COVID-19, uncertainty, and the need for intellectual humility – S. Waisbord

Before the world had a minimal grasp on the causes, characteristics and evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, prominent philosophers announced their categorical conclusions in confident hot takes.

Notably, Slavoj Zizek predicted that “the virus will kill capitalism”. His book Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World dropped soon after the world recognized the existence of the pandemic, and before scientists and other experts had a sense of its maddening complexity. Referencing Tarantino, rather revolutionary theory, Zizek compared COVID-19 to the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” that would attest a mortal blow to capitalism. In his view, communism represents a form of global organization of the economy that fundamentally overcomes the structural deficiencies of market liberalism. Byung-Chul Han, another figure in contemporary philosophy, questioned Zizek’s prognosis but similarly uttered firm conclusions about the impact of the pandemic. He affirmed that the virus isolates people, fosters individualism, and fails to generate strong collective sentiments. Giorgio Agamben, another renowned philosopher, famously dismissed the importance of COVID-19 with the laughable phrase “it’s a normal flu” (also said by supposedly expert virologists Jair Bolsonaro y Donald Trump). Not to be shy, he also suggested unfound conspiracy theories about its origins and accused “the State” of inventing the pandemic to generate panic.

Here my interest is not to offer a detailed rebuttal of these arguments, but rather to suggest that they represent a dogmatic sensibility prone to understanding complex social phenomena with analytical blinders and to deliver quick, ambitious, baseless predictions. Prophetic positions about the pandemic assume that facts and complexity should not stand on the way of vapid and thinly sourced arguments. They articulate a distinctive intellectual hubris characterized by the assumption that personal convictions should not mind reality or accumulated knowledge. Nothing deters pontificators from speaking authoritatively about issues that they know little and that experts spend a lifetime investigating.

Dogmas and humility

No doubt, convictions and ideologies shape the way we approach, define, and examine any issue. The problem is to make evidence-free assertions that liberally mix doctrine with hope, even when available facts question certainties. Making predictions is temping; it is extremely appealing to read the leaves to tell the future, especially when journalists ask and the public listens.

However, dogmas are not suitable guidelines for fortune telling, especially given the unpredictability of the pandemic. The pandemic confirms that uncertainty is a defining feature of our times. Its unpredictable trajectory, globally and nationally, should make us cautious about the future and to take a critical stand vis-à-vis received wisdom.

We still have many unanswered questions about the evolution of the virus, and as the virus evolves, societies will adjust in unknown ways. Also, the last months confirm that the actions of governments and citizens matter. And these actions are unpredictable. This may not be news to many who have made this point, but it is worth remembering it. National and local politics continue to shape the trajectory of the pandemic and its multiple consequences – economic, social, cultural, public health. Widely different situations across the globe show that political and social (mis)management of the virus makes a difference, for better or worse.

Therefore, it is not obvious there will be a single post-pandemic world, if that will ever happen given the latent possibility that zoonic viruses will jump to humans with unexpected consequences as human activity aggressively reshapes the world.

Is everything post-Covid so unpredictable?

Although governments, including many that have been neoliberal exemplars, have resorted to welfarist solutions to confront some of the worst consequences of the pandemic, it is not obvious the world is moving away from market economies. Effective responses by governments in New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and several European and Latin American countries, show a combination of policy solutions and on-the-ground, collective actions. Too soon to tell what will happen next – whether interventionist options with a humane approach are temporary or not.

Obviously, the situation is completely different in countries such as Brazil and the United States, where populist administrations have bungled the response to the pandemic with a dreadful mix of mismanagement, incompetency, contempt for science, and demagoguery. These differences as well as the uncertainty about the next waves of the pandemic demand intellectual humility – the need to recognize unknowns and to follow closely the events as they develop.

Nor do we know if the pandemic will make us more isolated and individualistic. Certainly, the pandemic has exacerbated a range of psychological and social problems – from trauma to anxieties, from loneliness to joblessness. Yet societies are equipped differently to confront these problems in terms of institutional resources, public trust, health systems, community support networks and the like. As the pandemic rages, we find plenty of examples of collective action and solidarity in support of healthcare workers, people without jobs, victims of violence, sick people, and grieving families. New forms of digital-mediated social activities and mobilization have emerged to provide support to those in dire need. Also, because the pandemic affects disproportionately communities who already suffered socio-economic exclusion, we should not generalize about its social consequences. Inequality may remain a structural feature of our world as much as it was before the pandemic.

Past pandemics suggest that not necessarily everything changes in their aftermath. There have been monumental changes, but existing power structures and dynamics may remain unaffected. Because the future is open, imagination and innovation remain essential to confront uncertain developments and understand the unprecedented, formidable challenges that COVID-19 presents to a globalized world.

Silvio R. Waisbord is Director and Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University.

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Silvio R. Waisbord (2020), “COVID-19, uncertainty, and the need for intellectual humility – S. Waisbord”,


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