Plague Notes

The stay-at-home urging continues, and we are all doing the responsible thing. Some order appears to be returning to the supermarkets – yesterday I was able to buy nearly everything, except a whole chicken, that I wanted to. We are confined at home. Even young lovers are practising social distancing to protect their doctor parents: intimacy now means walking in the part at night 1.5 metres apart.

New York is bracing for disaster, and Spain has suffered tremendously. Yet other countries – Germany and perhaps my own Australia – may be dodging a bullet. Variability in the local response and impact of this virus appears to be the order of the day.

Will social distancing work to an acceptable level? Most likely. The race for effective treatments is on, and looks like it will displace the evangelical public health epidemiologists, who are enjoying a few weeks or months in charge of society, from the front line of the response. That might be a little unkind. But over the weeks ahead we may see a shifting balance from public health controls to treatment, as the unavoidable wave of ill patients crashes on our overly efficient health care system.

We are all asking how long will we remain in this new way of life, and what parts of it may be enduring. The crisis may last two months; or it could extend to 18 months or more in some of the extreme “suppression” scenarios put forward by the Imperial College of London. If there are later waves of the virus, or even more deadly viruses, this new way of life may become institutionalised. If the crisis passes quickly, we may rush back to our old ways, and expel the puritans from our new Babylon. We do not know the length or enduring character of these changes. But here are some speculations assuming this health crisis may contain the seeds of a cultural renaissance.

The slap to the face of consumerism. For the first time ever in the West and since the 1980s in many ex-communist countries, people have encountered queues, shortages and the denial of services. Going out to shop for shoes leads to public shaming. The shops are closed or operating on restricted hours; and we must resist our urge to rush out and buy ice cream after 8 pm at night. Retail therapy is being replaced by counselling via Zoom. For some of us that may lead to a constant change; but if free-flowing wealth returns to our society I suspected consumerism will surge back with only minor embarassment.

The trimming of the service economy. Life in the gig economy never looked so insecure or unrewarding. Living off services and not making your nation’s own face-masks and medicines never looked so foolish. The Americans are talking about repatriating their manufacturing and sending China a bill for the disease. Australian universities might need to stop being a major export industry, servicing international students more than their cultural mission. The ability to do practical things, including around the homes to which we are all confined, never seemed so important. I expect some recalibration; but not a return to manufacturing autarky.

Home working. If you can work from home, you must work from home, say our political leaders. And for those of us who are by nature solitary, we take the chance with both hands. Who among us would not like to avoiding mass transit systems, unpleasant commutes, over-crowded cities and unreliable colleagues with varying standards of hygiene? I suspect there will be an irresistable demand for many to work from home – and when not confined there it will be even more enjoyable. But this will test the narrow competency limits of management in our large organisations.

A new humility to reimagine purpose. The virus, a microscopic string of proteins, has humiliated the masters of the universe – those who aspire to the commanding heights of the economy and globalist institutions. We all live within more controlled spaces, more limited horizons, more confined perspectives. We have all learned we are vulnerable to new, uncontrollable biological events, and that death, illness and frailty await us all. But we have also – at least many of us who have not succumbed to the maelstrom – discovered time for reflection and contemplation of the deeper meaning, connections and purposes that make life worth living. The slow viral transformation of our characters induced by this global retreat may be the most fertile seed planted by this crisis.

Image source: Antonella da Messina, St Jerome in his study 1474-75. National Gallery, London.

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