culture, history, the real world today

The plague year

One year ago posted the post below on the likely effects of the coronavirus on our lives, our health and our governments. Like most people I think I over-estimated the health impact of the virus, and under-estimated its social and political impact. I certainly did not predict the sapping of democratic culture by expert elites. The year became as much a year of viral meltdown, a pandemic of fear, as a year of plague. Boccacio had a much worse catastrophe to deal with.

The Plague Year (originally posted 19 March 2020)

I have been following the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic since January, especially through the remarkable podcast Warroom: Pandemic hosted by Steven K. Bannon. The world is now living in its modern plague year, and the explosion of a crisis that cannot be managed.

The great cities of the world – Wuhan, Beijing, Milan, Venice, San Francisco, New York – are going into quarantine. Tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people have been locked down. The bountiful markets are crumbling before mass hoarding and the shocked fears of consumers who for the first time in their lives know shortages. People call for kindness, and encounter fights in supermarket aisles over the last pack of toilet paper. Travel between countries is closing down; I can even get a seat on my commuter train for the first time in years. The stock markets are speeding in an algorithmically driven whirligig, more damaging than the human induced crash of 1929. The masters of the universe in the Reserve Banks, Treasuries and merchant banks pretend to mastery with billions or trillions of stimulus packages, and discover their impotence. It is the final humiliation of the dismal science before the social facts of illness, biology, fear, survival, life and death.

Some projections suggest somewhere between 20 and 70 per cent of the world’s population will be infected with this virus. The mortality rate? Noone really knows – there has simply not been enough testing or reliable; but it could be as low as 0.2 per cent and at most 2 per cent. Whichever, that is a lot of deaths. This is a once in a century event, akin to the great Spanish flu of 1918, which like this one had its early reported death rates and even its name murkily obscured in wartime censorship.

There is no treatment. There is no vaccine. There is no definitive refuge. We have all learnt the meaning of social distancing and self-isolation, and we hope they will keep us safe. We trust. We hope. We urge our alchemists to find the cure, and they may well merit their trust, even if they have not always done so. We put our faith in the pandemic planners and public health physicians, even if the speed of this spread – cases appear to be doubling every four to five days in my city – has taken them by surprise, and a few mad scientists thought they could treat the population as a herd to be immunised to try out their theories. Still, better, calmer and more reliable advice is coming from those leading public health physicians than from some of the less capable politicians and media panellists grandstanding before the cameras.

We all have our stories of our lives being turned upside down – schools closed down, home-quarantines, businesses suddenly without customers, travel plans cancelled, customary leisure lost, work conducted even more remotely from the commanders of our organisations. My adult children have had their last year of university and plans for travel thrown up into the air – online learning, the separation of community, the suspension of overseas campus and exchange, the loss of part-time job opportunities. We wonder what we will do and think about when in self-isolation. Lists have gone up online of plague reading – Camus, Defoe and of course, Boccacio’s Decameron.

This crisis will have large effects on the economy, society and the culture. It will break some leaders in all those fields, and will make others. It is in large part a crisis of governing, and over the months of its unfolding I may return to that. But will this crisis also lead to events and adaptations of the decaying culture. Will we turn from constant consumerism, flippant influencers and corrupt, complacent elites? Will our culture regenerate? Will the onset of a biological event – the outbreak of a pathogenic RNA virus – lead to a transvaluation of all values?

Image source: Plague of London, 1655 – public domain

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