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Jerusalem, Paris
Eva Illouz, Professor for Sociology

Square image of Eva Illouz against a brown backdrop; she wears short dark hair and holds a glas in her left hand Geisler-Fotopress © picture alliance
What would you say are symbols of your current situation or the current situation in your country?

Human beings are eminently adaptable. At first, I felt as if I was in Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia (2011), where the spectator comes to slowly grasp, with a mix of terror and powerlessness, that the world is about to end after it collides with the planet Melancholia. At the end of the movie, the spectator watches, mesmerized and paralyzed, the planet on its course to crash on the earth. It was at first a far-away point in the sky, and then it became a growing disc, ultimately covering the screen and colliding with the earth.

As we all continue to be engulfed in a world event whose magnitude we have not yet fully grasped, I have tried to reach for analogies, and remembered the closing scene of Lars von Trier’s movie.

I first read about a strange virus in the second week of January 2020 in the American press and paid close attention because my son was due to travel to China.  The virus was still far away, like the distant disc of a dangerous planet. My son canceled his trip, but the disc continued on its inexorable course, slowly crashing into us in Europe and the Middle East. I watched, with many, the world as it shut down. The Corona virus is a planetary event of a magnitude that we are struggling to grasp, because of not only its humongous scale or the speed of the contamination, but also because in a matter of a few weeks it has brought institutions, whose titanic power we never questioned, to their knees in a matter of a few weeks. For me personally, now that the situation has stabilized, life is on the one hand profoundly disrupted and on the other hand very much the same. I am a scholar and as such, I am used to staying a long time in a room, to read and write. Confinement is a very familiar experience. At the same time, I live in two continents, in France and Israel, and the virus has stopped me in one country. I feel as if I have separated from my other half.

Nationally, if I refer to Israel, the Corona crisis represents the most severe crisis of the history of Israel because it is a health, economic and political crisis all in one. Israel is the only country where a plague has been used by a defeated prime minister, Benjamin Netanjahu, to evade the law and the results of the elections.

I must confess that at the beginning of the crisis, I was impressed by the seriousness and thoroughness of the measures taken by Israelis, telling myself that it was better to err by excess to save lives than to err by mindless optimism as had been the case in France or the UK. In comparison, I thought, Israel was displaying responsibility and seriousness. Then, political events started unraveling and it slowly dawned on me that Netanyahu was using the crisis in an incredibly cynical way to evade  the results of the elections in which he lost.

What long-term effects can you make out already?

The economic effects will be incalculable, of course. There will be, I predict, significant unemployment. And it all depends on how it will be managed. If it is managed like the 2008 crisis – that is in such a way as to save the skin of the rich and big corporations and Wall Street, I believe there will be mass unrest, and even revolutions. I do not think we can accept another bailout of the richest by ordinary citizens. It will lead to significant unrest. If on the other hand, the state uses its money to relaunch employment and help culture as Germany is doing with a staggering 50 billion Euros package for immediate assistance for small companies, self-employed businesses and freelancers, I think it will enable us to rebuild trust and economies but I hope, with an understanding that public budgets can no longer be sacrificed on the altar of profit.

What gives you hope?

This pandemic is a preview of what may lie ahead when much more dangerous viruses emerge and when climate change makes the world unlivable. I think that everybody should understand this as a preview, as what is going to come in a much more severe form. Contrary to some predictions about the resurgence of nationalism and borders, I believe that only a coordinated international response can help manage these new risks and dangers. The world is irrevocably interdependent and only a response in kind can help us cope with the next crisis. We will need international coordination and cooperation of a new kind to prevent future zoonotic spillovers, to study diseases, to innovate in the fields of medical equipment and medicine, and mostly, it will require the vast wealth amassed by private entities to be reinvested in public utilities.  I think that, because of the corona virus, the young people who see and experience firsthand what the collapse of the world may look like will know how to monitor the world better. Short of that, there will no longer be a public or a private interest to defend. It will become nasty and brutal, as the Philospher Thomas Hobbes said, it is about the state of men in nature.