This is the most frightening time I’ve experienced in my life.
Well, there was once when I was about 19 and got my truck stuck where my girlfriend and I had gone to park. We were miles from nowhere and an hour from home. I’d just gotten laid. Now I was fucked.
By and by, someone came along with four-wheel drive and a chain. He pulled us out and I skedattled her home. We were quite late but my concocted story was not questioned by her father. To this day I think we got away with it, unless he reads this, in which case I hope the statute of limitations on fatherly wrath has expired. We’re both grandparents now, anyway. We’re supposed to have mellowed.
But this is different.
I’m not afraid of a virus. I’m afraid of the people. Agent K in the movie Men in Black uttered one of the most prophetic lines in cinema history, when he said, “A person is smart. People are dumb scared animals.” Put a dozen Nobel laureates in a room and expose them to a virus and you collectively have a scared beast with an IQ of 2500.
If you want to understand where we are as a Race (using the Trekkian term for “species”) just look on social media. People are frightened. Some out of ignorance, but some who should know better are equally so. We post memes and links to websites with the latest information; some of it even reliable. We, depending upon our political bent, castigate either the president or the Democrats. We praise or criticize governors of states to which we have never been and whose names we didn’t know a week ago. (Does anyone outside California, beside me, know what Gavin Newsome did before he was The Gov?) And freaking all of us are epidemiologists and virologists.
I have to admit, I refuse to get caught up in the hysteria, even as I am social distancing, and staying away from my daughter who just returned from campus, with no known exposure, but hardly from a controlled environment. I’m doing my part because science is agnostic and apolitical. Slowing the spread is important.
Even so, eventually a glob of RNA inside a protein capsule no more than 125 nanometers across may cause fear-created chaos of the likes we have not seen since WWII. Not because the virus will wipe out humanity, but because people are *afraid* it will, at least metaphorically.
Simply put: SARS-CoV-2, the novel virus that causes COVID-19, is virulent as hell. Like most Coronaviruses, it seems pretty resistant in the environment, remaining viable for days under the right conditions. These factors make the virus highly infectious and very rapid to spread. But, thankfully, for all the chaos this tiny bastard has caused, its not terribly pathogenic. It seems (and it’s early yet) that most people don’t get very sick or sick at all. But, those that do, describe an exceptionally rapid onset and a *very* severe malaise. A sub-set of those, mostly elderly but *not all*, develop severe respiratory compromise. And a subset of those patients die, rarely, including young and healthy people.
SARS-CoV-2 (sudden acquired respiratory syndrome-Coronavirus-2) is therefore a terrorist virus. It can kill. It can cause havoc and instill fear. But it cannot win. It’s simply not strong enough.
But between now and this virus running its course or a vaccine being developed, a lot of feces can occur and it could very well be much worse than runs on toilet paper. This will stretch our medical resources to the breaking point. How bad it will get is unclear and largely depends upon how quickly the virus peaks. But as bad as it gets here in the US and other Western nations, places like India may be immeasurably worse.
What happens when the global economy just stops? In the US, what is essentially full employment could go to a staggering 30% unemployment in a matter of months. (For reference, unemployment at the height of the Depression was 20%, more or less.) That is, if government policies – globally- aren’t enacted to rationally and carefully get it going again, and quickly. (Of course, mention this fact and people act like you’re trying to kill grandma. You might as well have shot Bambi.)
For all FDR’s leadership qualities, historians and economists now recognize that some of his policies actually prolonged the Great Depression. This could easily happen in the 2020’s. This virus could, quite conceivably, trigger social unrest and upheaval that could topple governments and bring populists to power that make Donald Trump look like Ike.
That’s what I fear. Not the virus, but human-made policies that make a terrifying situation infinitely worse.
In my heart of hearts, I don’t think this is likely, at least not in the West. But in some other parts of the world? Sure. 10 times as many people could die from social unrest as from the virus. Will a severe outbreak in India lead to more sectarian and caste-based violence? It could and we need to be prepared.
How the West reacts to the global pandemic, with its presently rather xenophobic and inward focus, will be the challenge of our time. It will take Leadership to meet it and quite possibly prevent the Third World War.
For now, I won’t give into the virus or fear. But I will remain watchful. Societies are only knit together via a fabric of common interest and trust. It’s made of thread that, whether violently torn or merely frayed, can come unraveled slowly or in an instant.
Time will tell.