Uses of Fear (Gustavo Esteva)

The following editorial appeared in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Gustavo Esteva is a writer, activist, and a public intellectual in Mexico. He founded the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca. Esteva, who describes himself as a “de-professionalized intellectual,” was a contributor to the well-known Development Dictionary and was at various points an official in the government of President Echeverría, an advisor to the Zapatistas, and a student of Ivan Illich. I had a nice exchange with Gustavo after the publication of David Cayley’s “Questions About the Pandemic from the Point of View of Ivan Illich,” and we arranged a Spanish translation of that text, made by Federica González Luna. It was distributed by the Unitierra.

I thought it would be interesting to include Gustavo’s editorial here because it illustrates a point of view in public discourse that one is less likely to hear in the United States. Esteva describes the rural poor and indigenous of Mexico, whom he has always championed, as holding an edge over the modernized, middle-class in the wake of a general economic collapse. And here, he suggests that such a collapse may in fact emerge from the Coronavirus crisis. I thought the essay was an interesting example of a radically hopeful style of thought that has become more common in recent weeks in response to the Coronavirus situation.

Let’s not allow fear to become panic. We should maintain cool heads and warm hearts as never before.Fear is a healthy reaction to threat. It emerges in the autonomic nervous system as a reflex and a vital response. It is generally a good guide for action. Panic is excessive, unfounded fear that encourages irrational behavior.We are facing a threat never seen before. It is helpful to learn from history, but this is not the Black Plague or the Spanish Flu. It isn’t 1929, or any other previous crisis. The term ‘crisis’ cannot even be applied: every crisis has a resolution and this does not.The threat that we are facing is not a health emergency: the coronavirus ought to provoke a reasonable fear of a manageable threat, rather than the manipulative panic that has been created.

It is perhaps inevitable that the majority of the population will become infected. Most of those who are infected will not know it because they will have no symptoms; at most, some fatigue. A small group will have something like a flu, and only a very small group will have major complications that might require hospitalization. A few will die.

This is not a generalized threat. It is important to specify who is affected. People under the age of 15 have not died anywhere. Among people 15 to 40 years old, some with other serious illnesses have died. The same thing occurs, but to a greater extent, among people between 40 to 80 years of age. Most of the deaths have occurred among people over 80 years of age. Fifteen percent of those over 80 who were infected have died; they were by and large frail, and the majority were men. There are exceptions to this ... as in everything.
Let's take this data seriously. For most people in Mexico, assaults and accidents will continue to be the primary causes of death. The coronavirus will hardly count.

I belong to the age group at highest risk, those who are over 80. I have quarantined myself; it seems reasonable to do so. In Mexico, for our group, the percentage of deaths will probably be greater than 15 percent because neither the government nor the country are prepared to attend to the number of cases that will require hospitalization and special treatment. Still, this is a normal ratio for people of my age.

Social and government efforts to address the virus should be concentrated on these people, on expanding and deepening the care that should be given to the elderly. This is not being done, and so there will be tragedies, like those in Italy, with hundreds of dead old men.
The most insightful and knowledgeable of our economic analysts, Alejandro Nadal, who unfortunately recently left us, often told us: we don’t know how or when, but we know it will come, and it will be worse than anything that came before.

The world as we knew it, in particular the economy, will fall apart. The collapse will spread like a wildfire. As always, those who have less will suffer more. While an increasing number of people adapt to staying at home and eating from their pantries, many more will need to go out of their homes in order to survive. A large portion of these will be unable to earn what they could in the past. The only option, in the short term, will be a universal basic income ... something not yet in sight.

Whether at will or by force, people will stop consuming nearly everything, and this is going deepen the economic paralysis. In just the last 15 days, more harm to the environment was reduced--thanks to reduced consumption--than has occurred in 20 years of preaching the need for it.
Little by little, the coronavirus obsession will be abandoned and a new reality will have to be faced. For most people, there will no longer be a reliable income or an adequate supplies of commodities. It will soon become apparent that the only realistic option will be to produce for oneself what one needs to sustain life. The people who now have the least are the ones who are the best prepared for this. It will be difficult for middle-class people with secure incomes who are dependent on grocery stores and shops.

Above, the leaders of our governments and corporations will continue to run wild, locked in their fatal logic. Some will seek to acquire additional political or economic gains from the tragedies around them. Others will commit all kinds of abuses trying to seize direct or indirect control of everything that moves. They will thus prepare for their own extinction.

At the bottom, the many are preparing for the worst, even if we hope for the best. We will fight both isolation and individualization. We know that only by joining hands with others will we will be able to face the disaster, and we will forge these intimate connections without spreading the virus. We will rely on the newly emerging female leadership, which is arriving at a good time. People will not unite, homogenized, around frayed and vacuous flags; instead, there will emerge a strong fabric of the “we,” forged in quotidian connections, among small groups of friends, or within neighborhoods or communities; they may have been born just yesterday, or centuries ago. We will seek what does not harm the planet or the social fabric. We will return to the present, to build it with a renewed spirit.

Agamben is right: the future has no future. It was stolen.



Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico. Studied English literature in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins. Questions or comments? Reach me at

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D. Alan Dean

Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico. Studied English literature in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins. Questions or comments? Reach me at