Few phenomena have had a profound impact on a global level as quickly as the current corona outbreak. In no time, human life has been completely reorganised. I asked Mattias Desmet, Psychotherapist and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Ghent University, how this is possible, what the consequences are, and what we can expect in the future.
Almost a year after the start of the corona crisis, how is the mental health of the population?
For the time being, there are few figures that show the evolution of possible indicators such as the intake of antidepressants and anxiolytics or the number of suicides. But it is especially important to place mental well-being in the corona crisis in its historical continuity. Mental health had been declining for decades. There has long been a steady increase in the number of depression and anxiety problems and the number of suicides. And in recent years there has been an enormous growth in absenteeism due to psychological suffering and burnouts. The year before the corona outbreak, you could feel this malaise growing exponentially. This gave the impression that society was heading for a tipping point where a psychological ‘reorganization’ of the social system was imperative. This is happening with corona. Initially, we noticed people with little knowledge of the virus conjure up terrible fears, and a real social panic reaction became manifested. This happens especially if there is already a strong latent fear in a person or population.
The psychological dimensions of the current corona crisis are seriously underestimated. A crisis acts as a trauma that takes away an individual’s historical sense. The trauma is seen as an isolated event in itself, when in fact it is part of a continuous process. For example, we easily overlook the fact that a significant portion of the population was strangely relieved during the initial lockdown, feeling liberated from stress and anxiety. I regularly heard people say: “Yes these measures are heavy-handed, but at least I can relax a bit.” Because the grind of daily life stopped, a calm settled over society.
The lockdown often freed people from a psychological rut. This created unconscious support for the lockdown. If the population had not already been exhausted by their life, and especially their jobs, there would never have been support for the lockdown. At least not as a response to a pandemic that is not too bad compared to the major pandemics of the past. You noticed something similar when the first lockdown came to an end. You then regularly heard statements such as “We are not going to start living again like we used to, get stuck in traffic again” and so on.
People did not want to go back to the pre-corona normal. If we do not take into account the population’s dissatisfaction with its existence, we will not understand this crisis and we will not be able to resolve it.
By the way, I now have the impression that the new normal has become a rut again, and I would not be surprised if mental health really starts to deteriorate in the near future. Perhaps especially if it turns out that the vaccine does not provide the magical solution that is expected from it.
Desperate cries of young people regularly appear in the media. How seriously do you take them?
Well, you should know that the lockdowns and the associated measures are completely different for young people than for adults. Unlike a middle-aged adult, the time span of a year for a young person means a period in which one undergoes enormous psychological development, much of which takes place in dialogue with peers. Today’s young people are living through this period in isolation, and it may well be that it will have negative consequences for the majority of them. But everything is complex where young people are concerned. For example, those who previously experienced acute social anxiety or social isolation may now feel better because they are no longer the misfits. But in general, the youth is undoubtedly the hardest hit by this corona crisis.
What about anxiety in the adults?
In adults there is also fear, but the object of the fear differs. Some are primarily afraid of the virus itself. There are people living in my street who hardly dare to leave their homes. Others fear the economic consequences of the measures. And still others fear the social changes brought about by the corona measures. They fear the emergence of a totalitarian society. Like me (laughs).
Are the mortality and morbidity rates associated with the coronavirus commensurate with the fearful responses?
Well, sickness and suffering are always bad, but the deleterious effects of the government response are disproportionate to the health risk of the virus. Professionally, I am involved in two research projects on corona. As a result, I have been working fairly intensively with the data. Clearly, the virus mortality rate is quite low. The numbers that the media are announcing are based on, let‘s say, an overly enthusiastic count. Regardless of any pre-existing medical problems, just about every elderly person who died was added to the list of corona deaths. I personally only know one person who was registered as a corona death. He was a terminal cancer patient who died with rather than from corona. Adding these sorts of deaths to corona deaths increases the numbers and increases anxiety in the population.
Several emergency doctors called me during the second wave. Some told me that their ward was absolutely not overrun with corona patients. Others told me that more than half of the patients in the ICU did not have corona or showed such mild symptoms that they would have been sent home to recover, were they diagnosed with influenza. But given the prevailing panic, this turned out to be impossible. Unfortunately, these doctors wished to remain anonymous, so their message did not reach the media and public opinion. Some of them later also told their story to a journalist from the VRT news network, but unfortunately nothing has come of this to date. And I want to mention that there were other doctors who interpreted the apparent facts in a completely different fashion than portrayed in the conventional narrative.
We are struck by the disappearance of the ability to criticise the consensus and the corona measures, even within the academic world where scientific ideals require critical thinking. How do you explain this?
Make no mistake: at university and in the medical world there are many people who are amazed by what is going on. I have quite a few friends in the medical field who don‘t accept the conventional narrative. They say “open your eyes, can‘t you see this virus isn’t the plague?” But all too often they don‘t take the step to say this publicly. Moreover, for each critical voice, thirty others do go along with the story, even if this means that they have to abandon their critical scientific standards.
Is this a sign of cowardice?
In some cases it is. In fact you can distinguish three groups everywhere. The first group does not believe the story and says so publicly. The second group does not believe in the story either, but publicly goes along with it anyway, because, given the social pressure, they dare not do otherwise. And the third group really believes in the dominant narrative and has a real fear of the virus. The latter group is certainly also found at the universities.
It is striking how scientific studies, also in this corona crisis, reveal very diverse results. Based on these results, scientists can defend almost diametrically opposed theories as the only truth. How is this possible?
The research on corona is indeed brimming with contradictions. For example, regarding the effectiveness of face masks or hydroxychloroquine, the success of the Swedish approach, or the effectiveness of the PCR test. Even more curiously, the studies contain a huge number of improbable errors that a normally sane person would not be expected to make. This is still the case in terms of establishing the absolute number of infections, while a schoolchild knows that this means nothing as long as the number of infections detected is not compared with the number of tests taken. Obviously, the more tests you carry out, the more likely your infection rate will increase. Is this so difficult? In addition, it should be kept in mind that the PCR test can yield a large number of false positives, because the technique is widely misused for diagnosis. Together, this means that the inaccuracy of the figures distributed daily by the media is so great that some people understandably suspect a conspiracy, albeit apocryphally, in my opinion.
Again, this phenomenon is better placed in an historical perspective, because the problematic quality of scientific research is not a new issue. In 2005 the so-called “replication crisis” erupted in the sciences. Several committees set up to investigate scientific fraud cases found that scientific research is teeming with errors. Often the stated conclusions are of very dubious value. In the wake of the crisis, several papers appeared with titles that leave little to the imagination. In 2005, John Ioannidis, Professor of Medical Statistics at Stanford, published Why most published research findings are false. In 2016, a different research group wrote about the same topic, in Reproducibility: a Tragedy of Errors published in the medical journal Nature. These are just two examples of the very extensive literature describing this problem. I myself am well aware of the shaky scientific foundation of many research results. In addition to my master’s degree in clinical psychology, I earned a master’s in statistics. My doctorate dealt with measurement problems in the field of psychology.
How was the criticism received within the scientific world?
Initially it led to a shock wave, after which an attempt was made to resolve the crisis by demanding more transparency and objectivity. But I don‘t think this solved much. Rather, the cause of the problem lies in a specific kind of science that emerged during the Enlightenment. This science is based on an absolute belief in objectivity. According to the adepts of this view, the world is almost totally objectifiable, measurable, predictable and verifiable. But science itself has shown that this idea is untenable. There are limits to objectivity and, depending on the scientific domain, one is highly likely to encounter these limits. Physics and chemistry are still relatively suitable for measuring. But this is much less successful in other research areas such as economics, biomedical science, or psychology, where an investigator is more likely to discover that a researcher’s subjectivity has had a direct influence on his or her observations. And it is precisely this subjective core that scientists have sought to eliminate from scientific debate. Paradoxically – but not surprisingly – this nucleus flourishes in its exile, leading to the complete opposite of the hoped-for result. Namely, a radical lack of objectivity and a proliferation of subjectivity. This problem has persisted even after the replication crisis, it was not resolved in spite of the efforts of critics. As a result, now, 15 years later, in the throes of the corona crisis, we continue to face exactly the same problems.
Are current politicians basing the corona measures on incorrectly established scientific principals?
I think so. Here, too, we see a kind of naive belief in objectivity that turns into its opposite: a serious lack of objectivity with masses of errors and carelessness.
Moreover, there is a sinister connection between the emergence of this kind of absolutist science and the process of manipulation and totalitarianisation of society.
In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, the German-American political thinker Hannah Arendt brilliantly describes how this process took place in Nazi Germany, among other places.
For example, nascent totalitarian regimes typically fall back on a ‘scientific’ discourse. They show a great preference for figures and statistics, which quickly degenerate into pure propaganda, characterised by a radical “disregard for the facts”.
For example, Nazism based its ideology on the superiority of the Aryan race. A whole series of so-called scientific data substantiated their theory. Today we know that this theory had no scientific validity, but scientists at the time used the media to defend the regime’s positions. Hannah Arendt describes how these scientists proclaimed questionable scientific credentials, and she uses the word “charlatans” to emphasize this. She also describes how the emergence of this kind of science and its industrial applications was accompanied by an inevitable social change. Classes disappeared and normal social ties deteriorated, with much indefinable fear, anxiety, frustration, and lack of meaning. It is under such circumstances that the masses develop very specific psychological qualities.
All fears that haunt society become linked to one ‘object’ – for example, the Jews – so that the masses enter into a kind of energetic struggle with this object. And onto that process of social conditioning of the masses, a completely new political and constitutional organisation subsequently grafts itself: the totalitarian state.
Today, one perceives a similar phenomenon. There is widespread psychological suffering, lack of meaning, and diminished social ties in society. Then a story comes along that points to a fear object, the virus, after which the population strongly links its fear and discomfort to this dreaded object. Meanwhile, there is a constant call in all media to collectively fight the murderous enemy.
The scientists who bring the story to the population are rewarded with tremendous social power in return. Their psychological power is so great that, at their suggestion, the whole of society abruptly renounces a host of social customs and reorganises itself in ways that no one at the beginning of 2020 thought possible.
What do you think will happen now?
The current corona policy temporarily restores some social solidarity and meaning to society. Working together against the virus creates a kind of intoxication, resulting in an enormous narrowing of attention, so that other matters, such as the concern for collateral damage, vanish into the background. However, the United Nations and several scientists warned from the outset that the global collateral damage could generate far more deaths than the virus, for instance from hunger and delayed treatment.
Social conditioning of the masses has another curious effect: it causes individuals to psychologically put aside selfish and individual motives. In this way, one can tolerate a Government that takes away some personal pleasures.
To give just one example: catering establishments where people worked their entire lives can be closed without much protest. Or also: the population is deprived of performances, festivals and other cultural pleasures. Totalitarian leaders intuitively understand that tormenting the population in a perverse way reinforces the social conditioning even more.
I can‘t fully explain that now, but the process of social conditioning is intrinsically self-destructive.
A population affected by this process is capable of enormous atrocities towards others, but also towards itself. It has absolutely no hesitation about sacrificing itself. This explains why, unlike simple dictatorships, a totalitarian state cannot survive. It eventually devours itself completely, as it were. But the process usually takes many human lives.
Do you recognise totalitarian traits in the current crisis and the government response to it?
Definitely. When one steps away from the virus story, one discovers a totalitarian process par excellence. For example, according to Arendt, a pre-totalitarian state cuts through all social ties of the population. Simple dictatorships do that at the political level – they ensure that the opposition cannot unite – but totalitarian states also do this among the population, in the private sphere.
Think of the children who – often unintentionally – reported their parents to the government in the totalitarian states of the twentieth century.
Totalitarianism is so focused on total control that it automatically creates suspicion among the population, causing people to spy on and denounce each other. People no longer dare to speak out against the majority and are less able to organise themselves due to the restrictions.
It is not difficult to recognise such phenomena in today’s situation, in addition to many other features of emerging totalitarianism.
What is it that this totalitarian state ultimately wants to achieve?
At first, it doesn‘t want anything. Its emergence is an automatic process coupled on the one hand with great anxiety on the part of the population and, on the other hand, a naive scientific thinking that considers total knowledge possible.
Today there are those who believe that society should no longer be based on political narratives but on scientific facts and figures, thus rolling out the red carpet for rule by technocracy. Their ideal image is what the Dutch philosopher Ad Verbrugge calls “intensive human husbandry”. Within a biological-reductionist, virological ideology, continuous biometric monitoring is indicated and people are subjected to continuous preventive medical interventions, such as vaccination campaigns. All this to supposedly optimise public health. And a whole range of medical hygiene measures must be implemented; avoiding touch, wearing face masks, continuously disinfecting hands, vaccination, etc. For the supporters of this ideology, one can never do enough to achieve the ideal of the greatest possible ‘health’. A newspaper article appeared in which one could read that the population ought to be made even more afraid. Only then would they stick to the measures recommended by the virologists. In their view, stirring up fear will work to produce good. But when drawing up all these draconian measures, the policymakers forget that people cannot be healthy, either physically or mentally, without sufficient freedom, privacy and the right to self-determination, values that this technocratic totalitarian view totally ignores.
Although the Government aspires to enormous health improvement for its society, its actions will ruin the health of society. By the way, this is a basic characteristic of totalitarian thinking according to Hannah Arendt: it ends in the exact opposite of what it originally pursued.
Today, the virus creates the necessary fear on which totalitarianism rests. Will finding a vaccine, and the subsequent vaccination campaign, allay this fear and end this totalitarian flare-up?
A vaccine will not resolve the current impasse. For in truth, this crisis is not a health crisis, it is a profound social and even cultural crisis. By the way, the Government has already announced that the measures will not just disappear after the vaccination.
A recent article even stated that it is striking that the countries that are already very advanced with the vaccination campaign – such as Israel and Great Britain – are strangely enough still seriously tightening the measures.
Rather, I foresee this scenario: despite all the promising studies, the vaccine will not bring about a solution. And the blindness that social conditioning and totalitarianisation entails will blame those who do not go along with the story and/or refuse to be vaccinated. They will serve as scapegoats. There will be an attempt to try to silence them.
And if that succeeds, the dreaded tipping point in the process of totalitarianisation will come: only after it has completely eliminated the opposition will the totalitarian state show its most aggressive form. It then becomes – to use Hannah Arendt‘s words – a monster eating his own children.
In other words, the worst is perhaps yet to come.
What are you thinking about these days?
Totalitarian systems generally all have the same tendencies to methodically isolate and that, in order to guarantee the health of the population, the ‘sick’ portions of the population will be further isolated and locked up in camps.
That idea was actually suggested several times during the corona crisis, but dismissed as “not feasible” due to social resistance. But will that resistance persist if the fear continues to increase? You may suspect me of being overly paranoid, but who would have thought in early 2020 that our society would look like this today?
The process of totalitarianisation is based on the hypnotic effect of a story and it can only be broken by another story. Hence, I hope more people will question the supposed danger of the virus and the necessity of current corona measures, and dare to speak publicly about this.
Why is this fear response not occurring with the climate crisis?
The climate crisis may not be suitable as a fear object. It may be too abstract and we cannot associate it with the instant death of a loved one or ourselves. And as an object of fear, it is also less directly related to our medical-biological view of man. Hence, a virus is a privileged object of fear.
What does the current crisis tell us about our relationship with death?
The dominant science perceives the world as a mechanistic interaction of atoms and other elemental particles that collide randomly and produce all kinds of phenomena, including humans. This science makes us desperate and powerless in the face of death. At the same time, life is experienced as a totally meaningless and mechanistic given, but we cling to it as if it is all we have, and we want to eliminate any behaviour that might risk the loss of it. And that is impossible. Paradoxically, radically trying to avoid risks, for example through corona measures, creates the greatest risk of all. Just look at the colossal collateral damage that is being caused.
You perceive the current social evolution as going in a negative direction. How do you see the future?
I am convinced that something beautiful will come out of all this. Materialistic science starts from the idea that the world consists of material particles. Yet precisely this science reveals that matter is a form of consciousness, that there is no certainty, and that the human mind fails to grasp the world. For example, the Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr argued that the elementary particles and atoms behave in a radically irrational and illogical way. According to him, they were better understood by using poetry than by using logic.
We will experience something similar on a political level. In the near future, we will perhaps historically be making the most far-reaching attempt to control everything in a technological, rational way. Ultimately, this system will prove itself to not work and show that we need a completely different society and policy.
The new system will rely more on respect for what is ultimately elusive to the human mind and on respect for the art and intuition that were central to the religions.
Are we in a paradigm shift today?
Doubtless. This crisis heralds the end of a cultural historical paradigm. Part of the transition has already been made in the sciences. The geniuses who laid the foundations of modern physics, complex and dynamic systems theory, chaos theory and non-Euclidean geometry already understood that there is not one but many different logics, that there is something intrinsically subjective in everything, and that people live in direct resonance with the world around them and all the complexities of nature. Moreover, Man is a being who is dependent on his fellow man in his energetic existence. The physicists have known this for some time, now for the rest of us! We are now witnessing the latest upsurge of the old culture based on control and logical understanding that will demonstrate at breakneck speed what utter failure it brings and its inability to truly organise a society in a decent and humane way.
The original article in Flemish containing links to supporting documents is available at the blog site here.
- The interviewer and blogger, Patrick Dewals, is a political philosopher and author.