Chevalier Charles Henri-Sanson de Longval was an executioner. He lived from 15th February 1739 to 4th July 1806 and during his long life (for those times) he was the royal executioner of France during the reign of King Louis XVI and later the High Executioner during the first French Republic. He administered capital punishment in the city of Paris for more than thirty years and it is estimated that, by his own hand, he executed more than 3,000 people. With equal zeal and dedication to duty, Henri-Sanson executed the King’s would-be assassin Robert-Francois Damiens and later, the King himself. He saw no difficulty or conflict of loyalty in despatching both the King and the King’s enemies. He was simply a professional executioner doing his duty. The underlying political regime for whom Henri-Sanson did his work was of no consequence. It was, as Professor Menkel-Meadow has observed, merely an extremely professional and functional adherence to ethics.
In this post it is suggested that current events in the context of the world Coronavirus pandemic support the view that slavish adherence to a rules based prescriptive code of ethics or conventions does not always serve us well. The appearance of an infectious and sometimes fatal disease which ails rich and poor alike and transcends political, social and cultural boundaries, exposes the populist myth that all problems can be resolved by reference to dichotomous worldviews and ideologies. The solution to our present health crisis will not depend on whether we are politically progressive or conservative, left or right, religious or atheist, prosecutor or accused, public or private. Indeed much of our present predicament is reminiscent of Menkel-Meadow’s claim that truth is “…illusive, partial, interpretable, dependent on the characteristics of the knowers as well as the known, and most importantly, complex.” (C. Menkel-Meadow The Trouble with the Adversary System in a Postmodern Multicultural World 38 Wm & Mary L Rev 5 44 (1966)).
Perhaps in recognition of this complexity, our political leaders (in Australia at least) have declared that we will approach the pandemic problem from a bipartisan perspective and have actively worked together to formulate a comprehensive response that is best calculated, according to the evidence, to bring about an effective solution that minimises harm and allows people to return to their normal lives as soon as possible. It has been heartening to read in the popular news media joint press statements of politicians from the two major political parties jointly urging compliance with a set of protocols which have been formulated on the basis of expert medical advice. As Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said: “If you compare Australia to the US…We’ve had outstanding results, they’ve had awful results, and you can see that working together bears fruit.” (ABC News 3.5.20) For once, it seems, our leaders have been able to sit around the table and address the substantive issues from a problem based perspective without descending into self-serving adversarial debate about which side of politics has the answers. At last we have been able (on this issue at least) to cast aside the useless distractions of partisan rivalry and accord primacy of attention to the nation’s interests in preference to ideological positioning and to seeking solutions rather than to win.
Although the crisis is far from over, early indications are that the collaborative manner in which the Australian government has approached the problem appears to be paying dividends. We appear to have reached a flattening of the curve in the rate of new infections, contained the death rate to .364 deaths per 100,000 of population and contained the overall number of deaths to less than 100 in a population of 25 million. In consequence, we are told, the public health system and infrastructure generally is able to cope with the additional strain placed upon it by the present crisis.
By contrast, those nations of the world that have clung to their binary and oppositional worldviews and, to the extent of any inconsistency with them, have refused to accept medical evidence appear, at least anecdotally, to have been afflicted more extensively and with greater catastrophic consequences. In the US where President Donald Trump has actively encouraged citizens to break the law by ignoring social distancing rules and gathering in rallies to protest regional lock down laws, the nation has recorded the highest number of fatalities of any nation in the world. The number of sick and dying has clearly exceeded the capacity of the infrastructure and health system to deal with it and the President seems more intent on prioritising matters of political expediency.
On 30th April 2020 the New York Times reported that the C.I.A., America’s international spy agency, is being pressured by the Trump administration to find “evidence” to support a conclusion, already reached, that the Coronavirus had its origin in a Chinese laboratory and was deliberately introduced by the Chinese government to further its political interests. (“Trump Officials Are Said to Press Spies to Link Virus and Wuhan Labs” NYT 30.4.20).
In Brazil, a nation of 212 million, where President Jair Bolsonaro sacked his health minister for challenging his behaviour over the Covid-19 pandemic and where the justice minister resigned in protest at the President’s anti-scientific stance, 6,000 people have died which represents a death rate of 2.830 per 100,000 of population. Brazilian newspapers are punctuated with horror stories of its public health system, Sistema Unico de Saude, in a state of collapse and ghoulish images of gravediggers in protective suits dumping scores of Brazilian bodies into muddy graves.
Of course it is unfair to compare bare statistical data from this crisis without also acknowledging both the tentative nature of the data itself and the host of other variables which must be brought to account in attempting to make an accurate comparison. The nations of the world are not all equally resourced to cope with mass outbreaks of disease and, whilst COVID-19 may be indiscriminate in its attack, its effect tends to fall most heavily on the poorer nations who are leased equipped to deal with it.
The point to be made here though is that, regardless of the fine detail, it is becoming clear that those nations which have embarked on more focused and integrative methods of resolving the crisis have enjoyed greater success in meeting the challenge, reducing the uncontrolled spread of the disease and saving lives. Those which have maintained their insistence upon binary worldviews, adversarialism, false dichotomies and polarisations have eschewed the science and preferred a backward-looking focus of attention to what happened in the past, attribution of blame and “holding China accountable,” all of which can do nothing to address the presenting problem.
Dispute resolution practitioners and theorists will immediately recognize within current attempts to manage the coronavirus scourge, the indicators of integrative practice – the formation of a bipartisan national cabinet, the deference to scientific and medical expertise, the free exchanges of reliable and accurate information between governments and their agencies and the appearance together at press conferences of political rivals making joint statements and advising on the results of the best information available. They will recognize too the necessary elements that go to make a co-operative integrative framework for working through the issues – the building of relationships of trust, honesty and reliance on the integrity of people involved in discussions and the exchanges of information between them, the forbearance from resort to tactics of partisan rhetoric and cynical selection of only such information that is supportive of a particular position.
At the end of the day, there is one thing of which we may be certain. Regardless of our worldview, the presence of coronavirus will continue to be felt throughout the world until it has been eradicated by the efforts of the informed actions of the scientific community. It is neither a war nor a battle to be won nor the product of a malevolent enemy. It cannot be legislated away or removed by adversarialism or political expediency. As the eighteenth century English poet, Samuel Johnson once wrote:
“How small, of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,
Our own felicity we make or find.”