very fascinating in this idea that you are possessed by a virus. A lot of artists worked on AIDS related themes back in the 1980s and 1990s. Politically this had a lot to do with how our healthcare system functions and how we are caring about each other in a society. This time it seems that people think more about the quarantine, the solitude, being at home, not traveling. A lot of people around me started to work with their hands, started to draw or to build things.

It is interesting that you bring up AIDS. There was a lot of anger in the art about a society letting people die. How is it different this time?

Well, there is this whole Anti-Covid-Movement, which doesn't want to apply any safety measures and is putting in danger the project of overcoming the virus. In the last month, it has not been a very political and more a social and human topic. But as the virus becomes more and more politicized, I can imagine that also artists are getting into a more political debate.

Do you see this political focus with climate change as well? You represent artists who work specifically on that subject, like Tomas Saraceno.

In a certain way, Covid and climate change are related. These events have the power of confronting us with reality. Tomas Saraceno is really proposing new ways of living and traveling. An artist like David Claerbout just made a beautiful film called “Wildfire”, a forest on fire. It is fascinatingly beautiful and painful at the same time. It doesn't say anything. It's just trees burning. Something which happened over centuries. But now it has a completely different message.

Do you think things will get back to the way they were before the pandemic?

I do think that quite a few things will get back to the way they were because people are so bored – not being able to travel, not being able to meet with people. On the other hand, people also realized that through the extreme traveling you tend to forget your own community. Now I have been home since March and start to think: “Oh, Berlin in the end is quite nice. There are good people living here.”

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

it makes me think a lot about who I am and what I am doing.


Covid Diaries

22 March: Scrub shock

I wonder what they’ll call it in the future. Post-Covid Stress Disorder? Scrub Shock? The toll of the pandemic is making its mark on health-care workers. When I leave the Allen ICU, I’m distracted by chest tightness, shortness of breath and subjective fevers. But in reality, my oxygen saturation and heart rate are normal. Everything is fine.

Shaoli Chaudhuri, New York

Etienne Chambaud, Fever (Deep Sky Borreliosis), 2019, Photo © Ola Rindal

“Fever” is a series of works by French artist Etienne Chambaud that generate, measure and display temperatures associated with specific fevers, body temperatures characteristic of specific illnesses. The temperature variations, modelled from the febrile patterns of actual diseases, are transmitted to the architecture of the exhibition space, measured back and displayed on a screen. Specific surfaces, for example columns, are heated while visible sensors display the temperature to the observer. The system self-regulates its own temperature as the climatic conditions of the space change. The parenthetical part of the title names both a specific condition which may cause this temperature profile and the color in which the graph is shown on the display.


Evgeny Morozov

Tech Writer and Publisher The Syllabus

What did Covid reveal about capitalism?

I don't think Covid revealed anything we did not already know about capitalism – a system that makes certain priorities, and those priorities are based mostly on ideals of profitability and cutting costs. In the case of Covid, we saw it manifested in debates about what counts as essential work and what doesn't. The allocation and distribution of value in capitalism came to the fore. The rich got richer, yes, and I can feel moral outrage about that – I just don't see it as intellectually very enlightening.

And the triumph of platform capitalism – the way that digital companies triumphed in this crisis?

Again, I think Covid is in this regard a red herring – it is neither a catalyst or a great revelator. But if you were to reframe the question and ask me whether there are certain problems in capitalism and whether there are certain ways in which technology can give you an answer – I would of course say yes: There are huge structural problems in capitalism.

Can you explain the main problems that you see?

Most of the larger misunderstandings and problems with capitalism have to do with the way in which it actually blocks and creates obstacles in our path of what I would call discovery. Capitalism actually makes it harder for us to discover what the world is really like – you can see it clearly when it comes to climate. But you can also see it playing out in preventing us from forming institutions through which we can solve problems together – not institutions of the market that are going to accelerate the problems they created.

Has this always been an element of capitalism?

Marx saw a liberating element in capitalism because it destroys traditional religion – but at the same time capitalism truncates and limits this liberation. Hayek was right to say that capitalism facilitates discovery. The whole point of a market economy is to facilitate discovery of new things through competition – but you only discover things that essentially make it easier for you to sell goods at a profit or consume goods somewhat cheaper. Any other form of knowledge or the capacity to form institutions is just not recognized. It is not necessarily suppressed – but it is also not valued.

The reality is that the left doesn't know how to position itself towards capitalism.

You believe – like Marx – in the emancipatory power of technology?

What technology offers is the ability to reveal things for what they are – and also a way to experiment with discovering new things, new forms of being together, new ways of action. This of course would require a very different vision of technology, outside of the purely instrumental, and disclosing what the world is really like.

Who is addressing these questions in the political arena?

Certainly not the people on the left. The reality is that the left doesn't know how to position itself towards capitalism, it does not seem to want to build an alternative system to capitalism. But then you end up in this bizarre situation where even some of the socialist leaning candidates in both the UK and the US suggest that the best solution would be to rebuild Sweden of the 1970s. The problem is: Even if you managed to get rid of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk through more progressive taxation – all the questions related to the environmental crisis or the North-South relations wouldn't disappear.

A return to the 1970s would mean a return of the state?

One consequence of Covid is definitely that we are going to see governments embark on a lot of structural transformations. They are sitting on a lot of money that comes their way – but in many cases they don't have a strong bureaucracy to push ahead the transformation. They turn to ask for help, and normally they turn to big consulting firms, big law firms, big tech firms – guidance from the outside within the weakened system state agency. This is the result of a very strategic transformation of bureaucracy in accordance with some action plan and template. The state gets taken over by consulting firms because it is in the nature of the neoliberal state to build this private public partnership. And Corona is accelerating the process towards consultancy capitalism.

One last question. Can you complete the sentence for me? This is personal because –

I have spent almost a decade trying to understand the exact role of socialism as an ideology.


Covid Diaries

19 April: Coping with the unknown.

I still do not know that it was the coronavirus that I had, and I probably never will. I believe it to be likely, but the official line is still that there were no cases – particularly outside China – until December, and until very recently no information was available about its existence before 31 December. That I may have caught it in November before it was ever acknowledged horrifies me, because (…) I was probably quite close to several people, even though I was obviously trying to avoid exposing them to what I thought was a bad cold. I began to think of myself as a possible unknowing carrier, the thought of which terrifies me, but fortunately not a single person with whom I had any contact, other than my own family, seems to have developed symptoms. Had they done so, I could have found myself being responsible for terrible consequences, possibly including deaths – it does not bear thinking about, and makes me feel very frightened and guilty.

British pianist Norman Lebrecht may have been one of the first people to have Covid, but never got a test. Touring Russia, he summarizes his experiences.

David Claerbout, Wildfire (meditation on fire), 2019-2020
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2020 Photo © David Claerbout

“Wildfire (meditation on fire)” by David Claerbout is a 24-minute single channel video projection that uses 3D computer techniques and a simple camera movement to depict a spectacular wildfire in an artificially rendered landscape. Moving at a very slow pace, views of a luscious forest slowly merge into dramatic — and hypnotic — still images of destructive flames. Projected on a large-scale free-standing screen, the work seems to absorb the viewer into its hellish scenery.


Andreas Malm

Climate Historian, Lund

What is the relationship between Covid and the climate crisis?

It is a relationship on quite a few different levels. The coronavirus is just one of many instances in recent years of emerging infectious diseases that leap over into humanity from the animal kingdoms. This trend is connected to a similar trend in rising temperatures. They are part of the same ecological crisis: you could call them global sickening and global heating.

What is the precise connection?

They share some important factors, mainly deforestation, which is the second most important driver of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Global heating will drive more zoonotic spill-over, it will push animals to migrate, including bats that carry viruses. They tend to come into contact with human populations they haven't been in contact with before. If we want to avoid more pandemics, we need to stop and reverse deforestation and tackle global heating.

What is the underlying cause for both?

The reason is our way of dominating nature that is characteristic of capitalism - the compulsion of capital to turn wild nature into fields for producing various commodities. And to control nature and material production with the weapon of fossil fuels that allows capital to exercise a high level of control over material flows that wasn't possible with the renewable energies that preceded fossil fuels.

Societies will have to change or will just be doomed to have more of these disasters.

Is Covid the sign that we are at a breaking point?

The situation is chronic. That doesn't mean it's stable. Global heating is by definition accumulative, an inherently deteriorating process. It gets worse until it is stopped and reversed. And it is not a condition that we can live with forever. Clearly the economic systems are pressing so hard against the natural systems that things snap. Societies will have to change or will just be doomed to have more of these disasters.

There was a lot of discourse, specifically early on in the pandemic, that now is the time that societies can change. Is there something to learn from this moment?

One lesson is: States can intervene in business as usual and make quite dramatic incursions into private property and markets and close down certain types of economic activity, because they're harmful. This is a real lesson that the climate movement and its allies should use henceforth in its propaganda. On the other hand, the hopes that the way out of this Covid crisis will be a transition away from fossil fuels and a general green recovery – these hopes so far have been disappointed. When you see all the reports that the G-20 economies are pouring 50 or 60 percent more money into fossil fuels than into renewables, you realize: This crisis seems to be another lost opportunity.

What can be done about this?

The break with fossil fuels and business as usual cannot happen without an impetus from civil society and from movements. This pandemic has been a singularly difficult time for movements to navigate because everyone has been locked up inside their homes. It has been extremely hard to make use of the opportunity of this crisis.

In your book about the Covid, you talk about war communism and ecological Leninism: Could you explain these concepts?

Ecological Leninism: That idea is formulated in contrast to old-school, reformist social democracy on the one hand and anarchism on the other. I argued both are inappropriate for this moment. Social democracy of the classical kind is inappropriate primarily because of its temporal form where their premise for social democratic reformism from Bernstein to Swedish social democracy has always been that we can have gradual slow, incremental change because time is on our side while here time is definitely not on our side. We need massive, abrupt change.

And anarchism?

Anarchism, on the other hand, is by definition hostile to the state. But I don't think that real solutions to any of the crises that we face, are even conceivable without the state being a central actor. Now, Leninism has neither of these two problems, because Leninism is based, first of all, on a sense of urgency and impatience. What Lenin did during the second half of 1917 was to say again and again: “Delay is fatal, we have to topple the provisional government, now we can't wait any longer.”

How does that translate to today?

That’s quite easy to apply to the present context. Our strategic task for the climate movement, the Left, progressive forces, is to try to transform those moments of crisis where the symptoms become apparent into a political crisis for the drivers and causes of catastrophe. We have to transform something like the extreme summer of 2018 into a crisis for fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry. In the case of the present pandemic, our task should be to transform it into a crisis for the companies that cause deforestation. That hasn't happened yet.

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

I don't want to live like this. The losses we face as even fairly privileged human beings are quite significant. For example, a life without snow is obviously a meaningful and bearable life, but it's a loss. Especially for the children.


Covid Diaries

15 May: Zoom party

My office threw me a surprise Zoom baby shower this afternoon. Some normalcy was attempted. It was really sweet and also awkward, like any group Zoom event is. Typically, my university office would have hosted me a brunch, with kind small talk and well-wishes over cupcakes and boxed coffee.

Over in Philadelphia, Alanna Butler writes about her pregnancy.

Andrew Grassie, Giraffe, 2020, Photo © Andrew Grassie

The work “Giraffe” by Andrew Grassie is from a new body of work exploring images from the artist’s image archive, among them decades old snapshots associated with personal memories, tied to a specific place, a moment in time. As Grassie writes: “This photograph was taken about ten years ago in a zoo/safari park in Normandy, France. A small train took you on a tour round the grounds. You were separated from the animals by a tall fence. This giraffe came over to the train and stood quite still. The sky was almost totally white creating a neutral backdrop objectifying the creature.ˮ


Pankaj Mishra

Writer, London

Looking back from the year 2050 – what is the verdict of history about these Covid months?

I think the pandemic will be seen as having accelerated a process that was already deeply advanced – the decline of Western ideological and intellectual hegemony. The material decline started a long time ago, but the hegemony was still intact through the years of decline. It is about time to stop talking about the West as a cohesive and coherent entity at this point. The West is really an invention of the Cold War and should have been retired a long time ago, back in the 1990s.

What is this concept of the West that you talk about?

The United States provided the economic muscle. And Britain was helping out with the ideological and intellectual firepower. And ruling classes around the world looked up to these two countries as essentially models of enlightened governance. But these governments and these ruling classes are incredibly incompetent as we can see now once more with Covid. They have been incompetent for a very long time, but in the past the consequences of their blunders were borne by remote peoples whether it was in Vietnam or in Iraq, in Palestine or in Kashmir.

The idea of the West was always connected to the ideals of the enlightenment.

The notion that the West is an inheritor of the enlightenment or that the West is a sort of custodian of liberal values again can be traced back to the Cold War when there was this need to create an intellectual pedigree for the free world. We tend to forget that the enlightenment was sharply questioned before the Cold War, before even the Second World War. It was two famous Germans who institutionalized the process of interrogating the enlightenment: Adorno and Horkheimer.

And present moments of crisis?

The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the election of Donald Trump have all revealed the weaknesses and frailties of the political system – it is very difficult to go back to the old ideological construction of the West and piece it together. All of these constructions rely upon people believing in them. There is a loss of credibility and legitimacy.

You see a whole ideology of progress and enlightenment being used to justify imperialism.

You explored the contradictions and delusions of the West in your book “From the Ruins of Empire.” What are the colonial roots of today’s concept of globalization?

If we would pay more attention to anticolonial thinkers of the 19th and 20th century, it would become clear that what they are really talking about is a process of appropriation, of conquest, of dispossession. They are also marveling at the ideological apparatus that is growing up around these acts of violence, seeking to justify those acts, using reason to describe a large part of the population as irrational, as quite like children in the inability to rule themselves – they need to be led essentially by white men. You see a whole ideology of progress and enlightenment being used to justify imperialism.

Can you explain the failure of India in the pandemic?

Like in the United States, the failure to cope with the pandemic was part of a larger continuing failure of the political system, of the bureaucracy, of the administrations to respond to an emergency like this. Like in the United States, the public health systems were not up to scratch. India was seen as an example of a successful free market economy that is finally taking its place amongst the great nations of the world with its free-market reforms and its privatized utilities and services – but all that has been proven to be utterly false. This is the end of the India story.

China won?

There was never really a race between India and China. This race was also a creation of the Anglo-American propaganda industry. There was a lot of investment in the idea of India being a counterweight to China and the notion that India's democracy can still be our ally. A lot of these notions were built on fantasy. Perhaps now with the intellectual breakup of the West we will have more opportunities to think more rationally and clearly about many of these issues.

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

it affects three countries that I'm intimately connected to; and all three countries have done disastrously in coping with the pandemic - whether it's India, Britain or the United States.


Covid Diaries

19 May: An unprepared hospital

In the first week of the lockdown, I experienced labour pains and took public transport to a public hospital about eight kilometres away. (..) As I sat on the hard metal bench, squeezing myself in between patients to find comfortable seating, I realised there were no masks or sanitizers in sight. Nor were we sitting one metre apart from one another or practising [physical] distancing as per the government guidelines. I decided to go home.

In South Africa, Bonang Motlaung (name has been changed) is also pregnant

Hito Steyerl, Virtual Leonardo’s Submarine, 2020
© VG Bild-Kunst; Image © Hito Steyerl

The pandemic created a disjunction from time, a feeling of being lost in a space that felt both without limits and completely shut off. The work Leonardo’s Submarine by German artist Hito Steyerl – originally conceived in 2019 as a video environment for the 58th Venice Biennale – has been completely reworked as a Virtual Reality experience. Upon entering the virtual space — via the means of a VR headset or by web browser version — viewers find themselves floating underwater, surrounded by fish, seaweed, and coral. The artist’s avatar, outfitted in full gear, swims alongside.


Yuk Hui

Philosopher, Berlin / Hong Kong

What is your experience with Covid?

I came to Hong Kong early this year when there was suddenly this outbreak. I have been stuck here since then.

Why do you think some Asian countries did better than most Western countries in dealing with the pandemic?

There are many factors, many reasons. I can only offer speculations. In Germany for example, there are protests against the harsh measures – you probably don't find this in China, in Japan and in Korea. Another reason could be the strong value attributed to the family in East Asian countries, this much stronger sensibility of moral responsibility that is connected to a self-constraining act.

These are social values – is there a philosophical dimension to this that might be connected to traditions of Eastern and Western thinking on the subject of freedom?

This is a very big and very complicated subject. In Confucian or Taoist thinking the concept of freedom as political freedom is not present. This goes back to the social-political structures of the empire and the emperor – the individuals are subjects of the emperor. The notion of freedom refers more to the freedom one finds inside, expressed in art, in poetry, in painting for example or even in food culture.

In Europe on the other hand, you would find freedom not so much within, but externally, freedom as political freedom, a central element since the French Revolution.

This is a key element of modernity. Hegel for example made a very useful distinction between Willkür, the arbitrary, and Wollen, the will – this constitutes a break from the Greek concept of democracy because of the latter’s emphasis on individualism and the preference of the Willkür. This continues until today, that the question of freedom oscillates between a freedom that is made possible by law and the arbitrary that is opposed to law.

You can only feel free when you understand that what you are doing is nothing significant.

The discourse about the individual is very different in Eastern philosophy?

While you see that there is an elaboration on the concept of freedom in the West and an anticipation of the individualistic society to come as a manifestation of European modernity – in China the question of freedom is not a central political discourse until the contemporary period. You see the difference.

Could you explain how internal freedom is connected to the concept of the world, the outside?

In Confucian culture, freedom means that you don’t feel ashamed. I feel what I say is reasonable. I believe that what I do has a reason. Because I am free from shame. And everything I do is proper to norms.

And in the Taoist tradition?

For the Taoist, the idea of freedom is different because freedom is nothing calculative. You can only feel free when you understand that what you are doing or what you are striving for is nothing significant, in comparison for example to the universe or with nature.

What does this mean for your actions?

When you are trying to pursue something big, there is always something larger than what you are looking for. And what you are looking for is always only relative. You can never arrive at the absolute because if you thought that you can arrive at the absolute, it's only an illusion. The idea to be free is to be free from the illusion. This of course is very different from a Hegelian idea of the search for the absolute.

What is the consequence of these concepts of freedom for society or government or politics?

This question is connected to what is called a good life. In China, if you say you have a good life it means that you have some kind of stability. You have a family, you have a house. And then you can start, you can develop yourself. This again is connected to the history of China with its many wars and changes of dynasties and natural disasters, lack of food and frequent flooding. So freedom in the sense we understand today is not the main concern, but the imagination of a good life.


Covid Diaries

25 May: No gifts this time

All the mistreatment and abuse in Qatar is expected but the two weeks I spent here [after being deported] are painful and unexpected for me. I feel like an unwelcome guest at home, misplaced and being betrayed by my people blaming me as a source of their insecurity towards the virus.

The last time I returned to the village was two years ago. There was a warm reception where everybody gathered in our house. Some brought gifts like milk, fresh grain, and local drinks for me and I also had brought clothes, smartphones and other gifts for them. It would be a feast for a week. I think this time it is not only the fear of the virus that keeps them away but also since they know I am deported, they are sure that I did not bring any gift for them.

Meanwhile in Ethiopia, domestic worker Halima, 24, reflects on her painful return home. Like many foreign casual workers, she was deported from the UAE at the onset of the pandemic. Some never received their pay.

General Idea, Playing Doctor, 1993 Photo © The Estate of General Idea

Begun in the mid-1980s, General Idea’s group self-portraits entitled “Three Men Series” present the artists as a shared identity and play a central role in their artistic practice. “Playing Doctor” from 1992 presents the artists wearing doctor’s lab coats and using their colored stethoscopes on one another as they fade into a background of floating pills. The colored capsules refer to General Idea’s series “PLA©EBO”, created in the early 1990s when the group focused on projects dealing with AIDS, its social and political implications, and the lack of both media coverage and government action.


Geoff Mulgan

Professor UCL and Senior Advisor THE NEW INSTITUTE

You have been charged as part of a larger team – funded by the British government – with finding policy answers to the global pandemic. What are your thoughts on Covid and what’s ahead?

This crisis has been the biggest real time simultaneous challenge to governance and policy that anyone can remember. It has had extremely uneven responses all over the world, the successes and the failures of which are complicated. In my view, they don't fit very well with a particular regime or culture type – they are rather to be explained by particular decisions of political and other leadership.

What kinds of decisions?

It is fascinating to see so many governments moving very rapidly to create entirely new welfare states almost from scratch, providing income support, employing a whole raft of technologies to support that, getting involved in the details of business support and loans and credit. As never before, mass testing and use of data were organized in highly creative ways, particularly in East Asia – ways which Europe can't remotely handle, for all sorts of reasons.

For now, the stress on both societies and citizens seems to be enormous.

We do see a mental health crisis, with lots of evidence around the world of high levels of anxiety, loneliness, depression. We need to see what is working in terms of trying to mitigate those and provide new forms of support with a very localized and online form of eldercare. The crisis has shown huge vulnerabilities and weaknesses in many countries in how care for the elderly is organized. It is often two generations behind in terms of basic use of data and technology – or indeed sensitivity to the lived experience of old people.

Knowledge is the key: Do you see the chance to close that gap, to use that momentum to drive social innovation in a much broader sense?

The task is to orchestrate the data, the knowledge, the intelligence of society in a much more systematic way. This is what has happened to an extent in democracies like South Korea and Taiwan and also in China – the conscious use for public purposes of almost any kind of knowledge which could be useful. That includes credit card data, mobile phone data, it means linking up all the doctors and nurses and tapping into their real time experience of what's working and what isn't.

In the 21st century, mental health, anxiety, loneliness are public matters.

What are the main obstacles to this?

It is much harder in some parts of the world, partly for reasons of political economy. If you have more privatization, then all of that data will be proprietary to companies – and it's very difficult to orchestrate it equally. If you have very strong privacy fears, then obviously no one wants to share data. Europe has gone in that direction, in an understandable reaction against Google and Facebook. But it risks really falling behind in terms of social, public, collective intelligence. That has become very clear through this crisis.

This would mean a massive reconfiguration of the institutional setup of the state.

A fairly significant restructuring, yes. The principle is that almost all the state knowledge and data should be open and shared, not a monopoly. What I am suggesting is certainly very different from the neoliberal state – and also very different from the traditional socialist state. Indeed, most of the 19th and 20th century traditions across the political spectrum are not very helpful for the 21st century.

Including social democracy?

The traditional social democratic vision didn't say that much about knowledge. It was more about a functional delivery state with a view on economic policy and welfare. But it was operating in a pre-digital era. These issues didn't really arise. The social democratic states also tend to be quite weak on human lived experience, the very subjective as well as the objective. It was assumed that mental health was a private matter, whereas physical health was a public matter. In the 21st century, mental health, anxiety, loneliness are public matters and actually vital for rethinking what a welfare state should be for the future.

These are huge shifts in both what's thought of as the goals of the state and the means the state uses to achieve those goals. Is there a name for this, a theory?

It's new and it's emerging and there isn't a very clear theory of it. But in reality, in the past the state always evolved in practice ahead of the theory. The job of the theoreticians is to try and make sense of what is happening, with a much more data intelligence driven state than that of 50 years ago, at a time when the richest companies in the world are mainly based on data and knowledge. You can see that in East Asia, but also Estonia to a degree, Finland and elsewhere: What they're doing in reality is way ahead of what the professors are talking about in universities who often have no sense of that at all.

Your vision is that of a learning society, both on an institutional and a private level – with the ability to adapt to that emergent reality and experiment and be nimble about it.

Exactly. The core of the future state is the systematic organization of learning at multiple levels – starting at the very micro level of a school with things like study circles where teachers regularly think about what's working and what isn't, discussing new research that might be relevant to them. The equivalent in hospitals is the role of work centers and new institutions to synthesize evidence to feed into how public services are working. Parliaments also should be much more consciously organizing learning exercises, critically scrutinizing what worked, what didn't, when was money spent well or badly? And the media should become a thoughtful, critical part of that learning system.

In some parts of the world, this crisis will unlock and speed up innovation and change.

What would that mean on a very macro level?

I am trying to get the UN to think about how to put knowledge and learning at its core, not money. The institutions that were created in the 1940s, the World Bank and IMF, made it obvious that finance dominated the global institutions and the prevention of war. Now we should have similar organizations of global learning.

Do you see all of this as connected to your insistence on our need for new ways of social imagination?

A lot of what I'm talking about is truth – truth about the present and the past, the orchestration of knowledge and truth in new forms, mainly as commons. That is the single most important task of our time because we're facing enemies who want to do the opposite, in politics, in the media, and sometimes in business, too. But we also need a capacity to imagine – and that has different organizing principles because there is no truth about the future. Nobody knows what will happen in 10 or 20 years. I see these as complementary but distinct.

You need to envision change to make it happen.

And the problem of our current governance is that it is not good at that. There are some exceptions like Finland which has long had its committee of the future. Singapore has its foresight teams. But most democracies have almost no capability of thinking 20, 30, 40 years into the future.

Would you say that Covid exposed existing faults and failures of societies on the one hand and on the other opened up the space for imagination or actual change?

I don't know yet. I think many people will try and interpret the crisis with their existing frames. If they're conservatives, that will prove their views, if they are social democrats, it will prove the views they had anyway. But in some parts of the world, it will unlock and speed up innovation and change. It will require political leaders who are able to understand the meaning of it all. And that's the crucial missing bit – political parties and leaders who can make sense of this crisis, with a critical intelligence to see the needs of the future.

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

I joined a university two weeks before it shut down and had to go online and our whole working model has changed; because in my neighborhood the crisis forced a reinvention of horizontal community support structures that I have never seen before; and because tomorrow my mother gets the vaccine.


Covid Diaries

30 May: Body among Bodies

There was a huge protest in Philadelphia today to demand justice for the murder of George Floyd. Many of my friends go to the protest. It feels unthinkable for me to put my body in a crowd right now. Simultaneously, I recognize how easy it is to sink into white complacency because I can use pregnancy as an excuse. I would be given a pass if I did nothing. And this is what privilege is. I donate money to two bail funds.

25 June: Alanna gives birth

My child was born June 18 after 38 hours of beautiful and intense labor. The nurses and midwives at LifeCycle WomanCare made me feel cared for and powerful. Everyone except for me wore a mask the entire time, but my eyes remained closed for nearly all 38 hours of labor, so I hardly noticed. We’re all home now, overjoyed and healthy.

Back in Philadelphia, pregnant Alanna Butler ponders her white privilege

Simon Fujiwara, A Year of Magic, 2020, Photo © Simon Fujiwara

Politics, symbolism, biography, projection: The work of British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara is an eclectic mix of styles and media. This 3-dimensional collage combining paper cut-outs and drawings, printed digital images, mirror foil and found objects is affixed to an antique book and presented in a vitrine with velvet lining that references the colors of Hogwarts, the school at the center of the Harry Potter novels. It emerges from a larger series of works “The Year of Magic”, all created in 2020. According to the artist, this year saw so many unprecedented and surreal events that he chose, in his depiction of them, to take these events yet further into a realm of fantasy or fairytale. The work also responds to the controversy that follows J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter book series, who was accused of transphobia in her Twitter posts in June 2020.


Wilhelm Krull

Founding Director THE NEW INSTITUTE

The COVID-19 pandemic has an enormous impact on the vulnerability of our very existence, and heavily disturbs daily routines that hitherto have been taken for granted. Unpreparedness and uncertainty prevail among experts as well as political leaders.

In view of the delicate, even fragile conditions we live in, it seems to be more urgent than ever to rethink and subsequently reconfigure our concepts and practices, last but not least by finally addressing the many challenges ahead of us. Amongst other things this implies that we acknowledge the widening gap between the guiding principles of our vision and our current behaviour, our social and economic modes of operation as well as the action needed to cope with a wide array of different crises ranging from the current pandemic, climate change, and environmental pollution all the way through to AI-based surveillance systems and rising social inequality (to name but a few).

At present it is not just the COVID-19 pandemic but also a lot of disrupting global tensions as well as adverse national policies that threaten the ability of universities to preserve academic freedom, and thus to autonomously define their role and function at the heart and centre of advanced knowledge-based societies. The capacity to cope with a widening variety of uncertainties and vulnerabilities as well as the rapidity of social and technological change, and the ability to not only respond to the various challenges but to actively engage in shaping the future will be critical factors for securing the long-term success of the respective institutions.

Universities are falling short in the degree of reflexivity needed to meet the complex challenges ahead of us.

What is ultimately at stake is the trustworthiness of scientific and scholarly expertise that helps us to better understand, analyse, and interpret the respective issues at hand. Different methods and approaches open up new opportunities to make things visible, and at times they even make us aware of the blind spots in our own modes of seeing and thinking, and thus to respectfully engage in debates with others.

In view of an uncertain present and a precarious future we all realise that things are no longer running along the tracks we thought they were. The prevailing modes of operation definitely require critical reflections on the ambivalences, contradictions, and limitations of commonly used methods and approaches, in particular with respect to the validity of conclusions, scenarios, and predictions. This includes amongst others to acknowledge for example “both the uses and limitations of models when public policy faces radical uncertainty”, as Paul Collier and John Kay write in “Greed is Dead”, as well as analysing the root causes of the enormous degree of unpreparedness of governments and societies at large in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the lack of resilience across various sectors. The fragility of our healthcare systems, the vulnerability of precariously employed contingent workers, and the difficulties in deliberative decision-making in multi-level, democratically governed systems may suffice to illustrate some of the most pressing issues to be dealt with in due course.

In their current state our universities are falling short on the degree of reflexivity as well as on the strategies needed to meet the complex challenges ahead of us. Although in principle they are hosting a wide array of scientific and scholarly expertise, they lack the institutional structures, research approaches, and financial incentives to develop comprehensively designed, interdisciplinary and transsectoral modes of inclusive knowledge creation which welcome the experiential wisdom of relevant stakeholders as well as new opportunities for the interactive dissemination of results.

With respect to the coming weeks and months, perhaps even years, we should keep an eye on these developments and readjust the objectives of university-based research towards the common good. Academic freedom and the independent search for new insights provide the basis for a high trust culture of creativity which we so badly need in order to come to terms with the many challenges during the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. For academics across Europe, it becomes increasingly urgent to conceive of themselves as globally concerned citizens that operate far beyond their academic institutions.

In the light of increasing scepticism towards academic elites, the interaction between academia, politics and society at large must be critically reviewed and subsequently aligned. If universities want to acquire the role of a socially respected and – despite all the uncertainties involved! – a future-shaping power, they must enter into an open, transparent, participative, and critical dialogue with society at large. We can no longer afford to just enjoy the pleasure of the margins, and therefore have to leave the edge of the playing field in favour of opening up new pathways to – hopefully! – viable solutions.


Covid Diaries

8 September: Zero Tolerance

More than eight months after the outbreak, [Taiwan] has only had seven deaths from COVID-19 and 488 confirmed cases. How was Taiwan able to keep the numbers so low? I got to see for myself.

On my flight to Taipei, each passenger had a separate row. Flight attendants wore medical gowns, goggles, face masks and gloves. No food was served.

Because I’d showed up at the border with a cough, health authorities also took a throat swab test. Before I could get into my taxi assigned by the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control to be taken to the centralized center, I got sprayed from shoulder downwards with disinfectant. The taxi driver, decked out in protective gear, maintained a distance.

“I don’t have Covid!” I wanted to tell him. But it seemed a moot point.

I felt only anxiety. Just 10 hours ago I was eating Nepali food with friends in a restaurant in Shanghai. Now I was being treated as a contaminant.

My experience, while jarring, was understandable to me. Many nations, my own United States included, have seemingly moved away from stringent efforts against COVID-19. The pandemic is still raging in many places, still killing people and leaving others with long-term health effects. The road ahead is long and uncertain.

After getting back into the taxi, I checked my bookbag. My passport and all my documents were in there. From that moment, everything proceeded smoothly. The next day I got my test result. It was negative. I was permitted to leave the quarantine center for my hotel, where I would finish my isolation.

In Taipei, Huizhong Wu witnesses Taiwan’s approach to Covid.

David Claerbout, Wildfire (meditation on fire), 2019-2020, Photo © Dominique Provost

“Wildfire (meditation on fire)” by David Claerbout is a 24-minute single channel video projection that uses 3D computer techniques and a simple camera movement to depict a spectacular wildfire in an artificially rendered landscape. Moving at a very slow pace, views of a luscious forest slowly merge into dramatic — and hypnotic — still images of destructive flames. Projected on a large-scale free-standing screen, the work seems to absorb the viewer into its hellish scenery.


Eugen Baer


Grief, as difficult as it may be, is often accompanied by various types of support systems that tend to help us through the most difficult periods of our lives. Some of these support systems are traditional or even structural in nature, like estate and inheritance protections; rites associated with funerals, memorials, and burials; public obituaries; life insurance; social security benefits; the reading of the will; death related employment benefits, etc. Fortunately, for many of us these types of entitlements exist during a period of time when we are most distraught; but for many more, they do not.

For the past year, however, we have found ourselves in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, and it is impossible for us to ignore the human suffering due to the impact of illness and tragic deaths. At the time of this writing, over 70 million persons have been infected with the novel COVID-19 virus, resulting in nearly 1,6 million deaths worldwide. As a result, the mere magnitude of death has uniquely complicated how we grieve, not only as individuals and families, but also as a communities, states, and even nations.

After several months of trying to conquer the virus, our personal and shared spaces have been bombarded with stories of grief and loss, with their impact being felt both intimately and empathetically. And as so many of these stories are told and heard, we realize that this pandemic has forced us to deal with great loss without having access to not only the structural supports like those mentioned above, but also the more necessary and basic elements of comfort that most of us rely on to overcome grief; for example — human embraces, a shoulder to cry on, hand-holding, witnessing the progressive signs of death, good-bye rituals, last-word memories, family gatherings, witnessing the grief of others, deathbed conversations, group therapy, etc.

If there is one lesson we continue to learn, it is that in addition to the fear of infection, death and dying, financial distress, job insecurity, hunger and homelessness, etc. — having to deal with COVID-19 continues to put our emotions at risk. Necessary social distancing measures such as limiting our social interactions, wearing face masks, diligently washing our hands, disinfecting our surroundings, and avoiding gatherings (including religious services) come highly recommended, or even mandated. But these same social distancing protections are instrumental in further isolating us and expediently exacerbating our grief.

My hope is that we can learn to develop healing rituals that provide comfort.

In spite of all these protocols, health care givers, essential workers, and other front-line laborers are asked to risk their own safety in order to attend to the needs and lives of those greater at risk. With every passing day health professionals, in particular, are in direct danger of losing their own lives and endangering the welfare of their families. And what is worse, these caretakers are left with little time to deal with or express their own grief, left stranded in a sea of last moments and as substitutes for the loved ones of the dying.

So how do we go on from here? I won't pretend to know how to resolve grief on such a massive scale or even suggest another list of stages for how an individual should recognize or express grief, let alone overcome it. But I would like to offer some hope, if only for the sole purpose of believing that COVID-19 will not have the last word on grief. My hope is that we can learn to develop healing rituals that provide comfort — not only our own personal grief, but also our communal grief, in the aftermath of this pandemic.

I have come to believe that comfort or healing rituals are more effective than stage models, especially since "normal" grieving patterns, as referred to above, are made impossible by the changes brought about by the virus. I like to think of healing rituals as events whose mere symbolism is meant to heal some of the pain caused by the death of a beloved one.

Often, together with the enormous pain of loss, there is also a profound disorientation of the person hit by grief. It can bring about an existential crisis as it did for the young St. Augustine. In his “Confessions”, he writes that after unexpectedly losing a friend to death, his whole life changed for him. He confesses that not only did his whole world fall apart, but he himself lost a sense of who he was. To counter this, he began relying on healing rituals such as turning inward, reading, religious reflection, and most importantly — searching for a personal God who could save him from the inevitable flow of time. This kind of religion-based comfort ritual is ageless, and I expect that many coronavirus victims have used this framework as they seek relief from the pain and the many questions that remain unanswered.

As always, it's important to note that because grief is personal, healing rituals are endless in their variety. Often, rituals are entirely spontaneous and unconscious as people struggle to begin to cope with new memories and learn to integrate the negative memories without their loved ones around them.

In the past year, I've heard the refrain over and over again — "Remember, we're all in this together!"  And when it comes to this global pandemic, this rallying cry can't be more apropos.  Think about it, every country around the globe now has a shared experience, with varying degrees of success, when it comes to dealing with grief and loss of all kinds.

Healing rituals can be as simple as writing about it; and poets, as we have been shown, can play a special role when it come to the expression of grief and healing, because words validate the being of each person’s unique personal reality.

In closing, I leave you with a poem by Maya Angelou, "When Great Trees Fall," which serves as a metaphor for personal grief. Here, I share what may be viewed as Angelou's final stage of grief which purports to be more hopeful, and which fairly represents my own framework for accepting death and dying — namely that the mere existence of the lost loved one in my life is solace enough for me:

". . . And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed."


Covid Diaries

14 November: What makes the whole wholesome?

Autumn catches up with us, both in France and in Berlin, where I live, and even the most experimental projects that I have been able to work on all year long lose some of their breath without their physical manifestations, which are those, truly, that constitute and bring communities together. The energy of momentum is diluted, if not non-existent, and I miss it to death! For it is it, in the end, that holds the whole wholesome, all the human weave that is found in a movie theatre, a concert hall, a discussion around things read, seen and loved, and that gives the energy and value of all efforts.

In Berlin, French artist Marie-Pierre Bonniol observes that without audiences, there's no energy, no drive to her art.

Antoine d‘Agata, April and May 2020 © Antoine d’Agata/Magnum Photos, Agentur Focus


It is hard to think of a period when every single person on the planet, facing the same threat, formed a collective of vulnerables, and yet still had to cope on the most immediate, most intimate, most individualistic level, the level of the body. A look at coronavirus diaries from across the world reveals the different impact COVID-19 has had – across socio-economic classes, gender and race. Not only that: they also preserve for posterity a new normal in all its mundane detail, revealing practices we’ve come to take for granted, pain we have numbed to, hopes reinforced and shattered.

Most diaries are destined to be forgotten. These will be studied in centuries to come: A journalist reporting from Chongqing, a New York-based doctor witnessing the horror of overcrowded ICUs, a British pianist unknowingly carrying the virus, an Ethiopian domestic worker describing her forced trip home from the UAE, two women giving birth during the heights of the first wave, one in the US, one in South Africa and an artist observing that not only do people need art, but that art needs people.


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