Coronavirus and Lockdown: A Psychoanalytic Perspective
The coronavirus lockdown involves us all – albeit largely from home, we play our parts and watch as events unfold around us. And others take up positions on the frontline.
Psychotherapist Giovanni del Vecchio looks at the Covid-19 lockdown from a psychoanalytic perspective
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How do we process life under the pandemic and avoid being drawn into the contagion of fear?
A kind of war
In inner and outer worlds so disorienting, how do we tolerate, accept and remain solid in the not knowing?
Meanwhile, the dystopian future we failed to plan for has arrived. An invisible threat assails us in our billions, bringing life as we know it, to a standstill. When the daily statistics are given, (960 more dead in the UK since yesterday at the time of writing this), politicians and the media rightly turn our focus to the heroes of this war, the frontline soldiers of the NHS. An old wartime idiom is being revised; a dialectic to galvanise our common purpose and resolve; to bring a manageable structure and a story to the chaos; to stabilise the collective consciousness and reassure us that the way of deliverance is in our reach: a call to arms …the front line …sacrifice …we must keep going and…stay the course … (Dominic Raab, 9.4.20).
Keep calm but don’t carry on
I’ve heard no one say keep calm and carry on. That most British and nostalgic of aphorisms that first spoke to busy hands on the Homefront. The motto has lost its readership, abandoned on countless walls, desks, shelves, coffee cups, in offices, factories, schools and universities, all of which lie empty and out of reach. In this gridlock, except for those on whom our lives depend, all work outside the home, until further notice, is stopped. At 8pm many of us take our places outside our front doors and on our balconies, clapping and banging kitchenware in salute, in abeyant solidarity with these foot soldiers of care. As they march bravely on, our clamour holds them in bondage to their work.
It’s a racket in more ways than one. They are exhausted, unprotected, dying. They must keep calm and carry on.
We will never forget their sacrifice …their devotion to helping others. …You are the lifeline to so many people…you’ve made us all think long and hard about who the key workers are in our lives (ibid Raab).
We can be heroes
While we are all in this together, some of us are more in it than others. Of course we need these brave men and women to survive in order that they may look after us and those we love. While our sense of civic duty has been eroded by years of scandal in public life, the propaganda war machine needs more than ever an identifiably heroic group, of the people, for the people, who will deliver us from this evil. It is the beloved NHS that is our best hope for now, which provides the sentimental focus of our otherwise ambivalent patriotism. The caring professions as a whole underpin the emotionalism required to compel us to stay at home. From home, we are protecting the NHS and saving lives and thus we too, from the discomfiture of our living rooms, are recruited in this psychodrama of heroes, real and imagined.
Of the rest of us, staying at home is all the duty and fortitude that the state and the times demand. Indeed, because we are all suspects and victims in this contagion, our only hope is to take state-directed flight behind closed doors. The virus makes heroes, worrying sloths, and lepers of us all. But the common imperative is to hold firm in our paralysis. To believe that we will soon reach the promised plateau, that structural element in the narrative, where complications notwithstanding, the story’s plot will stabilise and the road to victory be clear. We trust that we be able to stem the tide; we will safely return to work.
Following the science
Meanwhile the virus continues to elude and mock us, inflicting more casualties every day. We should give pause to reflect on the startling and augural fact that the Prime Minister himself was quietly infected and brought down. Up until this week, we were taking our briefings from Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock, who declare a call to arms with pots and pans. While lauding the heroism of those on the front line, they rightly insist that we listen to the Science, the Supreme General of this military campaign, who as yet proceeds with blind steps.
We see from the wide-shots of our empty beaches, urban centres and national parks, that the surplus populous is indeed staying at home. We are as dazed as we are united. United in our uneasy co-operation, in our impotence and fear. If we follow the science and the data, we learn that the contagion, visible only by the havoc that it wreaks, imperceptibly infiltrates our respiratory tracts, settling down to incubate inside our lungs, from where, Alien-like, it launches itself in an explosion of screaming sirens on the body politic. The virus is indiscriminate and it deceives: if asymptomatic, it turns us into smiling assassins; we may have symptoms that subside before they return to overwhelm. If the danger seems to pass, the virus seems to have the potential to reactivate.
While we are sedated all day long with the narrative tropes of heroes and patriots, the virus offers no scapegoat or knowable enemy, except in the conspiracy theories that abound. There is no credible bogeyman who can be recruited and caricatured to provide a stabilising focus for our fear and rage. What makes coronavirus both so fearful and unthinkable, is its intangibleness. Its sheer invisbility.
Its very name is equivocal: Coronavirus, Covid-19, SARS-Cov-2. What is its proper name? What does it signify? What is it? Something is missing that prevents conceptualisation. In Lacanian terms, it fails to enter the symbolic order, to enter a language by which we can mitigate and neutralise its psychological threat. At the same time, it defies all sensory perception if we don’t experience it in the body or are physically close to someone who does. The virus is hard to grasp as a fact of consciousness (Hegel, 1821).
The unthought known
Whether or not we contract the disease somatically, it infiltrates the personal and collective unconscious. There it resides in repression as an unthought known (Bollas, 1987). Unthought, because it does not lend itself to verbalisation. Our reluctance to really face and articulate the thing we fear, or our fear of it, creates a symptomatology of the mind entirely unconnected to the rampant micro-organism at the centre of the polemic. It is what Wilfred Bion described as a nameless dread, (Bion, 1962). It is the very lack of a signifier with which we may conceptualise Covid-19/Coronavirus/ SARS-Cov-2, that it lends itself so readily to our worst fears and projections.
For proof of this state of the collective unconscious, witness the automatic panic-buying in every supermarket across the world and specifically our mania for buying up toilet paper. An analysis of this in Freudian terms is apposite. In the second of his five psychosexual stages, the anal stage, (between 18 months and 3 years old) a toddler seeks to gain control over her body and to develop her sense of self-determination. When to let go, when to retain. The anal phase of potty training enables, in normal development, the growth of autonomy, self-confidence and self-mastery (Freud, 1905).
What is the unconscious phantasy then that links our obsession with toilet paper as a symptom of the contagion of fear, to an infantile regression to the anal stage? What defensive function does this serve?
I suggest the fetish for toilet paper is the unconscious reach for a magic totem (Freud 1913) that will cleans us of the poison that is within us. At this phantasmatic level, it wipes away and cleanses us of our losses.
Moreover, it betrays the unthought known that we are no longer in control of our bodies or of our lives. This totem or fetish is not a constructive processing of our fear, but the unthinking and unproductive expression of our nameless dread.
Naming the dread
The most existential threat of all is the refusal to confront the nameless dread that resides in every one of us. The dread is an old and familiar affliction. It is the irrational unmetabolised terror of the infant, the primordial fear that death is inside us and that what we excrete is our own disintegration. It’s getting hold of this unconscious fantasy in the individual and the collective, that psychoanalysis has its role.
Because the dread is nameless, it is unthinkable and because we can’t think it, we can’t manage it. It becomes projected onto the demonised Other who brought it here from outside, the complacent shop assistant who does not wear a mask and gloves, the politician who can’t be trusted to redeem our lives, the coughing pharmacist who should have stayed at home … Projected and lodged in the Other, our unprocessed fear is split and externalised into the imaginary realm. Projected into someone else, we find in them a focus for our rage.
Strong emotions – and fear among them – require a response which is to be specific, namely the result of a work made by the adult in order to hold and to … share the child’s point of view, finding a way to get through. Resorting to group prefab responses… only shows that adults cannot bear to let themselves be infected by the child (Gaburri and Ambrosiano (2003) translated in Perini)
The unheld child is in us. Prefab responses here take the form of magic thinking: stigmatisation, scapegoating, xenophobia, moral judgment, and conspiracy. These distractions fail to resolve our underlying fear, which is that of the frightened child within. While we are in abeyance on so many external fronts, our internal processes are the battle we can and need to address in order to remain solid and resilient in these most difficult times.
The turbulence all this creates inside us has its external correlation in matters no talking therapy can resolve: mortgage relief, tax relief, loans, overdrafts, Universal Credit, Food Banks, not to mention unemployment. On what creditor, utility, or friend will we default? Whom do we continue to pay, if we can pay anything at all? So subsumed are most of us in this new diurnal, that scarcely with eyes wide open can we find the internal space to conceptualise the present, let alone the future. Finding an internal reflective space away from what may feel like a tidal wave of anxieties and diminishing returns, is a huge ask. Moreover, in this personal challenge, there is no separation between the individual and the state.
How will our mental functioning in this pandemic disturb and reshape our relationship with the state? In submitting to remain at home for the general good, whatever the cost, most of us are experiencing for the first time an almost complete surrendering of our agency.
While few can dispute the categorical imperative in doing so, in the West, this is an unprecedented and dramatic redefining of the social contract. It creates in our homes across the hemisphere a tension that cannot hold out for long. How will the state’s ruthless instinct for its own survival and its latent fear of the rising mob, allow it to hold firm against a temptation to undermine our democratic rights and privileges, not only in emergency measures now, but beyond the emergency? Viktor Orban, trading on the politics of fear, has already opportunistically dismissed a return to democratic normalcy in a post-pandemic Hungary.
Could not our own nervous and intimidated leadership in the UK, caught up in its own contagion of fear, succumb to the very real temptation to reposition itself as a regime of digital surveillance and authoritarianism?
Moreover, in our broiling unprocessed paranoia, are we not susceptible to trading in our freedoms and to surrendering entirely to the state? In such a landscape, we may may well find ourselves having to remember and forget, like Boxer in Animal Farm, that we had once surrendered our free will and interiority to a regime aggrandised in the name of keeping us safe.
What is psychoanalytic psychotherapy for?
To cultivate and integrate within ourselves, through a process of exploration, understanding and articulation, our own interior and external realities. The challenge is to seek to bring what is unconscious into consciousness. To apply common sense. To be mindful of our rage, (albeit in many cases perfectly justified), as a possible signal that something is not being thought about. To develop the resilience and stamina to keep calm and carry on. To resist the temptation to act precipitously. And most difficult of all, in inner and outer worlds so disorienting, to be able to tolerate, accept and remain solid in the not knowing.
- Bion, W.R., 1962. Learning From Experience. 3rd ed., Karnac.
- Bollas, C., 1987. The Shadow of the Object. Free Association Books.
- Freud, S., 1905. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
- Freud, S., 1913. Totem and Taboo.
- Gaburri and Ambrosiano., 2003. Howling with Wolves. Turin: Bollati Bollinghieri, translated in Perini 2020.
- Hegel, G.W.F., 1821. The Philosophy of Right, Britannica Great Books 1952).
- Orwell, G., 1945. Animal Farm.
- Perini, M., 2020. Panic and Pandemics in Fear of Contagion to Contagion of Fear. In International Psychoanalytical Association 30th March 2020
- Raab, D., 9.4.20, Government Briefing, BBC1 Television News.