April 21, 2024

Should doctors manage the pandemic? No, says French philosopher

Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s rock-star public intellectual, has harsh words for health professionals

Earlier this year the coronavirus pandemic caught Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s rock-star public intellectual, overseas. He had been reporting on the plight of Lesbos, the Aegean island crowded with refugees from Syria, and then of Bangladesh, which was attempting to cope not only with Covid-19 but also Islamic extremism, hundreds of thousands of Royhingya refugees, climate calamities and extreme poverty. 

Much to his surprise, Lévy did not receive a pat on the back and a cheery “bien joué, BHL!” for highlighting these crises. (He expected them — BHL is not renowned for his modesty.) Instead he felt, at first, “icy indifference” and then the hot breath of social media critics who savaged him for not sheltering in place in solidarity.

There is something mad about this pandemic, Lévy thought, if “solidarity” fails to include Bangladeshis. This callous attitude suggests, he writes in his provocative little book, The Virus in the Age of Madness, that jabber about global solidarity is just “emissions of goodness gases purporting to crown the planet with a halo of sacrifice and abnegation”.

Health professionals get a drubbing in BHL’s little book – although he would call it a healthy dose of realism. They are not supermen and superwomen.

First of all, they are not necessarily better informed than laymen. “Doctors know, as did French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, that the ‘scientific truth’ we implore them to deliver is never more than a ‘corrected mistake.’”

Second, the medical “community” is a myth. It “is no more communitarian than any other, that it is riven with fault lines, divergent sensibilities and interests, petty jealousies, esoteric disputes, and, of course, fundamental differences.”

Third, in the past a concern for “hygiene” has become eugenics. “Everyone also knows that there is a doctrine of hygienics that goes something like this: health becomes an obsession; all social and political problems are reduced to infections that must be treated; and the will to cure becomes the paradigm of political action. And no one is ignorant of the fact that the effects of that doctrine can be horribly perverse.”

Finally, using his credential as a philosopher, BHL draws on Plato. In one of his dialogues, the Statesman, the Greek philosopher asks whether doctors should be entrusted with the care of the state – an iatrocracy. “Socrates decides otherwise. Politics, he says, is an art that, since the retreat of the gods, deals with a chaotic, changing world, swept by storms and rudderless. But, in a storm, what is the point of a Hippocratic nosology of ‘cases’? Do not the difficult times call instead for citizen-guardians possessing the audacity and strength to think through, carve into stone, and proclaim legal ‘codes’?”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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