Infections don’t just attack weaknesses in the human body. They also exploit weaknesses in human society.
Some disasters are small, and some disasters are just very far away. Covid-19 is neither. It’s big, and it’s here, and it’s fast. Infection rates are currently doubling roughly every three days. It’s going to be bad, and it’s going to be sad. Just how bad and sad depends very much on what we do now.
I’m writing this on the 12th of March, 2020. That means the human race has between two and four weeks to get its shit together. We are not just dealing with germs that are too small to see; we are also dealing with structural hurdles that are too huge to see, in the way that right now, teleworking from my front porch in Los Angeles, I cannot see California.
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These are strange, scary times, and people are acting scared and strange. My phone is throbbing with messages from family around the world, checking in on each other. One dear friend is flying home to Ireland tonight to care for her sick parents while her brother is in quarantine. Another is sick, struggling to breathe, hasn’t slept in days, and has decided to fixate on the fact that she’s run out of potatoes.
Societies have been shaped by outbreaks for as long as we’ve had societies. “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” writes Frank M. Snowden in Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. “Every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”
It doesn’t matter whose fault it is that Covid-19 is ravaging the planet. What matters is how we stop it—and stopping an epidemic is never just a fight with nature. It’s also a fight with culture.
A bug or a virus will exploit any weakness in the body politic. Cholera became a huge problem when human beings started moving to cities in huge numbers. It stayed a problem until we worked out new ways of building large-scale public sewage systems, which involved a lot of money and manpower. Because of diseases like cholera, we literally figured out how to handle our shit.
Ignorance of germ theory is one structural weakness. Bigotry is another. What comes to mind when you think of Victorian culture? Silly hats and sexual repression. In the 19th century, the syphilis epidemic was used to justify sexism and sexual repression—when in fact sexism and sexual repression both made syphilis more likely to spread. Doctors routinely failed to tell their female patients when they were sick, because they didn’t want to expose the cheating husbands paying their bills. Today, venereal disease tends to proliferate in societies that fetishize sexual ignorance and treat sex as dirty and shameful.
Prejudice and dogma are structural vulnerabilities. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the virus spread faster precisely because of ignorance and homophobia. A lot of conservative Christians were convinced that HIV-AIDS was Jesus’ special vendetta against the wrong sort of people having the wrong sort of sex, and some still insist that it was more spiritually effective to pray the gay away than distribute condoms. Sadly, a virus does not care about anyone’s religious principles, or their re-election prospects. It is a tiny self-replication engine. It is morally neutral.
You cannot argue a virus out of existence. You cannot logic it away or humiliate it into retreat or appeal to its conscience. It doesn’t have one of those. A virus doesn’t have goals or needs or desires. It doesn’t have a brain. You might just as usefully explain the military-industrial complex to your Peace Lily (although after a couple of weeks of self-quarantine we may all be talking to our houseplants). Covid-19 is a disease that largely spares children and disproportionally affects older men. President Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right demagogue, has the disease, and so do several aides who dined with Trump last weekend at Mar-a-Lago. When it comes to illness as metaphor, Covid-19 is not subtle. Susan Sontag would struggle to get a whole book out of it. But this isn’t karma. It isn’t divine retribution, though people in the grip of epidemics usually turn to simple stories like that, because they’re scared. Epidemics aren’t trying to punish anyone. We’re doing this to ourselves, and that, as the prophet Thom Yorke tells us, is what really hurts. That and the lack of potatoes.
For many centuries, the conflict driving the plot engine of the human race has been the tension between individualism and collective behavior—between the goal of independent flourishing and the concept of the common good. As a species, we have spent several centuries nurturing a collective mindset that rejects collective endeavor, and most of us are living in nations that seem perilously convinced that the human race is a thing you can actually win.
That, as they say on the twitter-dot-com, is a real heckin problem. The collective psychology of neoliberalism encourages self-interest and short-term thinking. It both creates and requires human lives that are organized around the kind of constant insecurity and stress that actively prevent us from thinking beyond the next fiscal quarter. The diseases that are most successful in the coming century will, as always, be the diseases that exploit our major failure modes and popular delusions.
Delusion is not the same as ignorance. Ignorance is not the problem here. This is a mistake that scientists, reporters, and right-thinking liberals make time and time again. Take the threat of vaccine resistance: Vaccinating against preventable diseases like measles only works if 90% of a population get their shots. It is commonly assumed that the reason people don’t vaccinate their kids is that they don’t have the right data. In fact, when science reporter Maggie Koerth investigated that narrative, she found the opposite: When researchers tried to debunk misinformation, anti-vaxxers were more likely to agree with the science but less likely to vaccinate their own kids. Even equipped with better data, their threat models were entirely inadequate to the existential concept of herd immunity.
A fair chunk of the people hoarding masks and stealing sanitizer are also aware that it’s a stupid, selfish thing to do—but if you can’t trust other people to share, selfish behavior makes emotional sense even when selfish behavior is also irrational and actively dangerous. If you design a world economy that rewards blind self-interest and makes altruism unaffordable, it’s unsurprising that some people start acting like they’re in the prisoner’s dilemma.
“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well,” wrote Albert Camus, in a quote you’d better get used to seeing a lot of in the next few weeks. “It helps men to rise above themselves.” This is not entirely true, in that what a crisis tends to do is reveal character, including its incongruities. As I write, little old ladies in Belgium are clawing at each other over the last rolls of toilet paper. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma is broadcasting recordings from his house. Quarantined Sicilians are playing music together from their high-rise balconies, proving two things: that the nation of Italy has always known what to do with cheese, and that a surprising number of people own tambourines.
At midnight on Pandemic Day, I went to the local grocery store with my housemate to pick up such essentials as gin, wine, and discount KitKats. The place was the opening scene in a disaster movie. The shelves had been cleared of soap, bottled water, and oatmeal, but it was just as surprising to see what was left. There were plenty of protein bars, because it turns out that nobody wants to eat protein bars for their last meal, even in Los Angeles.
A girl wearing a Sherpa jacket and a confused expression snagged the last sweet potato. “I don’t know why I’m buying this,” she announced to the room in general. “I don’t even like them. I just feel like we might need it.” Her boyfriend was pushing a cart full of every remaining box of salad greens. From the dirty looks coming their way, I wanted to warn them both to drop the kale and run, in case things were about to turn into The Lottery.
“I lived through three wars. This is bullshit,” said a blond woman pushing a half-empty cart. Her name was Irina, she was 35, and she was from the former Yugoslavia. “It was like this for six years. It’s stupid. Of course people should try to take this seriously, try not to infect anyone, but really—there are no more potatoes!”
People make strange choices when they're scared. Right now, a lot of broke young millennials I know are still going in to work at bars, cafes, and BDSM dungeons because they really, really need to keep those jobs, and—as boomers have been blithely demonstrating for decades—if a species-level crisis probably isn’t going to kill you personally, you might as well pretend it’s not happening. I still want to scream at them. Unfortunately, screaming is also unhelpful right now. You can’t fight an epidemic just by being aggressively right about it. Shaming your friends isn’t the best way to get them to change their behavior fast. Shaming and blaming people might make you feel better in the short term, and it sometimes works in the long term, when people have had time to go away and think about it and calm down. We don’t have that time right now. We have to be gentle with each other. We have to practice trust. Because right now and in the decades to come, our biggest problems as a species are going to be the problems we can’t solve without trusting each other to do the right thing.
The idea of the body politic is an old, old metaphor. If a nation is a “social organism,” the United States has an extremely weak social immune system. A lot of Americans can’t afford to stay home if they get ill. There’s very little sick leave, and missing one paycheck might mean disaster. A lot of Americans can’t afford to be ill, because their healthcare system is a lumbering behemoth of modern barbarism. What that means is that most of them have internalized some or all of the following ideas: We have to compete savagely with others, that nobody else can be trusted, that the health and wealth of our own nation comes first, and that long-term, collective thinking is less important than individual survival. And it just so happens that all these things are useful to the spread of a disease like Covid-19.
People who believe that they have to compete savagely with others are poorly equipped to share out the hand sanitizer. People who don’t trust each other find it hard to believe that everyone else will follow basic quarantine procedures, so why should they? People who aren’t used to the concept of common good don’t know what to do in the face of a common threat—except panic. Panic is unhelpful, but sometimes it’s not a bad place to start.
“I want you to panic.” That’s how teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg opened her speech to the United Nations last year. She was not advising us to start stockpiling potatoes. The world failed to panic, even though global heating is a crisis on a far more biblical scale than Covid-19. The difference is that climate collapse is happening gradually. Of course, on a planetary scale, the speed of exponential ecosystem upfuckery is breathtaking and scary, but most of us aren’t seeing a difference on the major timescale that matters to human beings trying to survive late capitalism, namely paycheck to paycheck. Climate collapse is happening at about the pace of a human lifetime. Coronavirus is happening at a far greater relative velocity, which is a measure of how fast your friends and family members emerge from their blanket fort of denial in societies where most of us, on a practical level, would rather die than be seriously inconvenienced.
Serious inconvenience is the new normal—for all of us. Including the old, the rich, and the powerful. This is a problem that nobody can buy their way out of. As with the climate crisis, we are not yet technologically advanced enough to stop this happening easily and entirely—but we do have the information and the practical capacity to stop it being an extinction-level omnishambles. We know what to do, or at least we have enough professionals who know what to do, and part of our survival paradigm is going to involve learning how to shut up and listen to those trained professionals instead of flinching in the face of Fox News.
You can purchase immunity from prosecution, but you cannot purchase immunity from a pandemic. The coronavirus is a stress test for the species. It’s a dry run for the disasters to come. Well, a moist run. It’s a test of our capacity to cope with planet-scale disasters, and this time we are probably going to pass. Just about. Not with flying colors, especially given how long it took us to close the airports, and not without a lot of grief, stress, and loss—but civilization is not about to collapse this year. Mutual aid networks are replicating like mad on wheezing, overloaded social media platforms. Neighbors who have never exchanged more than a few sentences are asking each other how they’re doing and what they need, and sometimes, sheepishly, what their names are. This will be awful, and then it will end, and when it does, we’ll have built up our resistance.