The Final disillusionment
COVID-19 has been a ruthless teacher. It has rendered many previous assumptions dubious, if not derisory, as it has surfaced corresponding inconvenient truths.
Epidemics happen elsewhere. Especially Africa, with Ebola and HIV/AIDS. And Asia, with SARS. Not Europe and North America.
Sure, we have an opioid epidemic. And we have large-scale mental health problems, and heart disease, and lung cancer. But even those occur chiefly among poor people, marginalized people, other people.
But now? Everyone, everywhere, with no vaccine or cure yet in sight.
Advanced western societies are well managed. Yes, those failed states and dictatorships and totalitarian regimes will bungle a Bad Thing into a Monstrous Thing. But not us.
And then northern Italy becomes a plague hot spot. Spain, Germany, and France are now in the top ten countries reporting cases. New York City, of all places, is an anguished ghost town, while the United States as a whole is a patchwork of contradictory policies with the world’s largest caseload.
Health authorities can be trusted. Those nice people in white coats know what they’re doing and what they’re doing is always good.
Except when the World Health Organization plays politics with China and Taiwan. And heads of American medical agencies alter their information and advice under the influence of the White House. And physicians go online to offer quick cures and to pooh-pooh public health protocols.
Ordinary people can be counted on to be decent. Most people are basically good and will behave well in a crisis.
Until a crisis hits, and stores are emptied of toilet paper, cleansers, masks, and grocery staples. Some stockpile to make money, like war profiteers. Others hoard in selfish fear. Still others simply put themselves and their families ahead of everyone else. Too bad if you don’t have…toilet paper. Or cleansers or masks. Or basic food items.
Too bad, indeed.
We’re all in this together. We all watch the same news, we all tell each other how much we appreciate our first responders and emergency workers, and we all observe social distancing and self-isolation.
Except that death is stalking those we have shut away in nursing homes, a dreadful coda to our society’s willful blindness to their suffering.
Meanwhile, many of us, and especially poorer, nonwhite people, are stuck in jobs the rest of us need to keep going. They thus must expose themselves to risk at little or no increase in pay. Younger people and women in part-time jobs, and especially immigrants, are particularly vulnerable.
Canadian and American governments have not released race-based statistics yet, but there is evidence that black communities are suffering disproportionately. And observers worry that the currently low numbers among aboriginal communities are about to change drastically.
Things will go back to normal. We’ll get through this, we tell each other. And we all look forward to revisiting our favourite spots with our favourite people in just a little while.
But there are canaries dying in coal mines all around us. Favourite restaurants have closed. Major department store chains are declaring bankruptcy. Universities are laying off whole departments and considering permanent moves to online education. Cinemas may never reopen. Air travel may never be the same.
The problems are out there. The problems are in Wuhan, China. Or in Lombardy, Italy. Or in New York City. Or in North Vancouver.
Except now each of us knows people who have gotten sick, or who have lost their jobs or businesses. The pestilence walks among us all.
Most disillusioning of all, we find that we ourselves are not handling things as well as we expected we would. We’re sick of the kids, sick of our spouses, sick of our homes.
This went from being an enforced vacation to house arrest pretty quickly. And we cannot help noticing we’re snappish, anxious, insomniac—not the resilient, resourceful, reliable people we used to enjoy assuming we are.
G. K. Chesterton wrote a book on What’s Wrong with the World in 1910. According to an apocryphal story, however, he was earlier much more succinct.
When a writer identified only as “a heretic” wrote a provocative piece for the Daily News in London (although the story usually says it was The Times) on “What Is Wrong with the World,” Chesterton apparently responded with a long letter. But according to the story usually told about him, Chesterton’s reply to the question was brief:
G. K. Chesterton
Yes, the virus has exposed large-scale deficiencies and injustices in our economies, our polities, and our ideologies, and no amount of individual soul-searching will suffice to fix these massive problems.
But as charity begins at home, so should moral clarity. COVID-19 has been a ruthless teacher. Are we learning all its lessons?