Probably the most level-headed, even-handed, and just plain sensible examination I believe I’ve yet seen of the current contretemps.
Although the full story of the 2020 corona crisis cannot yet be told, already it is clear that it will have three parts: medical, economic, and cultural-political. The effects of the first two parts, especially the first, are already patent. The novel coronavirus presents a public health issue. Some regard it as a public health emergency of the first order. Others are less anxious. The issue is up for debate. As we write, the falling rate of hospitalization and leveling off of fatalities may seem to support an optimistic outcome. But even if the sunny interpretation is correct, Benjamin Jowett’s observation is to the point: “precautions are always blamed,” he said: “When they are successful, they are said to be unnecessary.” Maybe the tide is turning because we have been so assiduous in following severe “mitigation” procedures: staying home, practicing “social distancing,” and the like. Or maybe the tide is turning because the epidemic, like all epidemics, has reached its natural peak and is receding on its own. Opinions vary.
Less debatable are the economic consequences of the epidemic. We don’t know anyone who believes that they are other than catastrophic. The question is, however, whether the draconian measures imposed to slow the spread of the virus are justified. Whether or not this nasty respiratory disease presents an “unprecedented” challenge is open to interpretation. What does seem unprecedented is the experiment of suddenly shutting down almost all economic activity in a complex market-oriented country like the United States. It is one thing to switch off the mighty engines of prosperity and wealth creation. We are about to discover whether they can be restarted so expeditiously.
Which brings us to the third part of the corona caper, the cultural and political aspects. It is hardly surprising that this crisis, like all crises, has presented an opportunity to advance political agendas. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, was speaking a home truth when he observed during the economic panic of 2008 that you should “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” That sounds, and it may in fact be, cynical. It is also a truth acted upon by all parties at all times. From this perspective, the coronavirus is not only a deadly pathogen. It is also a political opportunity. It is too soon to say who will be able to make the most of that opportunity. A presidential election looms, which makes our hall of mirrors more fraught and disorienting than ever. The intensity of the scramble is a token of the high stakes involved.
But all that is just politics as usual. More noteworthy, and more worrisome, are three other features of our cultural-political situation—of “the way we live now”—that this crisis has revealed. First, there is the issue of fragility. The Western world, and the United States in particular, comprises the richest and most powerful societies in history. The fact that they can be brought to a quivering standstill by a bug that sickens and kills a minuscule part of their populations should give us pause. Is that fragility real and unavoidable, or is it chosen?
Second, there are the interrelated issues of widespread docility, on the one hand, and eager authoritarianism, on the other. We suspect that aspiring totalitarians will ponder the response to this epidemic with thoughtful anticipation. How quickly an entire population can be herded like obedient sheep, willing to be subjected to the most extravagant prohibitions! We speak of “sheltering in place.” Is it clear that we are not “cowering in place”?
The other side of that docility is the rude overbearingness of those with the power to direct our lives. Federal authorities in this instance have imposed upon us less stringently than state and local officials, some of whom have been quick to monitor and punish any hint of independence.
Longtime readers will know that we are fond of a sermon preached by C. S. Lewis in the dark days of 1939. “I think it important,” he said,
to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective…The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward.
Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the crisis we face is the possibility that Lewis was being too generous when describing human nature.
I really don’t need to tell you to read it all, do I?