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On March 7, the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, where I used to teach, announced that a student had tested positive for COVID-19. Yet she concluded, Public Health England “has advised that the risk to other students and to staff is very low and that university and college activities can continue.… we do not need to take any additional public health actions in light of this case.”
Really? Oxfordshire now has around 2000 confirmed cases of the virus. At least one of my former colleagues has died from it.
At the end of February, before Oxford’s first case was confirmed, we already knew how bad it was getting — especially in Italy, which already had over 2000 confirmed cases and was preparing to take spring classes online.
Imagine if Oxford had not waited two more weeks to send students home.. Better yet, imagine if the students themselves had told the vice chancellor, “Sorry, no, we have a confirmed case of the virus among us, the thing is spreading like wildfire abroad, make it possible for us to learn from home.” No tutorials, no dining halls, no college feasts, but also no pubs, no rowing. Self-imposed early lockdown. With the lecturers calling for it, too.
But Oxford did wait. And they were not alone. People around the world, all of us, waited to be told to stay home. And now, prematurely by almost every measure, we are pushing governments to let us free again, or we are breaking the laws and freeing ourselves. Governments around the world are, in turn, scrambling, chaotically and inconsistently, to do something, not even knowing which rules to put in place next week.
The experience of COVID-19 offers proof of a controversial claim: that our fascination with and reliance on top-down rules are doing more harm than good. Rules, laws, and decrees are helpful guides, but they cannot, and should not, do the work for us. We should not be waiting for them to tell us how to behave. For the social contract is indeed broken, and law and order are at least part of the problem.
I can be so suspicious of rules and laws because my own professional life as a professor of government and law, and a consultant to foreign governments around the globe, including Iraq, has been an attempt to find the secrets of order through rules: to craft good laws and good constitutions to help people get along. But I now believe it may have been backward. And COVID is unfortunately proving my point.
Didn’t the decrees and rules on social distancing help save lives, slow the spread of the virus? Undoubtedly. But what if we had all acted earlier, without waiting to be told? Using the unprecedented number of social media tools available to us — Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and so on — we could have communicated instantaneously and organized our own confinement. Without waiting for governments and leaders, too concerned about our liberty, the economy, or their own political futures, to act quickly. How many lives might we have saved if we had not waited for laws to save us, but instead used easily available tools and information to save ourselves?
What I am suggesting is bottom-up civil obedience, not to an authority, but to ourselves. Spontaneous, self-enforcing cooperation across racial and ethnic lines that starts locally and individually; and weaves a fabric of immediate trust, providing the basis for social interaction at a macro level, providing perhaps the only form of social glue that will enable civilization’s discontents to get along and take care of each other.
This idea is not new. The Cynics in Ancient Greece believed in virtue as the only good organizing principle of a state, and they were right. Nineteenth-century lawmakers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon declared a strong suspicion of the law, a kind of unresolved ambivalence about it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s early work on children warned against a reliance on institutions and rules, and John Holt, the father of “unschooling,” encouraged young citizens to think for themselves and break free of traditional forms of learning.
We need to also learn from the few pioneers now, such as villagers in Spain, a country at a breaking point from the virus, where some refused to wait for central authorities and instead acted on their own. Piling mud or concrete blocks to cut off roads leading in and out of their villages, they embraced confinement to spare themselves from the virus.
Mine is not a call for anarchy or mob rule — not in a time when governmental action is at least just about saving us from the worst extinction our planet has known since World War II. Rather, it is a call for us to take a step back and think about life before we got to the dire state we are now in, and ask ourselves what we, as a society, might have done when we first read on our smartphones how pernicious, and fast, this virus was.
Spontaneous, decentralized social movements were the start of the civil rights movement in the United States. Similar movements brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the Cold War. They brought down longstanding dictatorships during the Arab Spring. Could they not have also brought down a virus? Not through protest this time, but as a self-organizing, virus-fighting network of informed individuals taking responsibility for their lives and the lives of others.
Why don’t we use this moment in our history as a catalyst to build a true civil society, one that has never, could never, exist on a global level, until now? So when the next challenge comes — because it will — we can say, “We have this.” And we can mean it this time.
Cindy Skach was a Government professor at Harvard University. She is currently a professor of political theory at the University of Bologna.
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