Every thing was believed to be poisoned . . . the waters of the wells, the standing corn in the fields, and the fruit upon the trees. It was believed that all objects of touch were poisoned; the walls of the houses, the pavements of the streets, and the very handles of the doors. The populace were raised to a pitch of ungovernable fury. . . . An epidemic frenzy was abroad, which seemed to be as contagious as the plague.
—Charles Mackay, writing about the 1630 plague in Milan in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
It will be some time before the true story of the 2019–20 coronavirus can be told. As we write, in mid-April, the country is still struggling to get its bearings. We are all of us disoriented, wandering about in a veritable hall of distorting mirrors. Almost every datum comes to us festooned in garlands of static. Information bleeds silently into misinformation, which often comes back to us, trussed up, as disinformation.
Have you noticed that, quite suddenly, everyone is a budding epidemiologist? Some wag said that graduates of the storied École normale supérieure “know everything. Unfortunately, that is all they know.” So it is with our newly minted epidemiologists. Apodictic declarations come thick and fast, only to be contradicted the next day, sometimes by the same sources, by successor apodictic declarations. Where did the virus come from? A Chinese “wet market.” A Chinese level-four biological lab. The U.S. Army. How contagious is it? Not very. Prolonged, close-range contact is necessary. You can get it by touching a doorknob that an infected person has touched. You can get it by walking past an infected person and breathing the air around him.
How dangerous is it? Less dangerous than the seasonal flu, especially if you are under eighty and in good health. Much more dangerous than the seasonal flu. Unless drastic measures are taken, 2.2 million will die in the United States alone. Even with drastic measures, expect 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities. Moreover, the U.S. healthcare system will be overwhelmed. Patients will be stacked up like cordwood in hospital corridors waiting for ventilators that do not exist. It is an event “unprecedented” in our history, a “war” against an invisible but insidious pathogen that requires total mobilization.
Apodictic declarations come thick and fast, only to be contradicted the next day.
Nevertheless, what was to have been one of the “worst weeks in U.S. history” has passed with good news: there have been fewer hospitalizations than predicted as well as a leveling off of fatalities. At one point, New York State predicted it would need 140,000 hospital beds to deal with the onslaught. As we write, the number is about 18,500. A few weeks ago, Governor Cuomo said he would need “30,000” ventilators. He didn’t, and he is now actually giving some away to neighboring states.
The situation on the ground is not so much evolving as mutating. As part of the multi-trillion dollar federal package to battle the economic effects of the epidemic and the measures taken to combat it, hospitals will get paid 15 percent more if a Medicare patient is classified as having “a principal or secondary diagnosis of covid-19.” Expect to see many, many more such diagnoses. Distinguishing between legitimate covid fatalities and merely nominal ones will be a future statistician’s nightmare.
In January, some of our most reputable experts were urging caution about excessive caution: the coronavirus represents a “very, very low” threat to the American people, they said. Get on with your life. Yes, pay attention, wash your hands, but don’t worry. As late as March 9, we were told on the highest authority that “If you are a healthy young person, there is no reason if you want to go on a cruise ship, [not to] go on a cruise ship.”
By mid-April, on the new advice of such experts, much of the country was locked down, and large swathes of the economy were shuttered. Restaurants, bars, and clubs: closed. Schools and colleges: closed for a few weeks, then for a couple of months, then for the entire semester, maybe until 2021. The ordinary business of life petrified. Everything deemed “non-essential” by the lucky people whose own positions exempt them from being declared “non-essential” was twisted shut, like a faucet.
In many places, one is not allowed to appear in public unsheathed with mask and gloves. Sales of hand sanitizer have soared. One governor banned gatherings of any size in any place and forbade people to travel between their own residences. Elsewhere, a young man who dared to board a bus without a mask found himself beset by no fewer than seven policemen who dragged him from the conveyance. In Raleigh, North Carolina, a group of citizens gathered to protest an executive order issued by the governor. Local police ordered the protestors to disperse, claiming that “Protesting is a non-essential activity.” The First Amendment was unavailable for comment.
A whole new jargon has sprung up, suitably inflected by Orwellian grace notes. Start with the term “coronavirus,” or its scarier variant covid-19 (capitalized acronyms, especially if they boast a number, seem more menacing than words printed lowercase). No one except specialists had heard of it until this winter, even though such viruses are responsible for many common colds. You can’t go anywhere now (indeed, you may not), even virtually, without running into “coronavirus” a thousand times a day. At the same time, everyone is “sheltering in place,” practicing “social” (or is it “anti-social”?) distancing in order to “flatten the curve” (and what about developing “herd immunity”?).
“When precautions are successful, they are said to be unnecessary.”
At the end of January, the President of the United States banned foreign nationals from coming into the United States from China. At first, this was greeted by his opponents as a “xenophobic,” even “racist” overreaction. Several weeks on, his decision was declared to have been too little too late. He somehow ought to have intuited by New Year’s, or even by late December, that the coronavirus would utterly monopolize our attention even though there were no known cases, zero, in the United States at that time.
Although the full story of the 2020 corona crisis cannot yet be told, already it is clear that it will have three parts: medical, economic, and cultural-political. The effects of the first two parts, especially the first, are already patent. The novel coronavirus presents a public health issue. Some regard it as a public health emergency of the first order. Others are less anxious. The issue is up for debate. As we write, the falling rate of hospitalization and leveling off of fatalities may seem to support an optimistic outcome. But even if the sunny interpretation is correct, Benjamin Jowett’s observation is to the point: “precautions are always blamed,” he said: “When they are successful, they are said to be unnecessary.” Maybe the tide is turning because we have been so assiduous in following severe “mitigation” procedures: staying home, practicing “social distancing,” and the like. Or maybe the tide is turning because the epidemic, like all epidemics, has reached its natural peak and is receding on its own. Opinions vary.
Less debatable are the economic consequences of the epidemic. We don’t know anyone who believes that they are other than catastrophic. The question is, however, whether the draconian measures imposed to slow the spread of the virus are justified. Whether or not this nasty respiratory disease presents an “unprecedented” challenge is open to interpretation. What does seem unprecedented is the experiment of suddenly shutting down almost all economic activity in a complex market-oriented country like the United States. It is one thing to switch off the mighty engines of prosperity and wealth creation. We are about to discover whether they can be restarted so expeditiously.
Which brings us to the third part of the corona caper, the cultural and political aspects. It is hardly surprising that this crisis, like all crises, has presented an opportunity to advance political agendas. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, was speaking a home truth when he observed during the economic panic of 2008 that you should “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” That sounds, and it may in fact be, cynical. It is also a truth acted upon by all parties at all times. From this perspective, the coronavirus is not only a deadly pathogen. It is also a political opportunity. It is too soon to say who will be able to make the most of that opportunity. A presidential election looms, which makes our hall of mirrors more fraught and disorienting than ever. The intensity of the scramble is a token of the high stakes involved.
But all that is just politics as usual. More noteworthy, and more worrisome, are three other features of our cultural-political situation—of “the way we live now”—that this crisis has revealed. First, there is the issue of fragility. The Western world, and the United States in particular, comprises the richest and most powerful societies in history. The fact that they can be brought to a quivering standstill by a bug that sickens and kills a minuscule part of their populations should give us pause. Is that fragility real and unavoidable, or is it chosen?
Second, there are the interrelated issues of widespread docility, on the one hand, and eager authoritarianism, on the other. We suspect that aspiring totalitarians will ponder the response to this epidemic with thoughtful anticipation. How quickly an entire population can be herded like obedient sheep, willing to be subjected to the most extravagant prohibitions! We speak of “sheltering in place.” Is it clear that we are not “cowering in place”?
The other side of that docility is the rude overbearingness of those with the power to direct our lives. Federal authorities in this instance have imposed upon us less stringently than state and local officials, some of whom have been quick to monitor and punish any hint of independence.
Longtime readers will know that we are fond of a sermon preached by C. S. Lewis in the dark days of 1939. “I think it important,” he said,
to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. . . . The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. . . . The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward.
Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the crisis we face is the possibility that Lewis was being too generous when describing human nature. The political philosopher James Burnham, we recall, noted that most civilizations perish not from invasion or other external causes but from “suicide,” from spiritual torpor and existential enervation. We suspect that more deadly than what the coronavirus might do to us is what we might be doing to ourselves.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 1
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