Pandemic

After Lockdown: A metamorphosis by Bruno Latour, translated by Julie Rose

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December 2021, no. 438

Bruno Latour’s new book, After Lockdown: A metamorphosis, is so engaging from the first that one feels obliged to begin just where he does: with an arresting portrait of a man who wakes from a long sleep to find that everything, save the moon and its indifferent rotations, makes him uneasy. Everywhere he sees reminders of the lost innocence of the Anthropocene. The sun brings to mind global warming; the trees, deforestation; the rain, drought. Nothing in the landscape offers solace. Pollution has left its mark everywhere, and he feels vaguely responsible for it all. And now, to top it off, the very breath that sustains his life carries the risk of premature death. How many of his neighbours might he infect (or be infected by) amid the vapour trails of his evening walk? Nature, it seems, is having its revenge, and the ‘in-out-in’ of lockdown threatens to become interminable.

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How will the year 2020 be remembered? No doubt the headline event was the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered schools, factories, and hospitality services, leading to a contraction of per capita income for ninety-five percent of the world’s economies. For Europe, the acrimonious exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union would serve as a stark reminder of how fragile supranational institutions are in the face of popular fury. Following the murder of George Floyd, similar rage at police brutality marked a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which preceded a combative presidential election that denied Donald Trump a second term. And the world endured one of its hottest years on record, with surface temperatures reaching nearly one degree above the 141-year average as fires burned through Australia and the United States.

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More than a year ago, I wrote about how those of us interested in language were tracking the many words and expressions being generated by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, all of Australia was in iso, and we had all turned to the joys (for some of us) of isobaking or learning to crochet. As the pandemic has dragged on, the language generated by it has changed. The Covidspeak of 2021 reflects our concerns about vaccinations, borders, and the impact of the Delta variant (often shortened to Delta or the Delta). The language of the pandemic has shifted to reflect our increasing frustration with slow vaccination rates, multiple and extended lockdowns and border closures, and government decisions and actions taken around these things.

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In the allegory of the cave, Plato hypothesised the birth of the philosopher as one who emerged from the darkness of illusion into the light of truth. In the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, philosophers are finding a platform, mostly in the press, indicative perhaps that we need an interpretation of what is happening around us beyond that offered by the media and daily conferences. As with Plato’s philosopher, what they have brought back is not necessarily what we wanted to hear, and some have been threatened with pariah-like status for views that sometimes run counter to the prescribed consensus. This was certainly the case with Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

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The collective dislocation that followed the advent of Covid-19 generated (and continues to generate) a slew of books intended to make sense of the turmoil. Encompassing Slavoj Žižek’s anti-capitalist treatise Pandemic! (2020) and books for children such as Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar’s While We Can’t Hug (2020), the responses have ranged from considered attempts to apprehend the pandemic’s scientific, political, and social parameters to those designed to do little more than catch the Covid wave before it passes. Regrettably, Peter Doherty’s An Insider’s Plague Year tends more towards the latter.

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Doom by Niall Ferguson & The Premonition by Michael Lewis

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August 2021, no. 434

One of the disconcerting aspects of this pandemic is that there was no shortage of warnings. For decades, virologists foresaw the coincidence of urbanisation, human proximity with animals, climate change, and globalisation as ideal conditions for spreading deadly pathogens. Science journalists wrote books with titles such as The Coming Plague (Laurie Garrett) and Spillover (David Quammen), whose conclusions were amplified by TED-talking billionaires. SARS, MERS, Ebola, and swine flu were further clues. Yet come January 2020, authorities worldwide were slow, indecisive, and ill-prepared.

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What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman & Upturn by Tanya Plibersek

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December 2020, no. 427

What is to be done? The question is asked whenever humankind confronts a new crisis. And the answers, whether from biblical sources, Tolstoy, or Lenin (or indeed Barry Jones in his imminent book, What Is To Be Done?), must confront universal moral quandaries at the same time as they address local needs, hopes, and aspirations.

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If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there has never been a better time to respond to the climate crisis than now. The global nature of Covid-19 has made it clear that global issues need a coordinated response and can easily affect the welfare of every human being on earth. The virus has shown us that it is absolutely crucial to listen to the science. Governments, in responding to epidemiological forecasts, have rapidly spent hundreds of billions of dollars on welfare subsidies, enforcing social distancing, protective equipment, mental health services, and vaccine research.

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‘Healthy People Gather for Your Freedom.’ So read the sign held proudly aloft by a young woman at a protest against coronavirus restrictions on ‘Freedom Day’ in Melbourne. Drawn to the Shrine in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with those other ‘diggers’ who defended Australia against the threat of authoritarianism, she was part of a small crowd with a big message: ‘Freedom is under threat’. A bit like coronavirus itself, perhaps, ‘Freedom Day’ was an accident waiting to happen – not least of all in Victoria. No democratic government can expect to curtail freedoms without stirring up the civil libertarians (both the sane and the crazy), and the restrictions devised and enforced by the Andrews government have been more severe than most. If one is to believe former prime minister Tony Abbott, the premier of Victoria now heads up a ‘health dictatorship’ that holds five million Melburnians under ‘house arrest’. Daniel Andrews, though in truth a champion of social justice, has of late acquired the disagreeable moniker of ‘Dictator Dan’ for putting a plague city into lockdown.

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The staff and board of Australian Book Review extend their thanks to healthcare workers around the world. We all know what risks confront doctors, nurses, aides, orderlies, and administrative staff in our hospitals and medical clinics, especially here in Victoria. Countless healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19, and many have died. We’re immensely grateful to the sector for its commitment and self-sacrifice.

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