If there is a lesson to be drawn from the coronavirus crisis, then it is that we live connected lives and that our actions (and inactions) have consequences for others, Professor Simon Usherwood writes.

First published in March 2020.

In lieu of a read-through of the leaked Commission draft, or a consideration of an extension to transition, I’m thinking today about scale.

Mainly because it’s really hard to concentrate on things during a lockdown.

Indeed, I’ve been more struck by the recalcitrant attitude of some acquaintances towards coronavirus than by my occasional trips to the supermarket to observe the empty shelves.

Panic-buying I can understand (although not condone); pandemic-denying much less so.

Casting around for explanations, I think that part of it is the difficulty of connecting scales. Your experience isn’t the same as our collective experience.

Put more simply, you might catch the virus and feel a bit off for a while: that’s the statistical likelihood. So why worry?

But when the entire population is exposed to it, then the small percentage turns into a volume of severe cases that would overwhelm the healthcare system and massively exacerbate the death rate.

In short, it’s not about you, it’s about us.

You might be fine, but you could end up infecting a bunch of people who won’t be fine, so they either die or take up healthcare capacity to treat people who will otherwise die.

“It’s not about you, it’s about us.”

As a political scientist, I’m very comfortable with the idea of connectedness and group action, because it’s a fundamental part of our discipline: politics is a axiomatically communal process. But not everyone is a political scientist.

Part of appreciating connection is also appreciating scale: even the weak can be strong if they are numerous enough.

If you want an example, think of a DDOS, where each request is trivial by itself, but not when it arrives with thousands (or millions) of others. It is precisely because of the synchronity that the attack becomes meaningful and successful.


Distributed denial-of-service attack (DDOS)

A distributed denial-of-service attack is one of the most powerful weapons on the internet. When you hear about a website being “brought down by hackers,” it generally means it has become a victim of a DDoS attack. In short, this means that hackers have attempted to make a website or computer unavailable by flooding or crashing the website with too much traffic.
// Source: Norton

Another example that’s been in my mind for a couple of days was the infamous Millennium Challenge wargame from 2002, when a bit of literal thinking (and a willingness to use suicide missions) allowed the Red Team to (virtually) sink most of the US fleet in the Gulf. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that Iran now has a big fleet of small gunboats, but you should also read this about lessons learnt in the US.

All of these are cases of asymmetry, just as is coronavirus. It has no intentionality beyond its reproduction, in which it is successful because it works off of the nature of human interaction and contemporary society.

One of my former colleagues likes to remind people that the notion of structure and agency is a really useful concept in understanding life: there are things you can do (your agency), but within broader structures and constraints. To that I could only add that you are never separated from the structure, and it is never separated from you.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from this, then it is that we live connected lives and that our actions (and inactions) have consequences for others. No matter how we might try to insulate ourselves from it all, no barrier is ever completely solid.

Indeed, the best way we can combat the scale of the coronavirus is to build our own scale, working together with others – locally, nationally, internationally – to make our actions and our agency count at much as it can.

“No barrier is ever completely solid.”

If ever there was a thing to think and act for others, then it is now.🔷

[This piece was originally published on the blog of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey and re-published in PMP Magazine on 20 March 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pxfuel.)