On pandemic fatigue

Sweden is currently in the midst of a public crisis of confidence in the country’s leadership, especially as pertains to the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two ministers and one Director General have been found to flout the public guidelines on the pandemic. Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén visited a shopping center before Christmas for some Christmas shopping, Minister of Justice Morgan Johansson did the same but after Christmas during a general sale the government had tried to stop – and then news reached us that the Director General responsible for Crisis Management had left the country to celebrate Christmas in Spain, on the Canary Islands.

Public reaction has been “social media harsh”, but surprisingly “mainstream media muted”. In the UK, Canada and Ireland public figures found in violation of the pandemic guidelines have been summarily fired and pushed out. In Sweden the odds are, right now, that there will be no consequences at all for any of the three. Let’s put that in numbers – there is a less than a 10% chance that Morgan Johansson will have been fired or stepped down before end of January. There is a less than 1% chance that Stefan Löfvén will be voted out of office by that same timeline. The probability that Dan Eliasson is sacrificed is slightly higher – but no higher than 20%.

There are several things to unpack here — the Swedish exceptionalism, the real reason the opposition is quiet, the reasons normally intelligent people act in this way — and all of them seem related to a somewhat amorphous phenomenon that we have heard referred to as “pandemic fatigue”.

Pandemic fatigue can be summed up as the general feeling that the restrictions put on society in order to manage the pandemic are simply too much, or have been going on for too long. It is the collective “enough already!” that simmers beneath a lot of the public debate, and is increasingly finding its way into the leadership ranks as well. The vaccine is here, and that has just worsened the feeling that the restrictions we see are overbearing and unnecessary.

Viruses infect human bodies, Pandemics infect institutions.

The phenomenon of pandemic fatigue is one of collective attention, and is interestingly related to our ability to interact with institutions. John Searle famously noted that institutions are objects of collective intentionality, and the pandemic has emerged as a core central institution in our societies. It competes as capital P Pandemic with other institutions, such as the Economy, Freedom and Solidarity. It interferes with Law and Democracy, and has started to influence the overall dynamic between electorate and the overall governance of our democracies.

The emergence of the pandemic as institution has shown philosophers like Agamben to be profoundly mistaken. The idea that Power manufactures crisis to keep society in constant state of emergency is simply not true – what we see instead is that crisis generates competing institutions. The difference is stark – in a state of emergency all institutions are put on hold, suspended, but what we see is rather than institutions are reframed in the light of the specific form that this crisis has taken.

One reason is duration. This crisis has been longer than many others, and more acute – and this in itself is one reason that the reaction is so stark. Protests against restrictions are seen as unreasonable and crazy exhibits of irrational self-destructive behavior, but are really institutional tensions playing out in a power struggle between different centers of power.

The idea of a cure is always snake oil.

Now, let’s be clear: if we want to manage the pandemic responsibly, the restrictions, at least as they have been used in Sweden so far, are absolutely reasonable. The Swedish Corona-strategy is a negotiation of institutional tensions and epistemological uncertainties. Is it successful? We will see – and we will have to discuss that in-depth over the coming years. I have said I will have a view at the end of 2021, and intend to follow up then. But the point I am getting at here is different: the negotiation of institutional tensions has broken down, and as a result the strategy is essentially dead in the water.

The actions of the Swedish political leadership show that our leaders have lost all intentionality when it comes to the Pandemic as institution. Collective intentionality is breaking down. And this is the point at which the Swedish Government is finally getting emergency powers that will enable it to enforce much harsher restrictions. The harm this can do to the legitimacy of our democratic process cannot be overestimated.

Ok, let’s sum up.

The Pandemic is an emerging institution, dependent on collective intentionality. That intentionality is now breaking down – partly due to competition with other institutions, partly due to the lack of any intentionality from Swedish political leadership. This comes at a time where a new law will give Swedish government more power to enforce harder restrictions. The democratic harms that this risks creating are great – and suddenly the Pandemic starts infecting other institutions as well: Parliament, Government and Law. A weird meta-pandemic feeding on the break-down of the Pandemic as institution weakens institutions across the board. We will see a pandemic echo of sickness in our international and national institutions for a long time to come.

A virus infects human bodies, a pandemic infects institutions.

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