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Students sitting in the library, listening to a talk

by George Batchelor, third year undergraduate at Durham University

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought with it significant changes for everybody. Those activities which were previously taken for granted - meeting friends, getting a haircut and going to the pub - have all been removed from daily life. The changes brought about by COVID-19 have been much greater than this however: with the economy shrinking by 20.4% in April and more than a quarter of the UK workforce being furloughed, this combined with stark warnings that the unemployment rate could reach 15% has left many workers worried about their livelihoods and their futures.

In order to respond effectively to the impacts of coronavirus in the coming weeks, months and years it might be profitable to utilize the concept of “affliction” developed by French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil. Weil understands affliction as the limit-case of suffering: suffering is unpleasant but ultimately leaves no trace on the soul, whereas affliction is a response to events which takes possession of the soul and marks it with the mark of slavery.[1] It is an uprooting of life which attacks life in all its parts - social, psychological, spiritual and physical.[2] This means that the soul is stamped to its very depths with the scorn, disgust, self-hatred and guilt which ought to logically accompany crime but in actuality does not.[3] This scorn, revulsion and hatred means, for Weil, that all people, except those who have souls open to grace, despise the afflicted to some extent, even if they are not conscious of it.[4] The consequence of this is that the afflicted are anonymous before all things. These people are robbed of their personality and believe that they will never find warmth again because they have ceased to be anyone.[5] This understanding of the afflicted as anonymous individuals was shaped by Weil’s humiliating work in the French auto factories during 1934-1935; where she observed the alienation of individuals from the product of their labour.[6]

Weil believed that the correct societal response to affliction is seen in attention; where the privileged individual must renounce the illusion that they are of a different species to the afflicted.[7] This involves the abandonment of egoistic projects in order to receive the world without the limitations of one’s own personal perspective.[8] This involves both a disposition towards an unknown and mysterious God and also a disposition towards other people, especially those who are afflicted.[9] This is seen in the individual turning their attention towards another individual who is anonymous and afflicted; seen, in the paradigmatic case, in the example of the Good Samaritan.[10] This turning of attention serves to give human recognition and meaningful existence to another person, removing some of the scorn and shame borne by those who are afflicted.[11]

The measures enacted to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have, to a certain extent, removed the traditional structures of sociability, such as going out for a meal with friends or visiting the pub. Society has become uprooted; we have lost links to a past life and our understandings of community have undergone dramatic change. Therefore, one of the principle challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath will be to continue to pay attention to those who are afflicted; that is to say those who have been torn body from soul by these events, by loss, difficult labour, grief, extreme illness or anxiety. As we all look forward to society opening up and returning to something resembling normal it is important to remember that there are some for whom normal will not return as quickly as it was taken away. The possibility of economic downturn and accompanying unemployment may serve to imbue those individuals out of work with a sense of disgust and self-hatred that comes from not being able to provide for those they hold most dear. People who were previously playing a recognised part in society before the pandemic may be rendered impotent observers, anonymous before the world, and yearning for a way to become valued again.

It will also be necessary to pay attention to the keyworkers who have been so greatly admired throughout this crisis. As the world slowly emerges from this difficult period we must not let those workers in our hospitals, care homes and supermarkets drift out of our consciousness and into the anonymity which serves to separate them from the true value of their labour.

This will not be a simple task because affliction is not a purely objective state coming about from a specific act but a state which depends on personal factors.[12] Weil is clear that an event which is survivable for one person may not be for another. Affliction cannot be known by an objective cause but only by its effect on a person. This is why it is vital to pay attention to human individuals, as human individuals and not just structures of injustice. It is therefore necessary to demonstrate compassion for the afflicted in their humanity; not in their existence as objects but as human beings, something that Weil believes is much more difficult than we may think. This is a challenge which cannot help but be compounded by the graphs and statistics which have dominated the news coverage of COVID-19. Weil teaches us that we must not only focus on the R0 value but also on those it is afflicting, in their - and our - complete humanity.

[1] Simone Weil, Waiting on God, trans. by Emma Craufurd (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p. 38.

[2] Idem., p. 38-39.

[3] Idem., p. 40.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Idem., p. 41.

[6] (Last Accessed: 15/06/2020).

[7] Tamar Heller, ‘Affliction in Jean Rhys and Simone Weil’ in The Female Face of Shame, ed. by Erica L. Johnson and Patricia Morgan (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), pp. 166-176 (p. 170).

[8] Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca and Davis, Benjamin P., ‘Simone Weil’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) (Online) <>.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Weil, Waiting on God, p. 39.