The science: viruses require a host cell in order to live (in that case are they really alive?) and epidemics arise as a new virus colonizes hosts with great rapidity. With Covid 19 the effects of this colonization range from the barely noticeable to the life threatening for the elderly or immune or respiratory compromised person.
Possible defenses: (a) to host the virus, recover and therefore achieve immunity from further attacks;
(b) to have a vaccination which gives a mild and tolerable dose of the virus through which immunity is achieved (unfortunately, there is no vaccine to date);
(c) to control the spread of the virus by minimizing contact between hosts and potential hosts. There are varying ways to minimize contacts: closing borders so that hosts from outside a geographic area can’t make contact; banning gatherings and isolating hosts, potential hosts (because of contact) and those most in danger; total lockdown in order to deny the possibility of further hosting of the virus.
This trajectory, which we are currently experiencing, is a trajectory from science to regulation, but the science has often been missed out or an understanding supposed and the defences, expressed as regulation, create some interesting contradictions.
Because of the virulence of the coronavirus we are asked to self isolate and fear the other possible carrier, but also to act as if we have the virus, which means that we should fear ourselves in relation to the other. This state of alienation is, at the same time, an act of social solidarity. Usually these states of paranoia have been focused on a common enemy, but, in this case, the enemy is internal.
And the solidarity, expressed as paranoia, is based on supposition, until the illness is actually embodied, when it assumes reality. And the reality is not overwhelming, if, for example, the numbers of dead are compared with road deaths, deaths from influenza, malaria, conflict etc.
But an important element of the reality is the potential to overwhelm and then the actual overwhelming of what are often, stressed health systems by this additional wave of ill people requiring isolation and intensive care.
There are resonances with other moments in sociology and history. The level of paranoia is similar to that of those early bands of people, when anyone outside the band was considered dangerous and would be killed or driven away. This is repeating itself, with isolated communities wishing to put up the barricades and visitors to be driven off.
There are other times of paranoia, for example, the treatment of enemy aliens living within our society during the war years, when they were considered the probable carriers of dangerous sympathies. There was the McCarthy period when the virus of communism was supposedly threatening democratic life.
There is the sad sight of consumerism being the only solver of anxiety for some, leading to panic buying in supermarkets.
There is the absolutely abhorrent continuance of US embargoes on countries like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela and the Israeli/US treatment of Palestine.
There are signs of a resentment among some young people against the boomers who have done so much to make life difficult for them and their future children and this resentment is couched in irresponsible behavior and an attitude of letting a proportion of compromised oldies die rather than destroy the economy.
Some leaders seriously considered the herd immunity approach, where most catch the virus and safely recover and thereby achieve immunity, meanwhile all the energy of the system is focused on protecting the vulnerable and economic and social life is allowed to continue. But this approach is heavily criticized by medical leaders and the potential death toll and the overwhelming of the medical system become unacceptable.
There is the populist regional dweller, suspicious and recalcitrant when faced with being told what to do by the ‘rational state’ and the difficulty of simple regulation faced with on-the-ground complexity: blended families with shared child care make staying at home problematic; why can’t I go to my empty office?; over seventies are as varied in health as any other age group; what are essential services?; who’s policing all this?; the mother helping the daughter down the road with her new born suddenly not being able to do so; why can’t we decide for ourselves our level of risk?; what’s the exit strategy?…and there comes into existence the further ‘dobbing in’ paranoia of any state command system plus a self righteous ‘being good’ syndrome and a sentimental nationalism.
There is a reasonable certainty that this will provide a further leap into the digital world, with online learning, meetings etc becoming the norm; and the realization that this in turn means a bolstering of the control of the big digital organisations. It is likely that the paranoia about ‘the other’ will continue to some degree and add to the popularity of the digital.
Of course leaders are not averse to this sort of crisis: to be ‘at war’ makes life easier politically. Difficult coalition partners toe the line, the opposition is left somewhat helpless, all eyes are on the governors, and unless you seriously stuff things up, it will bode well come election time.
But above all the crisis has allowed this government to do some seriously good things: the raising of benefit levels, the easing of family support hours, general support for out of work workers which may get us used to Universal Basic Income type systems, banks coming on board with mortgage holidays and hopefully, it heralds the death knell of neo liberal anti-interventionism. In this it is vastly different from the Global Financial Crisis when the investment sector was supported rather than working people.
Finally, it is mana for the media, supplying endless content. Only the cynic would say that when the media is tired of it, the coronavirus will disappear.
Above all, it feels like a rehearsal for the disruption that will arise from climate change.
As we all settle down and stop flying around the world and limit domestic travel and the entertainment scene shrinks, it feels like the fifties again. A neurotic energy dissipates. There will be the irritability, the denial, the panic, the magical thinking of the addict denied the fix, but hopefully some greater semblance of resilience will result, with the knowledge that the extended family practicing subsistence has been the most sustainable form of human society.