Humanity has never been free but the comparative comfort of the western world, especially the United States, in recent history has bred a particular illusion of freedom from not only society but from nature itself. Disease has always stalked humanity and for so long humanity has been the meekest of prey. The people of Europe knew where the Black Death had come and that society had to act to prevent it. However, Dumas’ advice to “wait and hope” was in effect all they had after prayer as they simply lacked the knowledge to combat the disease which bedevilled them. The people of Gloucester may have closed their gates to those of Bristol in fear of the Black Death but to ultimately no avail, like the tides of the Severn the plague continued unabated. The people of the past and indeed many around the world, away from the pleasures of the west, knew and know how we can never be free from nature.
Of course, one may rush to point out how extreme weather provides a reminder of nature’s power. However, in the western world at least an ad minimis exception can be made and frequently the state is almost expected to anticipate, avert or immediately succour the victims of such events. Climate change is an exemplar of the same issue of freedom from nature, however, its effects are uneven and in our corner of the world less acute than those of the pandemic.
Society has a long memory but the scale of change of the last hundred and even more so twenty years has clouded how we see ourselves in the world. Francis Fukuyama was famously derided by the events following his prediction of an end of history. In much the same way anti-vaccine and to some extent anti-restriction activists’ view that humanity is at a stage in evolution that freedom from the government is the only ideal that exists, with their species having ascended to a higher plane on which all things answer to man. A death from a vaccine side effect is placed on a murderous pedestal whereas those of the actual virus are due to poor luck and lack of constitution. In society there is cost, and only in the comforts of fortune have some forgotten that we are not born with sacral rights of freedom, but between “urine and filth” to use the words of St Augustine.
The virtual world we have created only catalyses these most modern of impulses that no power lies beyond that of humanity’s creation. The virtual networks and Facebook groups of those who refuse vaccination are a cruel satire of the ultimate community action which is needed nationally if not globally to fight against a pandemic. Indeed, we should be thankful that we have any remedy at all and not hide behind a perversion of that ideal of freedom many value above all. I hope the experiences of the last two years will strengthen our societal resolve against future perhaps more severe catastrophic events, but as the Yiddish idiom goes “men plan, God laughs.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the values of The Liberty Club