Eva Illouz: Pandemic has caused ‘unique feeling of fear’

By Joan Mas

Jerusalem, Apr 16 (efe-epa).- According to Franco-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, the unprecedented lockdown many countries have been plunged into has generated a “unique feeling of fear” which modern society has never experienced before.

Confined to her Jerusalem home, the prolific author of books that focus on the effects of capitalism on emotions, culture, art and society, says the pandemic could trigger a generational trauma and that Western governments may find it difficult to hold onto their legitimacy if widespread unrest over a deep economic crisis spreads.

Question: What is the new reality that humanity is facing?

Answer: We see ourselves as economic producers and consumers. These were the main invisible cores of our identity. Right now, more than a new reality, it’s an inversion of everything we knew, an inversion of what it means to be a producer and a consumer, an inversion of who is socially useful and socially useless. You are much more important working in a supermarket than being a movie star.

Q: How does this situation affect solidarity between people?

A: Solidarity has been understood since the beginning of sociology, we understand solidarity in terms of the physical proximity of people. In terms of the capacity of people to share the same space and even to express solidarity physically by the closeness of bodies. We are experiencing an inversion in the modes of solidarity because social solidarity of the young, for example, or the healthy vis a vis those who are medically vulnerable, that solidarity has to be expressed by distance and distancing.

Q: What consequences could limitations on personal freedoms have?

A: Freedom and security are often in tension. It is not only governments who suspend freedom in such cases. It is also people who are willing for their own freedom to be suspended for their security. We see that Hungary and Israel have already sacrificed freedom. Orban basically declared martial law to fight the virus and has suspended parliament. In Israel it is not the same but it’s not been very far since most of the tribunals and legal system have been suspended and the political opposition to Netanyahu and his corrupt regime has joined him.Crises of this scale always have consequences: they reveal all the weaknesses and structural flaws of societies.

Q: What could happen in the future?

A: Regarding the future, if there is a strong economic crisis, if lots of people lose their jobs, the scenario of mass unrest is plausible for Europe and the US. It is as plausible some countries will become more and more authoritarian. It all depends on how the crisis is handled. If it will consist of a corporate bailout as seems the case in the US, and if it is used to massively reduce wages (since there will be a lot of unemployed people) we can expect massive unrest. The structure of inequality cannot continue. The control of politics by big corporations cannot continue.The health crisis in many countries has shown how eroded the health system has been because of neoliberal policies. I don’t think it will be easy for governments to retain their legitimacy.

Q: Fear and a sense of panic are some of the main emotions spreading nowadays. How is it affecting us?

A: I am not sure I can answer such a broad question. It’s a unique state of fear. Even in a time of war, when you can die, you are with other people, people are with you. When you are hiding or running away you know who the enemy is. But this virus has a very specific characteristic, 25 per cent of the people who have it are asymptomatic. People will be highly contagious before they have symptoms. This is different from Ebola or even from early SARS and MERS. So now everyone can become the bearer of your own disease. It creates an atmosphere of distrust that is unprecedented.That’s what I find the most chilling, that you are obliged to suspect yourself of possibly hurting others and others of possibly hurting you. But also think of the people lying in hospital beds. No human comfort can be brought to them. No one can visit them and their only contact is with medical staff who look like astronauts. Everything we associate with human comfort and contact is non-existent. It is a situation where people have nothing. They count on no one, including the people who were closest to them.

Q: How could this situation change our society?

A: If we find a vaccine against the virus, I think we will forget about it. But I think this will leave a permanent trauma. Not only because of the disease but also because it’s the first time that the modern world has experienced a shutdown of this magnitude. I don’t think that during the Spanish Flu there was that sense of all institutions coming to a halt. People died when the outbreak started and mass gatherings were forbidden. But I don’t think the whole world went into total lockdown.This experience of the entire world practically going into a lockdown and the economic centre completely paralysed is going to leave a permanent traumatic memory for two or three generations. I don’t think that this will be erased. It will be one of the major events to be remembered in the next 30 to 50 years.

Q: In what sense could it affect us?

A: We will have two humanities: one that will take the risk of being contaminated and contaminating others, and the humanity that will prefer not to take the risk, that will confine voluntarily and limit its movements in order to not be infected or infect others. It will be the rise of new notions of responsibility and management of risks.So if no vaccine or sure cure is found, I think we could have two societies which oppose each other: one that will make confinement a permanent feature and another that will not and will want to resume life. It will make virtual relationships much more routine and common. It will make remote medical consultations a matter of routine. It will make contact with strangers more strained. There will be a protocol to meet strangers, there will be high surveillance of workers and their health. Casual sexual relationships will definitely take a blow.

Q: This crisis has shaken the most developed capitalist countries. What lesson can we learn from it?

A: Yes, what is stunning is how easy it has been to make superpowers fall on their knees. It will certainly give ideas to terrorists and we can expect that the capitalist world has shown its great vulnerability to anyone who will want to subdue it. But let’s not forget how we got there. Business and political elites have ignored the warnings that were issued a long time ago. Trump, who is a businessman, shut down a federal agency to fight pandemics and epidemics in 2018. It was a federal agency, and what you have right now is huge chaos in the US because each state is doing its own thing. I think Trump closed it down because in crass economic thinking you want a quick return on your investments, and the idea that you need to invest in something that may or may not happen is difficult for this way of thinking. Health was ignored, but the irony is that we realise now that health was the ground on which we can build the economy. Without health, no economy.Something that we need to learn first of all is that we should make investments even if there’s no economic return. The public good should not obey the logic of capitalist investments and thinking. The second lesson is that really only states can care for the public in such a crisis. We’ve seen increasing privatisation of a lot of resources and goods, but no private player is big enough to face such a crisis. Even Amazon is completely unable to handle such a crisis.Now, more than ever, we need a body to regulate and organise the public interest in a way that does not follow economic logic.

Q: How can lockdowns affect romantic relationships?

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