Bernard-Henri Lévy was in Bangladesh in March, documenting the plight of Rohingya refugees, when he and his compatriots outside France were summoned home by President Emmanuel Macron for what would turn into a three-month lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19.
France’s most mediatized public intellectual, Mr. Lévy had travelled to countless war zones over the years on a mission to contextualize the conflicts of our era, underscoring humanity’s shared responsibility for the displaced and dead and warning us against looking the other way.
When his piece on the Rohingya finally appeared in Paris Match, several weeks into the lockdown, Mr. Lévy was stunned by the tone of the reactions on social media. “What are you doing in the Bay of Bengal rather than staying home?” they went, chastising him for “deserting the collective war” against the coronavirus and shrugging off his “duty of solidarity.”
If the posters on social media could be forgiven for not understanding the lead times involved in magazine articles, what Mr. Lévy found unforgivable was the extent to which French society had allowed a relatively manageable virus (by historical standards) to shove everything else off the radar in a fit of fear stoked by public-health authorities and a complicit media.
What he found even more inexplicable was that even countries like Bangladesh, which face far more deadly health scourges than the coronavirus on a daily basis, rushed to follow the West and China into shutting down their economies, leaving millions of precarious workers to go hungry in the name of fighting the spread of COVID-19. As if nothing else mattered.
The result of Mr. Lévy’s exasperation is a new essay on our response to a pandemic that, while tragic, is “by no means without precedent.” Though it is too soon to draw definitive comparisons with pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 1968, he says it is “time to talk about the effects of all this on our societies and our minds.” After all, he explains in citing 19th-century German doctor Rudolf Virchow: “An epidemic is a social phenomenon comprised of some medical aspects.”
His first observation is that our fixation on the virus has been more pathological than the virus itself. In “Ce virus qui nous rend fou” (This virus that is driving us mad), Mr. Lévy blames the “collective hype, worsened by cable news channels and social media that, in hammering day after day the numbers on those in intensive care, the dying and the dead, thrust us into a parallel universe where no other information existed and, to the letter, drove us mad.”
The medical profession comes in for harsh criticism for “abuse of knowledge,” for feeding too easily into the fears of the population. “First off, the doctors often do not have any more information than [the rest of] us and the blind trust that is invested in them is something absurd,” writes Mr. Lévy, who provides a long list of “expert” assertions about the coronavirus and its transmission that have been proved wrong since the outset of the pandemic. The most pernicious of these myths may be the idea that children must be kept out of school.
Mr. Lévy ridicules ecologists who celebrate the “silver lining” of the pandemic as carbon emissions plummet and nature invades urban spaces, with deer sightings on the Champs-Élysées. He dismisses the “nonsense that the virus is talking to us, that it has a message to deliver” about how humankind has been treating the planet. The coronavirus, he writes, is more an example of “nature’s violence against man rather than the other way around.”
Mr. Lévy counts himself as a supporter of stricter curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions. “But not like this. Not all at once. Not this catastrophic, if not apocalyptic, interruption [of activity] with incalculable consequences,” he writes. “We should not have allowed ourselves to be intimidated by this false debate of lives versus the economy, but should have compared the cost in lives of the virus’s spread against the glaciation caused by the self-inflicted coma on an almost entire planet turned into a laboratory for a radical political experiment.”
You don’t have to look far to see the toll. In May alone, British Columbia experienced a record 170 deaths from drug overdoses, surpassing in one month the province’s total number of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began. Reduced access to harm-reduction services and addiction treatment during the shutdowns contributed to the surge in overdose deaths.
We may never know the true toll of the shutdowns, but we can no longer ignore it.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.