Every crisis has two constituencies—those directly affected (in this case, anyone who actually contracts coronavirus), and everyone else, who experiences the secondary consequences. I’ve always been a part of the latter group, thankfully. Adrian Chen tweeted the other day that coronavirus “is revealing all the sickest parts of American society like tracer dye,” which is a pretty good description of what widespread disasters always do. For us bystanders, this one is pretty different, though, and more existentially distressing in some ways: There is no tangible event to focus on, the panic precedes the danger itself, which amorphously stretches out across weeks or months, and the main action we can take to be helpful is to get the hell away from one another. To a greater extent than other crises, with the exception of the 2008 financial crash, we are the villain here: our political leaders, our institutions, and even our own callous lack of seriousness and preparation. It’s hard to evaluate how much we could have reasonably done to stop the disease’s spread, but if you must blame someone, you might just sort of blame everyone.
Chen is right, though. The revolution may not be televised, but the pandemic will be posted. While other disasters instantly draw us together, a quality Walker Percy praised, the virus demands social distance, accelerating an experiment that was already well underway before this upheaval: the individualism that we’ve all internalized over time—which is partially structural, but also a development we’ve welcomed as consumers. The internet isn’t the source of this individualism, but it makes it much easier to embrace. If it already felt like the world was increasingly a web of physical enclaves linked together by the internet but otherwise disconnected from one another, coronavirus is indeed the tracer dye that makes the infrastructure of that arrangement visible. Who wants to meet up for beers on a Zoom call this weekend? I don’t. Many have already predicted that social distancing will prove to us how much we can do from home, and perhaps solidify those practices. While I’m as skeptical as anyone about the need to do many jobs from an office (I already work from home), we can only eliminate so many reasons to venture outside before it feels like too much, regardless of how much entertainment we have available. I hope that the cabin fever of the coming phase renews our appetite for other forms of stimulation, but what if it simply fuels the desire to opt out of a world where people can easily transmit diseases to one another?
Our individualism isn’t just technological either. We’re already feeling the economic impacts of coronavirus, and as I watched the stock market tank along with the resultant 401k-related hand wringing, I fully grasped the absurdity of a 401k as a provision for one’s old age—an unstable band-aid on the absence of actual communities that care for one another, a mapping of well-being to personal productivity that we don’t escape even after we stop producing, and a powerful vector for the forced financialization of everyday life. I haven’t even addressed health care, but plenty about that has been said elsewhere. If this is indeed the slow-motion 9/11 that it seems to be—in broad cultural impact if nothing else—then we can expect the imminent demise of many norms that formerly seemed to make sense. It’s too early to predict any of those outcomes specifically, but it’s not too early to start reflecting upon which societal pillars are worth reimagining.
A sobering assessment of the coronavirus threat by Mike Davis, who wrote the great City of Quartz (Davis published a book in 2005 about the civilizational threat posed by avian flu, and I remember thinking it seemed excessively alarmist at the time). “Capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare.”
Green Bank, West Virginia, a town of 143 people where cellular signal is blocked and wi-fi is banned due to the presence of the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. An interesting controlled experiment in how the internet affects behavior. Presented with social media and YouTube, one teenager remarks, “Why am I doing this when I could be climbing a tree?”