Looking at our insane reaction to the Corona Virus, the question I keep asking is why? Why the panic and overreaction?
The narrative at work is that this particular virus is something unique and world-shattering. I never could see any evidence for that, but the thing is, even if it were as uniquely deadly as it was first made out to be (e.g. projected to have a higher kill rate than the Spanish Flu, despite the presence of modern medical care and the absence of a recent World War)…well, that still would raise the question of just what are we doing?
Because in case no one noticed, western civilization survived the Spanish Flu, despite its coming on top of a war that had already slaughtered significant portions of the young male population. The immediate aftermath was the Roaring Twenties, and a couple generations later people had to be reminded that there ever was such an epidemic. Not to downplay the suffering and death that resulted, or which currently results from the Corona virus, but only to point out that the actual societal impact of even an extremely deadly plague seems, in most cases, to be far less than what we have been planning for; certainly less than the impact of this lockdown is likely to be. Events like the Black Death or the American smallpox epidemics, which alter the face of whole populations, are vanishingly rare exceptions demanding very peculiar circumstances.
So, again, just what the heck are we doing? What terrifies us so much that we’ve sacrificed so many of our rights so easily?
The Fear of Death Disturbs Us
The answer may come back “We don’t want people to die!” Indeed, we don’t. No one does. But there is a big problem with that: everyone dies. What is more relevant and less often noted, everyone dies of something. Typically, that specific ‘something’ would have been preventable, had preventing it been our first priority. For instance, I read recently that two-hundred-and-fifty thousand people in the US die of medical mistakes every year. So, theoretically, if we shut down all hospitals, we would save well over twice as many people as have died of the Corona.
I’m sure you can see the logical error there. But then, if we say that ending medical care isn’t worth it, are we saying that those quarter-million people ‘don’t matter’? If we can save even one life, isn’t it worth it?
You see, you could justify almost anything by such an approach, because you can always find a preventable cause of death to rally against. In fact, appealing to safety against an intangible, indeterminate enemy is the foundation of almost every tyrant and totalitarian who ever lived; obey me, or such-and-such a danger will destroy us all.
So, the real question isn’t whether people actually or potentially will die of this thing. As far as that goes, just about anything could be made to qualify. We will never run out of potential dangers. The question is what is being proposed to deal with it and whether this is both acceptable in itself and proportional to the nature of the danger.
Life is, as Always, Full of Risks
Now, as to the virus, it is significant that not everyone who catches it gets sick and not everyone who gets sick dies. In fact, the vast majority do neither; it depends upon many other factors. Those who catch it and recover (again, the vast majority) are thenceforth safe from it, as I understand. Only a small percentage of a small percentage are in any mortal danger from it, which in fact makes it less dangerous than most of the dangers that surround us every day (e.g. auto-related deaths can hit nearly anyone at any time, yet we still venture onto the highways).
Beyond that, nothing prevents individuals from taking whatever reasonable precautions seem right to them. Anyone can wear a mask and gloves and carry disinfectant, or isolate himself if he feels the need to. Which is to say, anyone can make their own judgment about the danger and react accordingly, making the disease at least potentially manageable on an individual level.
In any case, the situation is fundamentally nothing new. The danger of catching a potentially deadly illness is and always has been a part of the human experience, along with the danger of dying in a myriad of other ways; we do what we can, but we don’t shut down our lives in the hopes of escaping it, even for far worse viruses than the Corona appears to be.
Except, this time we did. Which again raises the question of why? Why have we reacted with such insane disproportion to this particular virus? The most important answer, I think, has to do with our present belief system. But that requires a little explanation, since most of us don’t realize what that system is, any more than fish would realize they were wet.
The Fallacy of Progress
Have you noticed how much of our view of the past amounts to noting how much worse things were back then? It seems that whenever someone mentions history, it is to point out some form of suffering, or some supposed absurdity which we, thanks be to progress, are now freed from. Just look at how we laugh at pre-modern doctors for the absurd practices that resulted from their doing the best they could with the knowledge they had and at times actually managing to jury-rig people into health against all odds.
Have you also noticed how, whenever something bad happens – say, a mass shooting, or an airplane crash, or even a hurricane – the first thing on our minds is “what should we do to prevent this happening again?” Generally, the result is some new legislation or regulation promising to fix the issue, whether or not it is actually relevant to what happened or even whether it is completely covered by existing measures.
In fact, we are wedded to the idea that any given problem is solvable, and that we – those fortunate enough to be born in the age of science and reason – do not have to put up with what our poor benighted ancestors did. They may have suffered from cholera and typhus and smallpox, but with our medical care and hygiene, these things are in the past. They may have had to put up with world wars, institutional oppression, and grinding poverty, but we have evolved beyond that and know how to eliminate these things. It is, in fact, an article of faith with us that we can make a heaven on Earth and become like gods, if we have enough laws, enough knowledge, and enough good will.
This is what might be termed ‘Progressivism’, the belief in the advancement of man, so that man today is superior to man yesterday, and that man tomorrow will be greater still, and that mankind may, through science and reason, come to rule his world and supply all his wants and needs in perfect contentment. This is the chief religion of the modern west, and has been for some time, even among many who still claim the name of Christian.
The credentials of this faith rest on the real advancements, mostly in science and medicine, that have been made over the past few hundred years. Its promise is that it will, eventually, be able to do the same for every ailment of mankind. If we can’t do it yet, we will be able to in the future, but certainly there are no permanent evils of the human race; only those who have some interest in keeping their fellow men down would say such a thing (these same oppressors serve as excellent scapegoats when the promised benefits fail to materialize).
Consequently, we always have to do something in the face of any given problem. If there is an illness, we must march for the cure. If a Starbucks employee seems to act in a racist fashion, the company must impose sweeping new policies. If there is a shooting, we must impose gun control. If there is poverty, we must expand welfare. The point isn’t whether these things solve the problem, the point is that we can never admit that a problem is outside of our control, or that the best we can do is endure, because to do that would be to deny our faith in Progress.
False Beliefs Lead to Taking False Actions
And this is why we have reacted as we have to the Corona Virus; not because the lockdown was ever likely to save lives, but because it was something to be done. It allowed us to pretend that, unlike the poor fools of 1919, 1957, and 1968, we know how to deal with a plague. We don’t have to simply bite the bullet and do our best to endure; science and politics mean that we can do something about it.
In short, the lockdown was the equivalent of a witch doctor setting up a fetish to ward off the plague; less a matter of its doing any good than of maintaining his claim to have any control whatever over the events around him. It was a desperate attempt to save face by an increasingly discredited belief system.
It is said that the lockdown must remain in place until a vaccine is found; that is, until progress makes good on its claim to protect us. I doubt that will happen; people are growing far too restless and fed up. But if it does, that will only set us up to run through this same farce the next time a ‘novel’ virus comes along, and the next, and the next. In any case, after all our pretense of control and safety and advanced wisdom, at the end of the day we’ll simply have to do what people have always done, and which we might have done from the start; bite the bullet and endure.
That is how the promises of progress always end. The sooner we recognize this, the better off we will be.
Photo Credit- Dan Burton-Upsplash