There is a common perception that philosophy concerns itself primarily with abstract problems that are of little significance to all but a few initiates in academia.

However, I would suggest that philosophy is better understood as a way of questioning, one that can be found in nearly every culture, and one which at certain crucial moments in human history can help us to clarify problems of truth and value, and thereby develop better approaches to pressing practical problems, such as those caused by the spread of COVID-19.

It may appear to many as though a global pandemic is a strange topic for philosophy, and that it is better to leave the problem to experts in virology and the field of public health. After all, isn’t a pandemic a natural disaster, and thus something that defies humanistic concepts?

The critical practice of philosophy reminds us that each and every phenomenon, no matter how “natural” it may seem, is itself shaped by human priorities and practices, and thus, in certain crucial respects, responsive to timely and thoughtful interventions. These are questions of truth inasmuch as they pertain to the disease’s manifestation.

Kalihi Kai Urgent Care handled drive thru COVID-19 testing at Geiger Park in Ewa on April 29. What will we learn from this unique point in history? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

A critical philosophy of COVID-19 should begin by pointing out that the shape, scope, and, yes, even the nature of this pandemic is conditioned by longstanding political priorities.

In the United States, for example, we are currently reckoning with the extension of neoliberal managerial practices into the health care industry. Over the past 40 years, large numbers of life-saving in-patient hospital beds were eliminated for the sake of profit.

Today, there are 340 ICU beds in the state of Hawaii and only 73 in the Honolulu area. Fortunately, our social distancing measures have thus far been effective, for researchers at Harvard University predicted that short of drastically flattening of the curve Hawaii would require approximately 9.3 times more ICU beds.

The Scope Of Moral Consideration

Following similar economic imperatives, President Trump closed the White House pandemic office in 2018. Established under President Obama in 2014 after the outbreak of Ebola, this office was charged with using the resources of the federal government to prevent outbreaks of disease from developing into pandemics.

Even more painfully ironic is the fact that a mere two months before the outbreak of COVID-19, the Trump administration shuttered the PREDICT project, an early-warning system that had already identified 1,200 viruses, including over 160 coronaviruses, capable of causing widespread disease. This same program was also responsible for training scientists at the now infamous Wuhan lab, which the Trump administration is attempting to scapegoat.

The purpose of these reminders is not to assign blame for the current pandemic. It is to underscore the point that events like the one we are currently experiencing do not simply fall from the sky as “acts of God” or “natural disasters.” They are in large measure failures of imagination, planning, and preparedness.

Philosophical reflection can also help us to widen the scope of moral consideration. This is particularly important at a time when many forces compel us to think primarily of those who are closest to us.

If we are to be successful in building a world worth living in, we will need to break with the tribalisms which tell us that only the people most like us are worthy of consideration. These are questions of value.

In our society, we must confront the fact that African Americans and other racial minorities have suffered egregiously disproportionate levels of infection and death. We must grapple with the contradiction that many of our “essential workers” are some of the lowest paid members of our society.

While middle-class workers have largely insulated themselves against the risk of the disease, thanks to high-speed internet and Netflix, the very people upon whom our daily lives depend, brave a contaminated world to supply our food, health care and other basic goods.

While Western countries plot their recoveries, we must not forget about the spread of the virus throughout the rest of the world, and in particular the countries already grappling with the legacies of colonialism and an asymmetrical capitalist globalization. The spread of the virus throughout Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia will undoubtedly cause unimaginable levels of suffering amidst populations already ravaged by malnutrition and HIV/AIDS. We must develop our solidarities across international borders and provide aid to those most at risk.

The current pandemic will not last forever.

Philosophy is a reminder that each and every phenomenon is replete with ethical and political consequences that need to be evaluated carefully, and with an eye towards human flourishing. However we may wish to characterize our present circumstances, it is undoubtedly the case that we are living through a unique and exceptional moment in history. Moments like the present are particularly fraught, most obviously because many lives are at stake, but also because they are likely to result in long-lasting cultural changes.

Already the coronavirus has been used by many leaders around the world as a pretext to roll back civil liberties, and as an opportunity to bolster the surveillance infrastructure put in place after 9/11. Estimates suggest that approximately 4 billion people around the world have had their freedom of movement and assembly suspended or curtailed.

And some experts predict that by the time the pandemic is over, the surveillance powers of government will have increased tenfold. Many governments now require citizens to install invasive apps on their smartphones in order to track their movements. In South Korea, these apps have been responsible for disclosing significant personal information, including the identities of infected persons.

The point is not that these technologies are “bad” and in need of resistance; they may well be preferable to other measures, such as the ancient and crude technology of quarantine.

The point, rather, is that these measures are dangerous inasmuch as they have unforeseen consequences. They must be overseen democratically, and subject to rigorous public debate.

The current pandemic will not last forever. Thinking philosophically about this disease, together with the type of world that we want to inhabit once the worst is over, will ensure that the changes it has wrought don’t either.

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