Photo by Laura Ockel
The global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has changed the world. At least, that is what we are being told, day after day, by political pundits and professional opinion makers, with barely concealed self-congratulation.
Hot takes abound. An article in Jacobin argues that coronavirus represents a death blow to neoliberalism and a vital opportunity to push for socialist policies. New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo has expressed the related sentiment that everyone becomes a socialist in a pandemic. By contrast, conservative writer Heather MacDonald has asserted that the benefits of capitalism are most obvious in times of crisis. Countless pieces in liberal outlets have opined that the virus will hurt Trump’s chances of re-election, while others have asserted that coronavirus will give Trump a second term. One Politico piece bluntly states that coronavirus will change the world permanently, citing everything from a renewal of patriotism and a decline in polarization to less individualism and a return to faith. All scenarios posit collective change as an inevitable outcome of our present trajectory. But, if this were a grade school English exam, I would circle option D: none of the above.
In a long article for Unherd, former MP Ben Gummer argues, persuasively, that the coronavirus will change nothing. Drawing on historical accounts recorded after the Black Death ravaged medieval Eurasia—a subject on which he has written at length—Gummer recounts that many of the societal changes attributed to the plague were already well underway before its appearance. “Our response,” he writes, “shows that our natural instincts to make sense of our own story remain intact. This pandemic will bring nothing to an end, nor create anything anew.” Despite the human need to create stories out of major cataclysmic events in order to make sense of the moment, life tends to go on as before once that moment passes. No cultural reckoning is imminent.
Yet this is not exactly what we want to hear in the midst of the thing. As meaning-oriented creatures needing coherent narrative structures to decipher the complexities of the world, we often feel a profound impulse to force the square peg of worldly happenings into the round hole of our ego. A quick scan of any recent op-ed page will reveal a cacophony of voices concerned with the same overarching question: what does it all mean? Or, specifically, what does it mean for us? Yet the discomfiting reality is that this invisible enemy harms some more than others, and, because we must practice social distancing, our experiences of the pandemic are mostly private and individual.
Some people remain hopeful of change: they believe that deep inequalities will finally be seen as the moral disaster they are, or that our political divisions will be put to rest in pursuit of a higher good. Others seem oddly comforted by the thought that this pandemic will return us to the dark ages (perhaps because this assuages their own sense of chaos). Still others are bitterly resentful—either of the rich, the media or those spring breakers who didn’t take the virus seriously. We are all dealing with this in our own ways, ways that don’t necessarily align with the broader experience of the group. Our one common experience is isolation, which is not a group experience at all.
I am at higher risk of death from the virus due to a chronic illness and I live in an area with a relatively heavy caseload. But it is both tiring and strange to see people clamor for a shared experience and identity that simply doesn’t exist, beyond the common need to sequester ourselves in our homes and try to get by as best we can. Nothing will change about our culture. Polarisation will still run amuck. Inequalities will persist. Human progress will continue to muddle along and our relatively dysfunctional systems will remain relatively dysfunctional. The endless battle between restrictive nationalism and open globalism will continue, grounded in a conflict of visions that has existed for time immemorial. Once this is over, we will remember our non-corona related problems and keep up the good fight—just as we always have and always will.
This is not to suggest that nothing will change at all. That would be unthinkable. Things are always changing in ways both obvious and subtle. But the changes are happening on the level of individual people and communities, rather than on the level of nations, cultures and societies. I’ve been inspired by local efforts to build support systems for those in need and by the friends who have reached out to offer me their help. Honesty and openness have been permeating those airways usually brimming with narcissistic exhibitionism or toxic culture war bullshit. The felt absence of control can remind us of our vulnerability and humanity, which are worth remembering.
Of course, there are conspicuous and well-documented harms: economic damage and the loss of loved ones. But it is important to stay humble and recognize that such things happen all the time: people suffer and die, lose their jobs and get evicted and experience tragedy and hardship every single day. It is just that we generally don’t notice tragedy until it has the potential to affect our lives. You don’t have to like that fact about human nature, but it’s worth acknowledging.
We will all be changed by this process, but we will not change as one. The individual is the primary unit of moral concern, responsibility and development, and the success or failure of society is contingent upon the quality of individual experience produced. As Ralph Ellison wrote, the group is the gift of its individuals. My one hope for the outcome of the pandemic is that it produces more initiative, introspection and personal maturity. But I won’t be holding my breath.