The Boring Plague

Since the Coronavirus lockdown started here in Australia, things have been okay for me. I have a wide variety of entertainments in the house – books, movies, my website, even jigsaws and LEGO – and the guidelines set down by the government don’t restrict my movement in any appreciable way. Australians have been given sixteen reasons why we may be out of our homes. For my part, I’m allowed to go to the shops to buy food, and I can exercise outdoors close to home as long as I have no more than one other person with me. I usually go walking alone, anyway.

Staying at home and following guidelines are about all I can do. Meanwhile, others have to face the brunt of the virus: small business owners, health professionals, parents trying to home school their children and families directly affected by the virus, for instance.

I also don’t have any social media accounts and I think that’s a good thing, given what I read in the paper about the effects social media posts have had on people’s state of mind and the reactions to social media content from people I know. Nevertheless, I’ve been shown a few things that others know will make me smile. One faux-disappointed meme pictured an image of what the meme-creator was promised in the apocalypse and their reality: not the kinky studded harness worn by those facing the apocalypse in Mad Max, but comfy pyjamas. The joke’s not far from reality. Having been told she must work from home, a friend bought more pyjamas. She now has her night pyjamas and her work pyjamas.

It’s best to smile like this, but the fact is, there is a certain level of frustration involved in the whole matter of COVID-19. Yes, the frustration of staying at home, but also of seeing businesses fail, of life grinding to a halt and wondering what things will be like as we come out the other side. But right now, the greatest effect has been that people are just bored. We’ve all seen footage of people playing instruments from their balconies in Italy, or of a woman having a window dance-off with people in a neighbouring apartment block. But what do they do when they’re no longer performing? Is she dancing as frenetically when the camera runs out of battery? How much of the day – for how many days – is this possible? I was handed the phone last night, again to look at an amusing social media post I would otherwise have missed, and I was treated to a woman playing piano on Facebook. She was wearing nothing more than a skimpy pair of knickers and a loose shirt that barely covered her otherwise naked breasts. She was young and well-endowed and had great talent, so I watched her for a moment before flicking through a few more posted videos. Here was another woman opening and closing her legs on a children’s swing, just like Sharon Stone; yet another rode an escalator in a seemingly empty shopping mall and pulled up her skimpy dress for the camera with the same result. It reminds me of that saying about new inventions and possibly new circumstances. The first place the human mind goes is how can this be used for sex. Clearly, people are getting bored, or they want that other apocalypse that Hollywood promised with kink suits.

Novels and movies have been feeding us a steady diet of post-apocalyptic narratives for some time. In The Terminator Sarah Connor is plucked from 1980s mundanity to kick arse and raise a revolutionary leader. In Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, Simon Pegg’s characters find a solution in drinking at the local pub. In The Hunger Games, Katniss not only does it for her district, but man she looks hot while doing it! Name a post-apocalyptic narrative and somewhere you’ll find it’s about saving the world or surviving its perils while looking yummy. How many teenage novels about the apocalypse feature a female protagonist who’s destined to right wrongs, as soon as she can figure out which hot guy to date?

But it’s interesting how popular dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives have become. Your world is about to end in one of several awful ways. Enjoy. Why, thank you! The truth is, I have often enjoyed books and movies in this genre, while also understanding there is a certain kind of modern Millennialism involved. Millennialism is common to several religions, Christianity among them. It involves a belief in some kind of destruction of the current order of things; the kingdom of God is at hand. That sort of thing. And a thousand years seems to be the yardstick for this thinking. In Christianity it’s been the Bible’s last book, ‘Revelation’, that’s been Millennialism’s poster child. You can imagine the kind of dread some people faced as the year CE 999 was about to tick over. For a long while it had been presumed that the end days were nigh. And this sort of thinking isn’t extinct. A thousand years later people went nuts over the Y2K computer bug. This year in Australia we’ve had pretty bad bushfires, followed by pretty bad floods, followed by a virus that is now shutting everything down. I’ve seen several predictions from people whom I know are sincere in their beliefs, that these are the first three modern plagues sent by God. I guess there are four to go.

But there are rational concerns about the prospects for humanity, too. I say this despite my sympathy with many of the tenets of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a book I’ve been reading lately, which is a defence of reason, science and Humanistic thinking in a world which has increasingly eschewed these values under right-wing leaders like Donald Trump, due to populism, under the continued influence of religion and plain old human scepticism. Pinker does what any good child of the Enlightenment would do to answer a sense people have in the modern world, that things are getting worse. In fact, he argues, things have gotten much better for everyone since the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment began to be applied to solving issues like disease, food shortages and problems of mass production. To make his case, he uses many graphs and statistics, naturally, and reveals how much popular thinking is driven by false reasoning. I’m on board with all this. Because the alternative can be characterised by what I watched this morning; another press conference with Donald Trump giving information on the virus (and if you’ve forgotten this one by the time you read this, you know this example does not selectively mischaracterise the president). Once again, I felt despair that so many people could support him. Having again stated, without any substantive scientific study to back him, that hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, could be used to treat Coronavirus, Trump then prevented his medical officer, Dr Fauci, from answering a question directed at him about the drug. Trump was irritated and said the answer had been given fifteen times. There seemed little point in preventing the doctor answering, however, except that he may have contradicted Trump, and Trump was concerned that a medical message might undermine his political one. When people talk about a boring plague, this is what I think of: that stupidity and mendacity might be more powerful now than science and reason. That accepting this involves a mental vacuity bordering on intellectual vacancy.

Yet Pinker’s assertion that the concerns of the many are often misinformed or based on faulty reasoning does not stand entirely, either. A belief that neoliberal ideals can furnish humanity’s needs and desires now and into the future has been rightly questioned in the last few decades. I remember an impression in the media of environmentalists as radicals and trouble makers in the 1970s. Yet environmentalism has become a mainstream tenet, partly because of this mistrust. The effects of global warming, for instance, will remain a political football while ever dealing with it is perceived as negative to the interests of capital. Here in Australia, we have a strong coal industry, and our federal politics has been riven in the last decade with the corpses of Prime Ministers and party leaders over the environmental debate. Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister, first became leader of his party after ousting Malcom Turnbull over the issue of emissions trading. Abbott was a divisive leader, and his intention was to drive a wedge into the bipartisan approach his party had been taking with the Labor government. Since then, much of the opportunity for progress has been lost due to Abbott’s approach. He repealed Labor’s Carbon Tax when he became Prime Minister and our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is famous for having brought a lump of coal into parliament, showing what interests he supports.

All this seems much removed from the Coronavirus, but the point is that neoliberalism does not always serve the interests of ordinary people, nor is it right to always trust leaders. In the case of the current pandemic, the real question is what comes next? Will something good come of this in the long term, or will we respond simply with relief when it’s over?

To return to the subject of movies, for a moment: Kingsman: The Secret Service starring Taron Egerton was a fun flick. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Valentine, had discovered a frequency that could be delivered via mobile phones that would send people into murderous rages. The aim of this was to wipe out about half of humanity. Valentine reasoned that the solution to overpopulation of the Earth and the subsequent strain on its environment could be solved in no other way. It’s become a familiar theme in movies over the past few years. To name one more, the Marvel movies – particularly Infinity War – set Thanos on the same murderous course, depopulating the world by half with the power of the Infinity Gauntlet.

Pinkerton addresses fears about overpopulation in his book. Since the Industrial Revolution, science has provided better techniques, more resilient crops and pesticides to increase crop yields to feed an ever-burgeoning population. This is true. But there is an assumption in this kind of thinking that it is sustainable: that science will always find a solution to ameliorate the problem and that the natural environment will be able to sustain us. It is a kind of hubristic thinking that is up there with The End of History, Bush’s Mission accomplished and a belief in America as the sole super power after the failure of the USSR. Thomas Malthus, the somewhat maligned 18th Century cleric, expressed concerns in his book An Essay on the Principle of Population, that periods of human progress were inevitably followed by periods of human catastrophe. His prime concern was the disparity between food production and population growth. Because population growth outstripped the ability to produce food, rises in population would inevitably be checked by things like famine, wars for resources and, yes, disease. Of course, one of the weapons provided by scientific endeavour has been better health care and vaccination. Those who rail against vaccination are getting to see a little of what the world looks like without it this year.

And the thing is, up until the Industrial Revolution and the changes brought about by Enlightenment thinking, Malthus’s assessment of endless cycles of boom and bust was about right. The Black Death that famously hit Europe for six years beginning in 1347 was not limited to that period, but was a fact of life, to varying degrees, for centuries. Shakespeare wrote poetry while English theatres were closed for two years due to plague. Isaac Newton developed his key scientific principles while isolated from the plague.

And that’s an important point. I know that here in Australia – I suspect it’s much the same everywhere – people are being encouraged to learn new things, read books and develop skills while they’re self-isolated. Very commendable. Even dancing in front of a window seems like a damn fine thing to do – why not? – or being a little bit naughty. Despite what some ultraconservatives say, it’s not going to be the cause of the end of the world. I’ve ordered my leather harness, just in case. But there is a larger issue in all this, and it’s not about whether we’re stuck at home bored, but whether something more interesting and positive will grow from this period.

It’s a long bow to draw, I know, but one can argue that much of the modern world finds its catalyst in the human tragedy of the Black Death. Like now, the economies of plague-ravaged countries virtually shut down. But after the plague labour shortages ensured that wages rose, farming techniques changed and the relationship between bonded serfs and masters was weakened. Initially, the Church was strengthened by the plague, but clerics had suffered more than any other group in society – they administered last rites – and poorly trained clerics and rising corruption in the Church later undermined its power. The plague was the catalyst for social and intellectual change, not only of the questioning of Church power, but of those in government. In Florence, the poor took over the government of the city in 1378 for four years. In short, through a series of historical factors, secularism and Humanism gained ground in Europe, and houses like the Medici grew powerful enough not only to furnish two Popes, but also patronise secular artists. The Renaissance provided much of the intellectual bedrock for the Enlightenment, as it became known; of scientific and humanistic endeavour.

The scale of that change was too large for any individual to perceive. But even though we can’t see the totality of the grand narrative of history from the tiny spot in time and place we inhabit, we believe our lives must mean something. Hopefully, what we experience will contribute something to the future. The desire that our children should lead better lives than we have led is part of this; it is innate and that requires us to speculate, what comes next?

It’s a horrible thought to think that thousands more might die from Coronavirus. In the last few days I read that American victims have exceeded ten thousand. That is part of the context of Trump’s press conference. A health epidemic out of control endangers Trump’s narrative. And despite what some have asserted – that to consider the political implications of this pandemic is to crow with joy that it might happen – is to miss the point: it might happen. And then, what does this mean?

I’ve heard stories this morning of conservatives in America who have continued to go to their offices, refusing to believe that the virus is nothing other than a hoax, as Trump initially claimed. His own refusal to wear a mask and his conflict with medical professionals won’t have helped his staunchest followers change their minds on the matter, despite his official shift on the matter. But what if someone they know dies? What if many people they know die? Would that change their minds?

More importantly, how might our sense of historical imperative change? Imagine a scenario in which the credibility of the Chinese Communist Party is weakened, to the point that China gains a more liberal and transparent government; in which right- and left-wing populism is weakened; in which scientific and humanistic ideals are strengthened; in which urgent social and environmental concerns are treated with a greater sense of urgency. I’m not American, but I sense this kind of thinking, if not accurate in the specifics, might accurately account for the passionate following Bernie Sanders achieved.

These kinds of changes would create a better or worse world depending on where you currently stand. But the thing is – drawing upon the analogy of 1347 – we can’t know what might come of such changes. Will politics and capitalism transform as a result? Can the plight of minorities and the environment be properly addressed? Will the world become less transactional? Will it, in short, achieve the promise of the Enlightenment and continue to grow into a better place? It is an exciting thought, that the world might continue its historical shift to a better life for as many people as possible, à la Pinkerton’s positivism, even in directions we can’t yet imagine. Or it might – a prospect I find more dispiriting than sitting at home for a few months – fall back, the potential collapsing like a star under its own gravity, to once again eschew intellectualism, scientific evidence, human brilliance and our unique historical opportunities to progress not only material wealth, but our social and creative possibilities. I hope things don’t get that boring.