I should start with this: I’m not an expert. You should listen to those that are.
COVID is an almost perfect virus. It rarely kills its host. Unlike its distant relative MERS, which makes people ill fast and kills them before they get chance to infect many others, it creeps up on you.
In fact, for the majority of sufferers, they will remain ambulatory. They may have outward signs, like a cough, but they may not – and our culture has trained us to keep going if we feel under the weather, to ignore symptoms.
It hits us when economically we’re weak to it. Zero hours contracts mean there is a pool of people who have no choice but to keep working, and a set of businesses that are built around the idea that you don’t have to keep people on staff. If you’re under 50, you’ve never really experienced a dangerous infectious disease that spreads like this. Yes, there was HIV, but that could mostly be avoided. COVID can’t.
But it also hits us when we’re mentally unprepared.
I’m 53, and as a child I was vaccinated against two things: smallpox (one of the last wave of children to get the smallpox vaccine); and polio. I got my immunity (such as it is) to measles, mumps, scarlet fever and German measles the hard way, by contracting the disease. And I remember the steps my parents had to take to keep me isolated (no playing outside, stuck in my bedroom, no friends visiting, EXTRA COMICS) because some of those diseases could kill other children. And, of course, could have killed me, although their undoubted worry didn’t register at the time.
If you’re younger than me, you’ve grown up in a world where most of the major childhood infectious diseases didn’t exist: you’re used to infection being something that either you didn’t have to worry about (colds, seasonal flu) or affected someone else, somewhere else.
And if you’re older than me (OK, boomer)… well, you should know better.
The generations currently alive are probably the first in history not to have anyone who remembers the last global pandemic in them. The influenza of 1918 was a distant memory to my grandmother, born in 1910, but for anyone of my mother’s age or younger – everyone currently alive – the danger of pandemic has faded from the collective memory.
Having lost the folk memory, all we have to keep us cautious and keep us alive is the knowledge of experts, and yet we also live at a time when major Western countries have turned away from an understanding of the important of expertise. Brexit, the pride in ignorance that characterises Trumpism, all show us that the respect for expertise which built post-war prosperity has vanished. Even amongst my generation, the notion of the “wisdom of crowds” tell us that while everyone can’t be an Einstein, if we all click our heels and wish three times, a hundred of us can add up to one.
No one is going to crowdsource a new treatment for COVID. Wikipedia isn’t going to discover a vaccine.
Social media allows accurate information to pass faster than before, which would be a ray of hope were it not for the fact that rumour, speculation and outright lies spread faster. The old, early internet idea that “good information drives out bad” is probably still being touted by the Digerati somewhere, but it’s really now pretty laughable.
And of course the news that your local supermarket is running out of bread can spread faster than ever, letting the well-off drive down in their cars and buy up the last remaining stocks to put in their chest freezers, while the poorer wait for a bus and find shelves empty. We have even forgotten that “panic buying” doesn’t mean everyone gets a fair share, it means that the poorest and weakest will go hungry.
Never has a culture been less prepared for a pandemic, and never has a virus had a better chance to become endemic in a population. COVID almost seems tailor made to capitalise on every single weakness in our culture, from expert denial and anti-vaccine madness to our lack of experience of pandemic to the way our economy is structured. I said earlier it was almost perfect. I was underplaying it. I think it actually is the perfect virus for our times.
But it’s not hopeless, and life will go on. These are obstacles, and it is down to each of us as individuals to use them as ways to improve ourselves, to do what we can for others, to make ourselves better people for the experience. “Amor Fati”, as the Stoics said.