“No problem can be so complicated that it can’t be run away from”
~ Linus, from Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts
One now sees people walking along streets masked, gloved, and occasionally gowned, as if on their way to a Halloween party. The unluckiest of them are zombies who don’t yet know that they are the living dead. The situation is unprecedented and, sadly, un-presidented. Because we are human, we search for a metaphor that encapsulates the situation.
Coronovirus, bless its creepy little heart (speaking of metaphors), is the proximal cause of the disease with the unfortunate bureaucratic appellation COVID-19 (as if it were a defense program or a government dossier) that has quickly come to symbolize extreme measures presented as its palliatives. And while “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, 1970), many public health experts have expected a pandemic to emerge for which they warned society and its masters will be ill-prepared. And now that one has presented itself and we do find ourselves unprepared, how are we to think of that? What does that teach us about our civilization?
In Disease as Political Metaphor (NYRB archives 2/23/1978), a sequel to her Illness as a Metaphor (NYRB archives, 1/26/1978), both written well before contracting cancer herself (she died of leukemia in 2004 at age 71), Susan Sontag wrote:
“Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to express a sense of what was wrong socially. In Shakespeare, there can be an infection in the “body politic,” an abscess that has to be lanced. But full of disease imagery as the Elizabethan theater may be, it does not project the modern idea of a master illness—a total contagion of society.”
The “total contagion” that Sontag was referring to is cancer: “The controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are not, in fact, drawn from economics but from the language of warfare,” she wrote. “Thus cancer cells do not simply multiply; they are ‘invasive.'”
Were she still alive, Sontag might liken coronavirus contagion (or at least official responses to it) as a metaphor for apocalypse. The rapid spread of this dread disease—originating in Wuhan’s bat population but not harmful to them—has come to be spoken of in cataclysmic terms. Truly ominous is its profile: so stealthy are its vectors of infection, so resistant to treatment it is for many sufferers, and so debilitating it is for both survivors and economic and social intercourse, COVID-19 seems to signal the end of the world as we know it. Empty shops, empty streets, disused highways and airports, hospitals turning out patients, and morgues stacking corpses into refrigerated semi-trailers are the stuff of catastrophe movies. In ours, lung-eating zombies stalk the land, invisible ones against whom resistance is futile; we can only hunker down hoping they don’t find us.
The effect is like having neutron bombs explode in rapid succession in cities across the globe, wiping out humans but leaving their possessions and infrastructure intact. It’s not as if everyone near ground zero is sure to die (in fact, there are no ground zeroes, making it even creepier), but many will suffer privations whether or not the virus latches on to them.
Sontag compares cancer with tuberculosis, the latter seen as an individual failing, the former as societal in scope:
“TB is described in images of the negative behavior of nineteenth-century homo economicus: consumption; wasting; squandering of vitality. Advanced capitalism requires expansion, speculation, the creation of new needs (the problem of satisfaction and dissatisfaction); buying on credit; mobility—an economy that depends on the irrational indulgence of desire. Cancer is described in images of the negative behavior of twentieth-century homo economicus: abnormal growth; repression of energy, that is, refusal to consume or spend.:”
Before antibiotics, TB was treated like mental disease; patients were tucked away in sanatoria where they would be overseen by caregivers and provided with rest and symptomatic relief. In the twentieth century, cancer was treated as a military foe to be conquered by invasive therapies, bombarded with x-rays, and poisoned with lethal chemicals. There was a “war against cancer,” but not one against TB. And while governments have also declared wars against crime, terror, and drugs, so far there’s no war against coronavirus. Whether or not one is waged, the pandemic will eventually run its course, but then will life return to normalcy? Hardly.
In these United States and elsewhere, the virus has produced levels of unemployment surpassing those of the Great Depression. Many of those tossed out of their jobs may never see them return. Small businesses suffer most, and following bankruptcies galore, many surviving ones will be placed in chains: replaced by chains and franchises owned and controlled by investors. Manufacturing and even service jobs will be lost to robots owned and controlled by investors. As homeowners unable to make their mortgage payments get evicted, investors will acquire their domiciles as homelessness grows. Whatever government assistance individuals and families may receive will be eaten up by inflation in food and other commodities through lack of workers and supply chain disruptions. Government borrowing could lead to financial panic as people’s savings—should they have any—become depleted, and whatever investments they count on for retirement evaporate as financial markets collapse.
As the Federal government steps in to cushion the virus’s impact with trillion-dollar relief programs, national debt will skyrocket. Whether or not this leads to inflation or loss of economic confidence, the Republican Party and the Trump administration, having approved all this deficit spending, will put their calloused feet firmly down to resist reforming health care and restoring environmental health, although infrastructure spending could well soar and coal might make a comeback. Ask why EPA has decided that COVID-19 is any excuse for suspending clean air and water enforcement. There’s no money, they will say; we gave it all to the people and now the treasury is empty. And as most of it was directed to corporations (like Obama’s stimulus package to stem the Great Recession), it will be business as usual as possible going forward. Defense spending won’t suffer; instead, Social Security, education, and welfare programs will take hits. The cure may well end up worsening the disease for people already in economic distress. Hence apocalypse.
Back to the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-(or imagine)-it. Based on rumors and innuendoes that conspiracy mongers disseminate via social media and talk shows, apocalyptic thinking—traditionally rooted among the paranoid right—will spread more broadly. Fear of imagined food shortages, government crackdowns on dissenters and gun owners, or of plans to cull certain populations or herd them into detention camps will breed suspicions and survivalist sentiments that could erupt into armed conflict here and there, hopefully not becoming endemic. Leftists might fear (and some rightists may celebrate) the possibility of coronavirus finding its way into immigrant detention centers, prisons, nursing homes, and homeless populations, possibly deliberately. (Think of it as social arson.) Tough luck, losers, Trump will say; you brought it on yourselves. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas already suggested letting old folks die so that the young may live. He said he himself would make that ultimate sacrifice; he should get on with it.
Sontag quotes Machiavelli, who compared diseases of the body politic to tuberculosis:
“Consumption in the commencement is easy to cure, and difficult to understand; but when it has neither been discovered in due time, nor treated upon a proper principle, it becomes easy to understand, and difficult to cure. The same thing happens in state affairs, by foreseeing them at a distance, which is only done by men of talents, the evils which might arise from them are soon cured; but when, from want of foresight, they are suffered to increase to such a height that they are perceptible to everyone, there is no longer any remedy.”
For consumption, one might write “corruption,” and for foresight, “preparedness.” Our “men of talents” are our public and private institutions, the most powerful of which have for far too long eschewed collectively saving for a rainy day. That it will rain, be it radioactive after a nuclear exchange, tricking down from risky speculative investments, or serving to water a pandemic, is not all that hard to foresee from a distance. Yet our fearless leaders continue to build atomic weapons, loosen regulations on finance and industry, and ignore, de-fund, and in some cases dissolve institutions chartered to foresee threats to public health and oversee responses to them.
When Peanuts‘ Charlie Brown asked Linus “What if everyone in the whole world suddenly decided to run away from his problems?” Linus said “Well, at least we’ll all be running in the same direction!” Linus should try running for the exit when a theater is on fire, to the side when a ferry boat is foundering, or to hospital during a pandemic, and he’ll find out.
We’ll find out too, and also too late. When coronavirus apocalypse survivors eventually emerge from hiding, the world will have changed. It started changing beneath our noses and notice decades ago, but nobody we listened to told us how it would change for us. Instead we were told how lucky we were to live in a consumer’s paradise. So what will we do when there’s not much left of what we need to consume and little money to pay for it?