Here are some of my thoughts on the Coronavirus crisis or, perhaps more accurately, thoughts on how some people have been responding to the crisis.
- During the past several weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, I’m sure we have all heard and read some interesting claims about the virus and its likely consequences. One of the more hyperbolic claims I’ve seen was made two weeks ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Paul Friga, who said, “there is no doubt we are in one of the most turbulent and challenging times in American, and world, history.” That’s a strong claim. I suppose it depends on what he means by “one of the most.” If death toll is a key indicator of a turbulent and challenging time, then it is worth noting that throughout history there have been about forty wars, forty famines, twenty plagues, and seven genocides that have produced more than one million fatalities each. And the fatalities of more than a hundred of other wars, plagues, famines, genocides, and natural disasters have each exceeded half a million. Compare these figures to the COVID-19 crisis where worldwide fatalities total less than 80,000 to date. This number will surely continue to climb, but just how many will die from this virus is difficult to estimate at this point. Death toll prognostications vary wildly. So Friga’s claim is actually quite uncertain, notwithstanding his confidence. The lesson here is that, tempting as it might be to make strong (even world historical) assertions about the severity of our current crisis, it is probably best to refrain until we have sufficient data to warrant doing so. Otherwise, one risks exacerbating public fear and anxiety, which, for all we know, might already be out of proportion with the actual danger posed by COVID-19.
- By advising severe social distancing in the form of lockdowns and limited travel, the U.S. federal government is widely represented as taking the “safe” approach. After all, by doing so, we slow the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve” of infections so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. This is surely a laudable concern, but it is only one factor in an overall equation. In fact, strong social distancing is not unequivocally the “safe” approach, because this risks a national economic depression (not to mention a potential epidemic of clinical depression) and perhaps even a global economic catastrophe, which also would mean massive loss of life. So the curve-flattening social-distancing strategy is not obviously the “safe” option but itself is a significant gamble. Another potential risk pertains to how this approach could backfire and actually exacerbate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As one Ivy League physician has argued, there could be more fatalities in the long run due to severe social distancing, since this diminishes the development of “herd immunity” within the population. This is a controversial suggestion, of course, since it runs against the current of popular wisdom about the pandemic (which explains why this author chose to remain anonymous). But, given all of the uncertainty at this stage, this possibility should not be ruled out.
- Much of the ostensibly empathetic concern on the part of institutional leaders and, especially, politicians and media personalities (I’ll resist the temptation to name names) strikes me as insincere moral grandstanding. Some of what I have seen on social media during this time falls into this category as well. Just as my awareness of the reality of this trend was beginning to gel in my mind, a colleague of mine shared with me his own thoughts along these lines:
Sometimes it seems like individuals and institutions in our culture are so conscious of the history that they’re making while they’re making it that it affects history itself. It’s like every historical event becomes one great big cultural selfie, as our primary concern in the midst of any event is to document our feelings and “stories” as we make and experience them. I wonder if all the historical testimony that we leave like that for posterity will do little more than convince later historians how unreliable our own historical testimony about ourselves really is, except for its reliability in showing clearly what a bunch [of] narcissists we all really were. For that our testimony will be utterly reliable. And who can blame those later historians if they conclude that we were a generation who was so busy turning everything into our own historical selfies that we never actually really lived in history.
This strikes me as a profound, if disturbing, insight about our culture. It has been said that adversity doesn’t build character so much as it reveals it. Perhaps our current crisis will be valuable for what it teaches us about ourselves, however painful those lessons might be
Your colleague’s commentary seems to assign a lot of negative intent, or at least vapidness, to people who are sharing their stories of social isolation and distancing on social media. Is it your assertion that people sharing about their mask-making, kid-teaching, work-from-home-ing, essential-job working experiences are primarily doing so in a performative, self-congratulatory way? And that such behavior reveals otherwise hidden narcissism?
No, Liz, I certainly don’t believe that all such sharing is narcissistic or self-congratulatory. But many cases do seem that way to me. So I would reiterate my colleagues statement that “sometimes” such self-absorption is apparent in people’s response to the pandemic. Madonna’s recent creepy video of herself reflecting on the pandemic while in a bathtub is a case in point. Here are some more examples: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2020/03/19/5-hilariously-out-of-touch-celebrity-responses-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic/#6916fed91ccf. And here are some more: https://betches.com/the-most-cringeworthy-celebrity-coronavirus-posts/. And, of course, there are plenty of examples on Facebook and other social media sites.
I think these are all good points to keep in mind, and it’s certainly difficult to know how to weigh the consequences (a favored critique of consequentialism, as you know). I think however a big piece of the puzzle are models put forward, for instance, by the CDC, which projected somewhere around 200,000 and 1.7 million deaths in the US. Now perhaps this study was flawed (I am no expert here); or — again, as you know — perhaps it was justified but false, that is, this was the rational belief based on what we knew, but turned out to be inaccurate; or perhaps the lockdowns worked and drastically cut the number of deaths, perhaps even better than one might have anticipated or expected. My point here is merely that one must base one’s decisions and beliefs on the evidence one has, and when experts (by no means infallible) put forward such projections, serious action appears the rational course. But uncertainty abounds here! (Here is another resource you may be interested in, in light of some of your points above: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/us/politics/fact-check-trump-coronavirus-recession.html).
Virtue signaling is indeed a prevalent aspect of our society, I think (what I take to be your third point). I suspect it stems from the nature of the new media — mere video recording makes history more easy to document, and so when we speak and the camera is on, we sense the historical relevance of our act as a soon-to-be (no doubt for many inflated) historical document. This has only become more bloated with the rise of social media…
At the point when the CDC projected the possibility of “around 200,000” or more deaths in the US, the following question entered my mind: Was this projection put forth to President Trump in order to finally get his attention? (It seemed to me that it was at this point that I began to notice a change in his “tone”.)
Good stuff, Xan. Thanks.