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Will we change how we think about death?

The writer wonders whether after Covid we may not just redouble our efforts to 'defeat death' through medical advances.
© Guardian © Tavistock & Portman NHS FT

In the following extract, author Yuval Noah Harari asks Will coronavirus change our attitudes to death? He concludes that quite the opposite could occur.

The modern world has been shaped by the belief that humans can outsmart and defeat death. That was a revolutionary new attitude. For most of history, humans meekly submitted to death. Up to the late modern age, most religions and ideologies saw death not only as our inevitable fate, but as the main source of meaning in life. The most important events of human existence happened after you exhaled your last breath. Only then did you come to learn the true secrets of life. Only then did you gain eternal salvation, or suffer everlasting damnation. In a world without death – and therefore without heaven, hell or reincarnation – religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism would have made no sense. For most of history the best human minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to defeat it.

Then came the scientific revolution. For scientists, death isn’t a divine decree – it is merely a technical problem. Humans die not because God said so, but because of some technical glitch. The heart stops pumping blood. Cancer has destroyed the liver. Viruses multiply in the lungs.

And science believes that every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for Christ’s second coming in order to overcome death. A couple of scientists in a lab can do it. Whereas traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians in black cassocks, now it’s the folks in white lab coats. In their struggle to extend life, humans have been remarkably successful. Over the last two centuries, average life expectancy has jumped from under 40 years to 72 in the entire world, and to more than 80 in some developed countries. Children in particular have succeeded in escaping death’s clutches. Until the 20th century, at least a third of children never reached adulthood.

Will the current pandemic change human attitudes to death? Probably not. Just the opposite. Covid-19 will probably cause us to only double our efforts to protect human lives. For the dominant cultural reaction to Covid-19 isn’t resignation – it is a mixture of outrage and hope. When an epidemic erupted in a pre-modern society such as medieval Europe, people of course feared for their lives and were devastated by the death of loved ones, but the main cultural reaction was one of resignation. Psychologists might call it “learned helplessness”.

Attitudes today are the polar opposite. Whenever some disaster kills many people – a train accident, a high-rise fire, even a hurricane – we tend to view it as a preventable human failure rather than as divine punishment or an inevitable natural calamity. This is our attitude towards plagues, too. While some religious preachers were quick to describe Aids as God’s punishment for gay people, modern society mercifully relegated such views to its lunatic fringes, and these days we generally view the spread of Aids, Ebola and other recent epidemics as organisational failures.

Alongside outrage, there is also a tremendous amount of hope. Our heroes aren’t the priests who bury the dead and excuse the calamity – our heroes are the medics who save lives. And our super-heroes are those scientists in the laboratories.

When the vaccine is indeed ready and the pandemic is over, what will be humanity’s main takeaway? In all likelihood, it will be that we need to invest even more efforts in protecting human lives. We need to have more hospitals, more doctors, more nurses. We need to stockpile more respiratory machines, more protective gear, more testing kits. We need to invest more money in researching unknown pathogens and developing novel treatments. We should not be caught off guard again.

Task

Havari believes that we will not be changed that much by the pandemic, and that we will ‘double down’ on trying to use science to defeat disease – or maybe even ‘defeat death’.

But we cannot defeat death.

So what do you think? Have you changed as a result of the crisis? Have people you know changed? Is it a good idea that we recover a sense of life as somehow tragic at its core, because in the end we all die?

© Guardian © Tavistock & Portman NHS FT
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