“We cannot surrender reason to the virus”

Byung-Chul Han trans. anon

Note: What follows is a hastily composed translation of the article “’Wir dürfen die Vernunft nicht dem Virus überlassen” appearing in Die Welt on 23 March 2020. The presence of (hopefully) minor mistakes is possible.


Corona is a system test. Asia has apparently handled the epidemic much better than Europe. There are only very few infections in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Taiwan reports 108 infections, Hong Kong 193. On the other hand, in Germany, there are already 14,481 cases (19 March) in a relatively short period of time. South Korea, too, has put the worst behind them. Japan as well. Even China, the land of origin, has largely brought the epidemic under control.

Neither Taiwan nor Korea imposed confinement orders (Ausgangssperre) or closed stores and restaurants. Meanwhile, there has been an exodus of Asians from Europe. Chinese or Koreans want to return home because they feel safer there. Flight prices multiplied. By now plane tickets to China and Korea are hardly to be found.

Europe stumbles (straucheln). Cases rise exponentially. Europe does not seem able to get the epidemic under control. In Italy, hundreds of people die daily. Older patients are taken off ventilators so that younger people can be helped. What is observable in Europe is empty gesture (leerer Aktionismus) . Border closings are only a desperate expression of sovereignty. We feel ourselves transported back to the age of sovereignty. Sovereign is the one who makes decisions about states of emergency. Sovereign is the one who closes borders.

This is nevertheless an empty show of sovereignty that affects nothing. Intensive cooperation within the EU would be far more helpful than blindly closing borders. Meanwhile, the EU imposes an entry ban for foreigners, a totally meaningless act considering no one wants to come to Europe at the moment. If anything, it would make more sense to impose a ban on leaving the EU in order to protect the rest of the world from Europe. Europe is currently the epidemic’s hotspot.

Trust in the State

In terms of system, what advantages does Asia have over Europe that have proven positive in combatting the epidemic? Asian countries like Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan are already culturally conditioned (Confucianism) as authoritarian. People are more obedient and submissive (folg- und gehorsamer) than in Europe. They also have more trust in the state. Everyday life is fundamentally more strictly organized than in Europe and not only in China, but also in South Korea or Japan. Above all else Asians employed large-scale digital surveillance against the virus. They believe (vermuten) that Big Data has great potential in fighting the epidemic.

One could say that in Asia it is not only virologists or epidemiologists that fight viruses, but also, and especially, information scientists and big data specialists. This is a paradigm shift not yet recognized in Europe. Apologists for digital surveillance will proclaim that Big Data saves human lives.

There is hardly a critical consciousness against digital surveillance in Asia. People still rarely speak of data protection, even in liberal countries like Japan and South Korea. No one pushes back against administrative data collection mania. China already has a social scoring system that allows comprehensive assessment of citizens that would be unimaginable in Europe.

Every citizen is to be evaluated in their social behavior. In China there is no unobserved moment in every day life. Every click, every purchase, each contact, each activity is controlled in social networks. Anyone who runs a red light, who critiques the regime, or posts critical comments on social media receives negative points. Life can then become dangerous.

Unfettered Date Exchange

On the other hand, those who purchase healthy food over the internet or read publications associated with the party receive positive points. Those who have enough positive points receive travel visas or beneficial credits. Those who fall below a particular number of points can lose their job. This social surveillance is made possible in China through an unrestricted exchange of data between mobile and internet providers and government agencies (Behörden). Practically no data protection exists. The word ‘private sphere’ does not exist in the vocabulary of the Chinese.

In China there are 200 million surveillance cameras, some of which have highly efficient facial recognition technology. They can even register moles on the face. It is not possible to slip away from these surveillance cameras. Cameras equipped with artificial intelligence can observe and assess every citizen in public, in shops, in the streets, in train stations and airports.

The entire digital surveillance infrastructure now proves itself to be highly efficient in the containment of epidemics. When someone arrives at Beijing train station, they are automatically recognized by a camera that measures their body temperature. If their temperature is too high, people who sat in the same train car are automatically notified on their mobile phones. The system knows who sat where.

It is even reported in social media that drones were employed to enforce quarantines. When someone secretly breaks quarantine, a drone comes along and orders them to return to their home. Perhaps it even prints out a fine and lets it float down to the person – who knows. In Europe this is a dystopic situation while in China it seems to receive no resistance.

This is not only the case in China. South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan also lack critical consciousness against digital surveillance. They are drunk on digitalization. This also has cultural grounds. In Asia there is a prevailing collectivism. There is no distinct individualism. Individualism is something other than egoism, which is, of course, also rampant in Asia.

Big Data is obviously more efficient in combatting the virus than the senseless border closings presently undertaken in Europe. Yet, due to data protection, it is not possible to take comparable action in Europe. Chinese mobile and internet providers share their customers’ sensitive data with the security and health administrations.

Digital Investigation Teams

The state knows where I am, who I meet, what I do, what I’m looking for, what I’m thinking about, what I eat, what I buy, and where I make my way. In the future, where possible, body temperature, weight, and blood sugar levels will also be monitored by the state. A digital biopolitics, together with a digital psychopolitics actively governs (steuren) humans.

In Wuhan thousands of digital investigation teams were formed that traced potentially infected people solely by means of technological data. Solely by means of Big Data analysis they find out who is potentially infected, who must be further observed, and who must be isolated in quarantine. The future lies in digitalization, even as concerns epidemics. In view of the epidemic, perhaps we should re-define sovereignty. Sovereign is the one who has data at their command [who controls data]. In invoking states of emergency and closing borders, Europe hangs on old models of sovereignty.

It is not only in China, but in other Asian countries digital surveillance is used in its complete capacity (in vollen Zügen) to control the epidemic. In Taiwan the state simultaneously sends all citizens SMSs to identify contacts or inform people of places and buildings where infected persons have been. Taiwan early on combined different data in order to investigate potentially infected people by way of their travel activity.

In South Korea, people eating in a building where an infected person had been receive a warning via Corona-App. All places visited by infected persons are documented in the app. Little mind is given to data protection and the private sphere. In South Korea there are surveillance cameras in every building, over every office or shop. It is practically impossible to move about in public without being recorded by a video camera.

A complete profile of movement for an infected person is produced by mobile data together with recorded video material. Sequences of movement are published for all infected persons. Even clandestine love may be leaked to the public. The South Korean health ministry has a so-called ‘tracker’ viewing recorded video material day and night in order to complete an infected person’s movement profile and detect contacts.

There is also a notable difference between Asia and Europe regarding protective masks. In South Korea practically no one walks around without a special mask that can filter out the virus. These are not common surgical masks, but the same special protective masks worn by doctors who come in contact with infected persons. In recent weeks provision of masks for citizens was theme number one in South Korea.

Protective Masks in the Work Place

Huge lines formed in front of pharmacies. Politicians were measured by how efficiently they could provide the entire population with protective masks. New machines for producing masks were built in a hurry. At the moment, the provision of masks seems to be successful. An app exists that informs people of the closest pharmacies with masks available. I think that the provision of protective masks to entire populations in Asia has contributed decisively to containing the epidemic.

South Koreans even wear protective masks at work. Politicians only go into the public with masks on. The South Korean president wears a mask demonstratively, even in press conferences. In South Korea one is scolded for not wearing a mask. In Germany one hears, to the contrary, that masks don’t help much – this is nonsense. Why do doctors wear protective masks then?

One must only change the masks often enough because they lose their filter function when they gather too much moisture. But in the meantime South Koreans have invented a “Corona Mask” with a nano-filter that can even be washed. They can protect people from viruses for a month. This is actually a pretty good solution as long as there is no vaccine or therapeutics (Heilmittel).

Yet in Germany even doctors have to fly to Russia in order to get masks. Macron had masks commandeered in order to distribute them to medical workers. What they received however were common masks without filter and the suggestion that these were sufficient for Corona, which is a total lie. Europe stumbles. What is the point of closing shops and restaurants when people continue to crowd into the U-bahn and buses at rush hour.

Cultural Difference

How can we keep our distance there? It is hardly even possible in super markets. Here protective masks would actually save human lives. A two-class society emerges. Those with their own cars are exposed to less danger. Even common masks would help significantly if worn by infected people to prevent the projection of the virus.

In Germany hardly anyone wears a mask. There is the odd mask wearer, but they are Asians. Other South Koreans here in Germany complain that they will look funny if they wear a mask. Here another cultural difference is clearly at work. In Germany there prevails an individualism that goes hand in hand with the uncovered face. I have – because of the images coming from South Korea – become so accustomed to the image of masked people that the unmasked faces of my fellow Berliners seems almost obscene. I would have also had a protective mask, but here I get nothing.

In the past the production of masks has been shifted, like many other products, to China. Therefore no masks in Europe. Asian countries try to provide the entire population with masks. When masks became scare even in China, they converted factories to produce them. In Europe medical workers don’t even receive protective masks.

As long as people continue to pack into buses and the U-Bahn without protective masks, confinement orders have little logic. How can people maintain distance in buses and the U-bahn at rush hour? One lesson of the epidemic should be to return production of particular products like protective masks, medicine, and other pharmaceuticals to Europe.

What is the Reason for Panic?

The panic caused by the Corona-Epidemic is disproportionate despite all the danger, which should not be played down. Even the Spanish Flu with its higher fatality rate did not have such a devastating impact on the economy. What is the actual reason for this? Why does the world react to a virus with such excessive panic?

Emmanuel Macron speaks even of war and of the invisible enemy that we must defeat. Are we dealing with a return of the enemy? The Spanish Flu broke out in the middle of the First World War. At that time everyone was surrounded by enemies. No one connected the epidemic with war or enemies. Today we live in an entirely different society.

The immunologically organized society is, like in the time of the cold war, shaped by borders and fences. These hinder the accelerated circulation of goods and capital. Globalization dismantles [abbauen] all of these immunity-thresholds in order to flatten a free path for capital. The general promiscuity and permissiveness that today captures all regions of life also reduces [abbauen] the negativity of the foreign and the enemy.

Limitlessly Permissive Society

It is not the negativity of the enemy that threatens today, but rather the excess of positivity expressed in over-performing (Überleistung), over-producing, and over-communicating (Überkommikation). The negativity of the enemy does not belong to our limitlessly permissive society. Repression by others gives way to depression, the external exploitation of self-exploitation and self-optimization. In a meritocracy (Leistungsgesellschaft) one wages war primary against themselves.

Now the virus suddenly breaks into a society that is severely weakened immunologically by global capitalism. Out of total alarm, immunological thresholds are rebuilt and borders are sealed. The enemy has returned. We no longer wage war against ourselves, but against the invisible enemy from outside. Immeasurable panic in the face of the virus is a societal, indeed global immune reaction to the new enemy. The immune response is so severe because we have lived for very long in a society without enemy, in a society of positivity. The virus is now perceived as a permanent terror.

There is yet another reason for the great panic. This again has to do with digitalization. Digitalization dismantles (abbauen) reality. Reality is experienced through resistance that can also be painful. Digitalization, the entire culture of ‘likes’, dismantles the negativity of resistance. And in a post-fact age with fake news or deepfakes there emerges reality-apathy. Here the real virus – which is no computer virus – triggers a shock. Reality, resistance, announces itself again in the form of an enemy virus. The severe, exaggerated panic reaction to the virus traces back to this reality-shock.

Above all else, the panicky fear of the virus reflects our society of survival in which all forces of life are used to prolong life. Concern for the good life gives way to the hysteria of survival. The society of survival is also hostile toward enjoyment. Health represents the highest value. The hysteria around the smoking ban is, in the end, the hysteria of survival.

We readily sacrifice everything

The panic reaction to the virus lays this foundation of our society bare. The virus again makes visible death, which we thought we had banished to the invisible. Faced with imminent death we willingly sacrifice everything that makes life worth living. Even before the Corona-epidemic we found ourselves in a bitter war for survival.

The war against the virus that has now broken out is its viral continuation (Fortsetzung). The society of survival now reveals its inhumane traits. The other is, in the first instance, a potential carrier of the virus that we must take distance from, that endangers my survival. The concern for a good life must be set in opposition to the struggle for survival. Otherwise, after the epidemic life will become more about survival than before it. Then we ourselves resemble the virus, this undead thing (untoten Wesen) that only increases, only survives, without living.

The finance markets’ panic reaction to the epidemic is an expression of the panic that is already inherent to them. The extreme distortions in the global economy make it very vulnerable. The adventurous monetary policy of the central banks has created a suppressed panic that is waiting to break out, despite the constantly rising curve of the stock market index in recent years.

This virus is likely only the small drop that brought the vase to overflow. The panic of the finance markets doesn’t express fear of the virus, but rather their fear of themselves. The crash could have also come without the virus. Perhaps the virus is only the precursor to a much bigger crash.

Zizek claims that the virus deals capitalism a fatal blow and evokes an obscure communism (reference to an article translated as “We're in the same boat”). He even believes that the virus will bring the Chinese regime to fall. Zizek is mistaken. None of that will happen. China will now sell its digital surveillance state as the successful model against the epidemic. China will take the opportunity to demonstrate its system with even more pride.

And after the epidemic capitalism will go forward with more force (Wucht). And tourists will again trample the planet to death. The virus cannot replace reason. Furthermore, we in the west may well still get the digital surveillance state à la China.

As Naomi Klein has already said, the shock is a favorable moment for allowing a new system of domination to establish itself. The installation of neo-liberalism was often preceded by crises that brought shock. So it was in South Korea or in Greece. Hopefully, Europe does not get a digital surveillance state à la China after this virus-shock. In that case the state of emergency [‘exception’] would become the normal state, as Giorgio Agamben fears. Then the virus creates what Islamic terrorism has not quite succeeded in doing.

The virus will not defeat capitalism. The viral revolution will not have happened. No virus is capable of revolution. The virus isolates us. It engenders no strong ‘togetherness’ (Wir-Gefühl). Everyone is concerned with their own survival. The solidarity to keep distance from one another is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of another, more peaceful, more just society. We cannot cede the revolution to the virus. We hope for a humane revolution after the virus. It is WE HUMANS with REASON that must reconsider and radically curtail the destructive capitalism as well as our unrestrained, destructive mobility in order to save the climate and our beautiful planet.