A speculative campaign plan for States and Activists
The goal of producing this document is to explore less commonly discussed visions for ending the pandemic: visions that rely on social mobilization to accomplish a big collective victory against a deadly virus. Not all of the views presented below are held by the author, who writes this essay with full awareness of the limited range of discourse about coronavirus that is allowed on the big internet platforms. Therefore, if this proposal strays into mental territory that makes the reader uncomfortable, know that it was not the primary intention of the author. My hope is merely to end the pandemic.
The Three Strategies for Ending the Pandemic
There are three possible strategies for ending the coronavirus pandemic: eradication, suppression and mitigation.
Eradication is the strategy of removing the novel coronavirus from the population entirely. The eradication strategy is being pursued, most notably, by China and New Zealand who have a zero tolerance for coronavirus in the community.
Suppression is the strategy of allowing the coronavirus to circulate in the community as long as it does so at a level that does not overwhelm the medical systems. The suppression strategy is the dominant strategy in the world and it is the de facto strategy of most countries.
Mitigation is a strategy of vaccinating the population in order to decrease the severity of the illness.
The rhetoric of mitgation and suppression can sound similar. However, unlike the suppression strategy, the mitigation approach uses the presence of the virus to compel the unvaccinated to get vaccinated. Social distancing and bans on indoor gatherings are rescinded—and the virus encouraged to circulate unrestrictedly—in order to compel vaccination. Advocates of mitigation argue in favor of vaccines and against masks or lockdowns.
Mitigation is incompatible with eradication because the vaccines do not prevent infection, and therefore they may decrease, but will never stop, community transmission of the virus.
Ultimately, each strategy relies on assumptions about the danger of coronavirus now and in the future.
In the beginning of the pandemic, the scientific consensus was that the coronavirus would not mutate significantly. The risk of Covid-19 was therefore calculated based on what the virus was at that moment. (Some scientists tried to predict the path of Covid-19 by applying the infection curve from one country to a different country. That didn’t work.) By assuming that the damage coronavirus was doing today would be statistically similar to the damage it would do tomorrow or in ten years, the risk was quantified. The mindset that Covid-19 is known and knowable and likely won’t change much is key to why the suppression strategy was adopted in most countries: some level of risk was tolerated because it was assumed that the risk would not change.
There is, of course, another way of looking at the risk level of Covid-19 and that is from the position of unknowing. From this perspective, Covid-19 is an unknown unrisk and a zero risk approach would be prudent. After all, no one can say for certain what the long term evolutionary destiny of the coronavirus will be. The Delta variant, which is already undoing much of the mitigation strategy’s progress, is obviously not the final mutation.
The zero risk position was recently expressed by the Victorian premier in Australia, Daniel Andrews, who said recently:
“We believe that it is appropriate to have very low tolerance, or perhaps no tolerance for risk, particularly risks that you don’t quite understand.”
Eradication is the strategic necessity of those who adopt a zero tolerance to the risk of coronavirus, especially because it is a risk that is not yet fully understood.
The fact that countries pursuing eradication must also stridently control access to their territory means that most people who want to live in an eradication society are unable to do so. There has not been, for example, an opportunity for people living in suppression and mitigation societies to relocate to eradication societies. And there has been no gesture toward creating eradication zones within a larger suppression/mitigation geography—bubbles of eradication where people live freely without the virus because they abide by strict coronavirus eradication measures.
All societies are using their full cultural and political resources to conform the population to the nation’s Covid strategy. Compliance is key regardless of the path society chooses. It takes a mental toll on a person to, for example, maintain an eradication strategy on a personal level while the community is led by suppressionists and mitigationists.
Studies have shown that humans tend to stop resisting a situation that seems inevitable or irreversible. This phenomenon is known as dissonance reduction:
“Psychological research has found evidence for this kind of mechanism in car drivers’ attitudes toward road pricing. Although initial resistance may be strong, the new charge is more easily accepted when car drivers believe that it has come to stay […] protesters might find it mentally taxing to remain politically unsupportive as they continue with their lives.”
In other words, the eradication strategy will likely fall out of favor the longer suppression and mitigation are presented as the only possible options.
Breaking eradication out of the closet
Clearly the first step toward building a Covid free movement will be to shatter the taboo on discussing eradication.
There are a range of strategies that activists can use for ending the prohibition on speaking about eradication. Above all, the movement will need to make it possible for people to “come out of the closet” as eradication supporters living an eradication lifestyle. One way to do that would be to launch campaigns that help people imagine eradication — and help them imagine what an eradication lifestyle looks like amidst a suppression/mitigation society that is incentivizing restaurants and schools to reopen.
Breaking eradication out of the closet is the precursor to building a social movement.
What would a Covid Eradication / Covid Zero social movement look like?
In the first 18 months of the pandemic the world’s response has been primarily guided by epidemiologists and public health officials whose recommendations were implemented with varying degrees of success by each nation’s sovereign government.
The effort was unabashedly “top-down.” Decisions about how the pandemic should be dealt with were made by a few people at the top of powerful hierarchies—political, medical and academic—who issued commands, and allocated resources, to subordinate organizations. The hope was that this would be an effective way to organize
The successes of the top-down model have been hamstrung by a generalized lack of compliance among the populace of most nominally democratic countries. The refusal of vaccines, masks and distancing by significant segments of the populace persists. This lack of social compliance defeats the top-down plan.
It would be wrong to assume that the failures of the top-down approach can be overcome by inverting the power balance with a “bottom-up” solution.
The limited experiments with a bottom-up approach—such as, the formation of a mutual aid activist efforts early in the lockdowns—clearly revealed the limitations of a relying on citizens to do the work of States without the resources of States.
Neither top-down nor bottom-up.
What hasn’t yet been tried is a hybrid approach: the marriage of “top-down” with “bottom-up” to create a “top-bottom” collaboration between States and Activists to organize the greatest social mobilization in human history.
In the parlance of revolutionary activism, this approach is called a “United Front.”
A United Front Against Covid
The reason why a United Front strategy is essential is because the novel coronavirus has an achilles heel: Covid-19 cannot replicate outside of the human or animal body.
From an activist perspective, the most efficient way to kill the coronavirus worldwide would be a simultaneous, six week eradication protest. This global effort, organized by activists, to lockdown the world and destroy Covid, if executed joyously with the tremendous resources needed to alleviate the social costs of isolation, would eradicate the virus in the human population.
There will always be adamant voices exclaiming such an approach is impossible. We can acknowledge those voices while ignoring them: the activist’s approach to creating social change always appears impossible.
Activists are magicians of social mobilization.
Activists and organizers are the only social force that have consistently demonstrated the capacity to get large numbers of people all around the world to do new collective behaviors at scale efficiently without money or coercion.
Winter two of the pandemic demands a fresh approach: States and Activists ought to work together to build a Covid Free social mobilization to eradicate coronavirus, our shared enemy.