Not getting the message of coronavirus

We’re sheltering in place. We’re not going out. In some places in the world, like India, Italy, and China, their quarantines were so effective that for the first time in remembrance, one could see the Himalayas from 200 kilometers away, the canals of Venice were crystal clear, and the pollution cleared over Beijing (saving an estimated 70,000+ lives in China alone).

But not in the Netherlands. Home of capitalism and embracers of neoliberalism, why would residents here feel put out to change their patterns, to inconvenience themselves, to take this moment to reflect, rather than get things done and seize the business opportunity? We’re not a Catholic nation, so sacrifice for the community doesn’t come naturally.

And yet, as a philosopher, I sit at home, trying to get something done, while neighbors on every side of my apartment drill and cut, chisel and screw. The incessant high-pitched whiz of machines echo around the binnenplaats of our neighborhood more than ever with hammering and sawing like never before. The machines of building, rebuilding, and renovating are heavy at work in this corona quarantine. Quarantine in Dutch could be translated as ‘take advantage of this opportunity to get as much done as possible.’ All those side-project, delayed repairs, or prospective sells, are too juicy to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Do the local inspectors inspect? Or does building just go on as fast as possible in this interim? It seems as if the construction business is booming, as eager capitalists wish to flip houses left and right. Buy low, fix up a dumpy place with bourgeois aesthetics and name-brand stoves and refrigerators, expand that kitchen by knocking out the dividing wall, et voilà! sell the house for twice as much as you bought it just a couple years back. I know this is business as usual, but during the quarantine, sometimes it seems even more cynical than usual.

I’ve also heard more low-flying propeller planes (the type that have no purpose but for ‘fun’ and polluting the atmosphere) flying overhead than ever before. While Schiphol might have reduced its daily flights, the amount of air traffic around Rotterdam, at least, seems to have barely dipped if at all.

The noise makes it hard to do my online teaching and calls at home, to do my quiet work at my improvised home office. I’m lucky to have a job that requires few supplied, and makes little noise. But part of public health as it intersects with public infrastructure is finding out how to better share our inconveniences, share our suffering more. Those working in logistics, food production, service work, and transportation, need our support in myriad ways. As in a war effort, there is much to be done to work together to support each other. Those who see this coronavirus quarantine as merely a holiday have an ethical duty to reduce their travel and externalities, and simplify their lives. Since coronavirus is a respiratory virus that affects the lungs, clean air as good medicine. We should maintain that we don’t pollute our neighbors’ lungs with sawdust for our own gain.

I propose that the Mad Max building explosion isn’t the only way to do a quarantine (and perhaps isn’t the most effective for public health, either). Instead of this building craze, doing all the obnoxious things that one would have done had time otherwise permitted, I offer a different tack. To deal with the particulate matter pollution, the noise pollution, and the general disturbance and unrest of motors, cement mixers, falling lumber, skill saws, power drills and other implements of machine-driven building, I propose that during this quarantine period that all building stores could also close, and people take a rest. Allowing ourselves to take a collective breath, might open space for reflecting on the purpose of our pursuits, if only for a month. This would provide a much needed exhalation from the Protestant Work Ethic that Max Weber so articulately burlesqued.

The compulsion to stay busy in many ways is a (mostly) healthy coping mechanism. In times of crisis, with loss of routine, throwing oneself into a new project – especially a physically demanding or potentially lucrative one – seems like a good solution. The stoics, however, cautioned otherwise. There’s a reason why most religions have a Sabbath of one sort of another, a regular, cyclical holy day on which all activity stops, and we rest from the dynamo of constant work and preoccupation that puts food on the table, shelters us, and makes the world go around. Because unless we take regular periods of reflection – conscious stops to our business – we might be mistaken into assuming that being busy is an end unto itself; that the constant activity is the purpose of life, instead of the play, reflection, connection to one’s family, friends, and nature that are the fruits of our labor.

We could see this corona quarantine as an extended Sabbath. As a moment when the headstrong resentful frustrated young men give up on their aggressive urges to gun their motors on their motorcycles to beat their chests in antiquated displays of male dominance. When we reduce our grocery shopping to once a week, and take up other, more reflective projects. When we visit those places which bring us joy and renewal, and linger a while, without the pressures of returning to meet stringent schedules. And that we put our ambitious projects on pause for a moment – especially if these create dust and mess (aural, visual, kinetic, or otherwise) that negatively affect our neighbors and community.

Precisely this return to community is the paradoxical opportunity here in this crisis. In every state of exception, we can either barrel on with business as usual, seeing everything as a nail because all we have is a hammer; or choose wisely to reflect on the ends of our society and our role in it. The government of Amsterdam has recently chosen to do the latter, adopting a donut economics model of providing a social floor and acknowledging the ecological ceiling of human activity. This is a laudable model for other cities and countries to follow. Infrastructural violence contributes to social injustices stemming from pandemics hitting the poor and marginalized the most, but also climate crisis and gentrification present asymmetrical harms due to the same underlying mechanisms. Realizing the moral truth that it is non-optional to take care of those in our community most vulnerable, as well as belatedly honoring the limits to growth, offers hope that humans don’t end up just doing the same damn thing after another, unreflectively, to paraphrase Arnold Toynbee. Adopting measures going to the origins and not just the symptoms of emergencies allows humanity to break free from deterministic loops which playing back the same mistakes generation after generation.

I work at night now, to enjoy the relative silence. The main streets still roar, but at least the buzz saws desist. As I pause, I wonder what it would be like for silence to reign. What would we feel in our urban environments? What feelings are we pushing away by compulsively motoring on? How majestic would our cities feel, if for once, if for only a moment, we allowed the stillness and silence to work on us?