di Gloria Sansò
The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus as a pandemic on the 12th of March 2020. Since a declaration is a social act, one may be tempted to claim that, as a consequence, a pandemic has little or nothing to do with the natural world. However, a closer look at the issue at hand reveals that this is much more complex than it appears. Indeed, the novel coronavirus shows that, although there is a distinction between the natural world and the social one, these two realms are not compartmentalized, and it is not an easy task to distinguish where one begins and where the other ends. In what follows, I am going to illustrate that point by presenting some thoughts about declarations and their objects.
First of all, what is a declaration? A declaration is a social act that, according to John Searle (2010, p. 93), represents an entity as existing and, in doing so, creates that entity. This approach can successfully account for the creation of many social entities, such as a corporation, a marriage and a university degree.
Nevertheless, it is not so patent that all declarations create entities. Consider, for instance, a declaration of birth: this declaration represents an entity (a birth), but it would be odd to say that, in representing it, this declaration creates this entity. A similar but more complex case is provided by Searle himself. Searle points out that it is also possible to declare, for example, an earthquake to be a disaster. The declaration puts a label (disaster) on an event (the earthquake), and this label has some social consequences: the victims, for example, can receive financial aid (1995, p. 49). In doing so, this declaration certainly does not create the earthquake; it just asserts that this event took place. At that point, however, someone may wonder: does the declaration create the disaster?
The same problem arises for the declaration made by the World Health Organization on the coronavirus pandemic. A pandemic is defined as “an epidemic of an infectious disease that has spread across a large region, for instance multiple continents or worldwide, affecting a substantial number of people”. The declaration puts a label (pandemic) on an event (the spread of an infectious disease). Here again, the declaration certainly does not create the spread of an infectious disease; it just states that this event already exists. But what about the pandemic? Does the declaration create it?
The answer is not straightforward. On one hand, one may say that the label “pandemic” is a social artifact: a group of people decided that if a certain event meets some conditions, then this event can be labelled as a “pandemic”. It seems, thus, that this is the typical procedure that characterizes the social world: a group of people decided, for example, that if a certain event meets some conditions, then this event can be labelled as a “wedding ceremony”. If that is the case, a declaration puts a pandemic into existence.
On the other hand, however, the properties an event must have in order to be a “wedding ceremony” are social properties and, as such, they must be recognized by a community. In contrast, the properties an event must have in order to be a “pandemic” are physical properties, their existence does not depend on our social practices; these properties do not need to be recognized by someone in order to exist. The virus and its spread are, indeed, natural entities. One might thus argue that if a certain event meets some conditions, then it is automatically a pandemic; this step does not require any mediation. If that is the case, a declaration does not put a pandemic into existence; the pandemic already exists.
In light of all this, it seems that, in order to solve this problem, one has to understand what a pandemic is. If a pandemic is a label socially constructed, then a declaration creates a pandemic by assigning this label to a certain event. If a pandemic is a collection of concrete properties, then a declaration does not create it; a declaration just recognizes its existence.
Searle, J. (1995), The Construction of the Social Reality, London, Penguin
Searle, J. (2010), Making the Social World, Oxford, Oxford University Press