How are you coping with the quarantine situation?
“Personally, I don’t mind it too much. I’m in the privileged position of living in a house with a garden, in Amsterdam, and I have a generously sized office where I do a lot of writing. As a writer, I’m fairly used to being holed up in my room for several consecutive months while working on a new book. But in my capacity as a philosopher, I do have some reservations about the way in which people are being robbed of their liberty right now. During pandemics, people have no qualms whatsoever about renouncing the rights they have fought so hard to get. They tend to think: we’ll regain those rights once it’s all over. But history shows that this often isn’t the case. Just take the Patriot Act which was passed by the US Congress after 11 September. Such emergencies may affect civil rights, privacy and the quality of a democracy permanently.”
But surely these measures are necessary?
“What does ‘necessary’ even mean? We are still not sure what exactly is going on, just how dangerous this virus actually is, how quickly a population can become immune and what the hidden costs of the measures we’re taking at the moment will turn out to be. As a philosopher, I’m curious to see the long term, the bigger picture. When a crisis like this hits, I’m inclined to look up how many people die in a normal year: one hundred and fifty thousand. Those are all the people in the Netherlands who will die in a given year, typically of cardiovascular disease or cancer. Fewer and fewer people die of infectious diseases, as we eradicated most of those in the previous century. We may well see in the next few years that the percentage of people who die because of infectious diseases rises, while the number of people dying of cancer and cardiovascular disease is reduced.”
Are you saying we should just let the virus do its thing, because those people are going to die, anyway – if not because of the coronavirus, then because of something else?
“That would imply that I have an answer to that question, which I don’t. And I don’t have to have one, either. I’m not the president of RIVM [the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment – ed.], nor the prime minister of the Netherlands. I’m a philosopher who is saying that we should look at this from every angle before making any decisions. If we do that, it’s vital that we ask questions that provide a clearer view of the bigger picture, so that we can weigh all the pros and cons. By the way, I think the Netherlands is doing a pretty good job. We didn’t lock down the entire country in one fell swoop, but we are changing our strategy all the time and are making informed, data-based decisions on our course of action. And people are allowed to question the measures taken in public.”
Isn’t the hardest thing about the current situation the fact that we’ve never dealt with anything like this before?
“I’m not so sure about that. In the early 1980s the Netherlands was struck by AIDS, which was caused by a virus that, unlike this pandemic, hit a lot of young people, particularly gay people and intravenous drug users. I was a doctor in Amsterdam at the time, working at an interest group representing the latter group, and I saw a lot of people die around me. In association with the GGD [the Regional Public Health Service – ed.], we embarked on a small project whereby drug addicts could exchange their used needles for new and clean needles on Friday afternoons. A lot of people strenuously objected to that arrangement, because they felt it would encourage people to take drugs. But I think we saved a lot of lives by doing it. I kind of miss those creative solutions, the ‘taking care of things ourselves’. All I’m hearing now is: more testing required, more testing, testing, we must self-isolate, and we must track people using apps. All our strategies appear to be technology-based.”
What has been the most drastic change to your daily life during the current coronavirus crisis?
“I miss my daily contacts with people a lot. Normally, I will catch a train to Rotterdam twice a week to teach lectures. I’ll have coffee with friends and do things with my children or grandchildren. And although I sometimes resent those commutes, I now really wish I could be out there at the station, among people, chatting with others while holding a cup of coffee in my hand. Life feels barren to me.”
Many people are experiencing a bit of an existential crisis due to their being so isolated. Are you experiencing anything like that?
“In order to get everything done that I wish to get done, I’ve drawn up a tight daily schedule for myself. That helps me a lot. I don’t have much time to wonder about the meaning of all of this. I’m not particularly fond of the meaning-of-life question anyway…”
I thought that was the question philosophers try to answer all day every day.
“If I have a choice in the matter, I’ll try to ignore that question, rather than trying to answer it. I do so by creating a pleasant life for myself, complete with benchmarks and things to look forward to. The mere thought of something fun coming up – this afternoon I’m going on a one-hour walk with my daughter, and I’ve been looking forward to it for the last few days – ensures that I never actually ask myself what the meaning of life might be. Life doesn’t have any meaning anyway. You can give it some meaning through your daily encounters with others – by figuring out what you mean to others and what other people mean to you. That’s all there is to it.”
Do you have any tips on how to deal with the fact that we’ve lost some structure to our lives?
“I spend an hour each morning walking through Amsterdam with my partner. We find a neighbourhood that’s quiet, so that we are able to keep our distance from others. This is how I get my one hour’s daylight and exercise every day. I think it’s very important to ask yourself: suppose this quarantine lasts two or three months. What do you want to do during this period, or what do you wish to have achieved by the end of it? Then the next question you need to ask yourself is: how can I schedule my activities in such a way that I will be able to do all of that? You may be tempted to just go on and on until you drop.”
Exactly. I’m happy just being able to put my toddler to sleep in the evening and get my home looking somewhat tidy again.
“As soon as you’ve figured out what it is you want, you can work out how to organise it in such a way that you won’t have to spend all day doing it. Furthermore, it’s important that you organise your social contacts. You could do so by calling someone every day and trying to schedule one single walk, but alternatively, you could ask this one person: would you mind going on a walk with me every Wednesday morning? This will add a bit of structure to your week and will prevent you from asking yourself three months from now what you’ve actually done these last few months, only to admit that you wasted all that time. Which is perfectly fine, by the way, but only if that is actually your goal.”
Last Saturday de Volkskrant published an interview with philosopher Beate Roessler on the subject of solidarity. She said the coronavirus is getting us to face up to our universal vulnerability, and as a result, we are keeping a closer eye on each other. Do you agree with that? Do you think this pandemic may help us strengthen our bonds with each other?
“I’m really not sure. In that interview, she praised this Cabinet’s Kantian way of thinking: each human life is equally precious and must be saved. But as a former general practitioner, I’m also well aware of the healthcare system’s limited resources. If you focus your attention on one patient in your waiting room, you have less attention for another. In Western societies, our population is ageing. Also, people have become more ambitious. Today’s 55-year-olds aren’t satisfied with living another 29 years, like the average person. They want more. But that costs money. A lot of money. Money that must be paid by younger generations. So we might want to say that older people, who generally have poorer immune systems and are therefore more susceptible to infectious diseases, must show greater solidarity with young people. They must accept that life is finite.”
What does this mean in practical terms? Should 70-year-olds renounce their beds in intensive care units so that younger people can have them?
“This type of responsibility should not be borne by one person. But as far as policy-making is concerned, we will increasingly often be confronted with the question as to how much we are willing to pay for each year we add to a person’s life. At present, that amount has been fixed at eighty thousand euros. Now that there is a shortage of resources, time, doctors and ICU beds, I’m sure we will have quite the debate on that.”
Do you have any concerns about your own health?
“I’m 65 and I have an autoimmune disorder, so I’m at higher risk for the virus. My way of thinking is as follows: I have to make sure I get enough exercise, a proper diet and enough sleep. But if I’m unfortunate enough – that’s the way I look at it – to be infected and to have my body respond so badly that I end up dying, so be it. This may sound like an easy thing to say, but it’s not. It’s just that for me, death is part of life. And we should be mindful of our quality of death, just like we are mindful of our quality of life.”
How do you go about that?
“That’s the hard thing, because coming to terms with death is something you mainly learn by watching someone die. Most students thankfully won’t have had to do so yet, unless they are medical students or have lost a parent or loved one at a young age. Death is no longer part of our daily lives. Dying has become something only very old people do. But you can start by discussing it with your partner, your loved ones or your parents. If I should fall very ill, do I actually wish to be admitted to an intensive care unit? Do I wish to be hospitalised at all? Who do I want with me at a time like that? Those are uncomfortable questions, but they have to be asked. Particularly at times like these.”
Marli Huijer is a professor of Public Philosophy at Erasmus University, as well as a former general practitioner. She was awarded a PhD for a thesis on the works of Michel Foucault, served as the Netherlands’ Thinker Laureate (Denker des Vaderlands) between 2015 and 2017 and wrote countless philosophical books on seemingly mundane subjects, such as Ritme (2011), Discipline (2013) and Beminnen (2018). Her latest book, on Islam in Europe, is scheduled for publication this autumn.