ere is what many know but few can say aloud in an enlightened age that disavows bluntness: any resourceful virus, and this is such a virus, will obtain its pound of human flesh no matter what measures are introduced in an effort to slow it down and eventually bring it to a halt. Its run will end, of course, but only when it has whetted its appetite or an effective vaccine has been created. Even then, there are no guarantees it will not reappear in another form, wiser to the defenses built up against it.
Here is something else: while the death toll will be high, perhaps ascending inconceivable heights (at least to the 21st-century mind), the depth of the human and financial wound — all that concerns the way of life of a species — may eventually cause greater and graver harm than the passing pain elicited by the fatalities, who will be mourned, lionized, but finally committed to history. Also reverting to economic models as they existed before the outbreak will be a difficult and lengthy undertaking, as many businesses, and their managers, will have suffered too grievously to regain traction, and workers themselves — many dismissed in this interim stage and eager to return to their routines — will be more uneasy among their fellows, at least for a time, concerned about another viral visitation and a relapse in collective panic.
What is occurring is not disruption but upheaval, and upheaval usually leads to a revised form of the order that existed before, changing that which was previously known as the normal into something more tentative, if not fragile, at least at first.
Some civil liberties now suspended will be difficult to restore as they were, once again because the specter of contamination will linger in the minds of the authorities and the public, both rattled. This is why so-called lockdowns, while seeming mighty and effective to the naked eye, are a bad penny in the long haul, more decorative than resolutive.
The West’s virus missteps are ample, especially if seen in immediate hindsight. It could have imagined, for example, that a malady capable of making swift leaps from China to Hong Kong to Vietnam to South Korea, all in a matter of weeks, would inevitably, commercial jets as its accomplice, power its way to the other side of the world. Tourist travel is taken for granted. Travel of this sort is unwisely set aside.
Paradoxically, the possibility of this kind of pandemic has been discussed in detail since the late 1980s, when the spread of AIDS disturbed medical scientists and the public alike. Ebola and SARS followed, but since neither made the deadly leap West in any significant measure it was presumed for the sake of convenience that such sicknesses were allergic to long-haul travel, and the West resistant to them. It was not, and luck played a role. In this case the virus strain is strong, swift, and durable. The failure to consider and make plans for such an eventuality calls to mind the title of John F. Kennedy’s Harvard thesis, “Why England Slept,” an effort to understand why England failed to absorb and react to the implications of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1920s and 30s. That “sleep” would cost Britain dearly.
As this one will cost the whole of the naïve West.
Yet that same West can be its own worst enemy, vulnerable to numbers in a way that corrupts clear thinking. The number of infected, the rise in the death toll, jumps that are broadcast by the minute, disseminate a parallel malady those who study both social anthropology and the vivid human mind seek at all costs to quell, particularly at a collective level, paranoia.
So-called “social distancing” (a euphemism for avoidance), while necessary to the lockdown plan adopted so far, will have far-reaching consequences in the post-virus world. Aspects of intimacy will be overhauled, which AIDS did at a sexual level, albeit briefly. Measures now labeled as temporary may in fact become permanent.
This is because a virus is a sickness not only of the body but, by extension, of the brain, since physical corruption triggers dread and a desire at all costs to avoid contamination. Debate during the nuclear age focused not only on the power of city-flattening bombs but also on the radioactive contamination that would create decades (perhaps centuries) of residual sickness from which survivors would have to hide, most probably underground. For a decade, some otherwise unprepossessing Americans busily created underground “bomb-proof” cabins and stocked them with food. Between 1955 and the late 1960s, thousands of such long-term shelters were created in backyards or on the grounds of rural properties. The nuclear menace entered the mind, and there it remained lodged for more than four decades.
This virus will also leave such a mark, though its legacy will not be underground recesses but a fundamental revision of the way people work together, with more industry undertaken from home. This will make conventional employment even more difficult to maintain and also strain the social compact. Many will become less adept than they are already in the ways and means of face-to-face human contact. The internet, central to post-viral linkage, will also be pushed to its limits as more people log on more frequently than ever before (and nourishing yet another worry, that of a global web crash). Some will actively seek to stay at home because they come to associate it with safety, all the more so if the time spent shut in grows into months.
More than likely, schools will further reconsider the need for large classroom assemblies, concerned that the next contagion might target the young and not the old, as this one does with great success.
Such a domino effect might sound harrowing, yet history (and change) is built on harrowing events, often “interrupted” by decades of apparent peace. The war against terrorism was advertised as insidious and likely to take a lifetime to win. Instead, since humans were pitted against other humans, the “victory” over Islamic extremism, albeit still a partial one, came much faster. Shutting down loose money supply helped limit grander attacks. In recent years, putative terrorists have been forced onto trucks or into cars, some just using knives, with explosives now harder to acquire.
Disease (like a wildfire) plays by no such rules. In the modern age it foments unease numerically, since this is an age in which even a single death is deemed unacceptable, and a string of them absorbed as an assault on the collective wellbeing. Before this sensibility, a feudal citizenry died by the millions without knowing the source or nature of their ailment, let alone how to stop it. For many, plagues were reprisals carried out by an irked god.
The author Daniel Defoe, in what is considered the first journalistic tract, wrote “Diary of a Plague Year,” attempting to count, as best he could, how many Londoners died of the plague during an 18th-century visitation. His account was lucid, cold-blooded, and lacking in hysterics, because death at the time was a commonplace.
Now, a virus that has so far affected a relatively small segment of the world population is kowtowed to in exaggerated style as a machine of terror and extermination. It is such a machine only under the updated mantle of lifesaving medical wizardry. Advanced methods save more lives than at any time in human history, ironically hinting at ironclad protection when in fact no such protection exists.
But even modern medical facilities can be taxed beyond its limits, forced to deal with an onslaught of patients and collapsing in part under that strain. Witness Italy (which finds itself cursed by the kind of vast aging population this virus adores). So it is that the vaunted membrane of modern medicine looks suddenly thin, if not flimsy, and the overall fear deepens, popular concern gradually pushing governments into city closings that in fact may not be necessary.
In that vein, the structure of how medicine is practiced in emergency circumstances will require a complete rethinking. Plans to allow doctors and scientists to respond in a collegial fashion to future pandemics, pan-nationally, require serious consideration. As does the establishment of a medical wing of government equal in influence and power to the judiciary — experts should outrank presidents and prime ministers in times of plague, blocking panic-driven rashness that swiftly produce a heard effect (the mild virus situation in Holland was incoherently placed on a level playing field with that of Italy). The testing structure also needs revision, as only South Korea was able to furnish tests and conduct them efficiently, keeping that country’s outbreak within containable margins. Money needs to be spent on this, instead of walls and exclusionary measures. Disease has no interest in race, color, creed, or nation of origin.
Demographers must establish populations most at risk from viral maladies, which the aging and the ill contract and die from by the tens of thousands even without pandemics in the mix. Italy’s packed-together citizenry was viciously exposed. The effect was much the same in France, and even Florida.
China, which could have alerted the world more vigorously after the virus appeared in December, chose instead to conceal it, fearing trade consequences. That choice has already undermined China’s economy and further damaged a precarious reputation.
It was China that sold Europe lockdowns as a recipe for containment, a recipe Europe too avidly gobbled up without considering its source code, namely that of an authoritarian government that can do as it pleases. A method that should not have been copied has been applied wholesale, and the West will need to disentangle itself from it sooner rather than later. Westerners cannot live in a state of lockdown. It is inimical and in ruinous contradiction to several cornerstone constitutions, the French and American ones foremost among them. Future defenses cannot be built on such lockdowns. Instead, future policymakers will have to create more sophisticated systems of detection and alarm, with a willingness to act on threats in a way that does not invite mass panic. Health documentation that was once necessary for global travel may need digital-era reinstatement.
Averting panic has yet again shown itself as humankind’s worst enemy, as emotional citizens swollen with fear run, as they always have, to stock up and horde, setting aside both reason and civility It will be up to the new “medical wings” of government to work with mass media to ensure new viral pandemics are approached in ways that do not imitate the itchy and highly emotional model of social media. This will be a Herculean task.
For now, the best advice to offer the species would be to look at the virus from a critical distance, as some doctors and scientists are beginning to do in expressing doubt about the need for and efficiency of lockdowns. But this is not something the public can do, not yet, since the wound is too fresh. Westerners must remind themselves that the enlightened world is no firewall against the sudden presence of natural culling, a cut-down that is a constant occurrence in the natural world. Humans are not exempt from that natural reach simply because they are endowed with a higher consciousness.
If hurricanes and earthquakes can snap them in two with ease, so can a virus, except that the process is more agonizing to watch and therefore provokes greater existential contemplation. The human species is resourceful, unique, and often cruel to its own. It is by no means immune to the larger cruelty of a decimation that comes from within. Nor will medicine ever be able to avert such culls unless it transforms the species into para-bionic shape, eliminating the sinister sway of microbes. But that is science fiction for another time.
Since this virus, along with human defenses against it, will both remain in the planetary sphere for the long haul, rational thinking is more precious than ever. And such thinking means cutting down on the sensational transmission of mounting cases and deaths and turning whatever is left of human attention to the saving and maintaining of humanity’s basic business, those that create food and medicine. It must also sustain a sense of collective morality and compassion, without which nothing is enlightened, whether during a plague or in its aftermath.
A key aspect of such critical, enlightened thinking returns us to square one. That while people will suffer and die as a result of this virus, they will do so whether locked up or free to roam. The poet W.B. Yeats, writing of impending war, said, “the center cannot hold.” In this case the lockdowns cannot hold. Humans must be allowed to rise above the prospect of their own demise to begin enacting measures that will make the next traveling malady less grave. But they cannot do this from the comfort of their homes. Nor can they wait years for a happy ending vaccine. Too much damage will have been done by then.
This moment calls for the summoning of almost inhuman courage, and such courage, over the course of human history, has rarely emerged from a state of petrified imprisonment.
This virus is not a species killer. It cruises for the aged and infirm, as AIDS once burrowed into another group. For that reason, reflection on what might lie ahead and how to deal with it must begin now, and it should know no limits.