interesting times

How to Survive a Plague

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s quite possible that by the end of all this, almost every American will know of someone who has died. A relative, a friend, an old high-school classmate … the names will pop up and migrate through Facebook as the weeks go by, and in a year’s time, Facebook will duly remind you of the grief or shock you experienced. The names of the sick will appear to be randomly selected — the ones you expected and the ones you really didn’t, the famous and the obscure, the vile and the virtuous. And you will feel the same pang of shock each time someone you know turns out to have fallen ill.

You’ll wake up each morning and check to see if you have a persistent cough, or a headache, or a tightness in the lungs. This is plague living: witnessing the sickness and death of others, knowing that you too could be next, even as you feel fine. The distancing things we reflexively do — “oh, well, he was a smoker”; “she was diabetic, you know”; “they were in Italy in February” —  become a little bit harder as time goes by, and the numbers mount, and the randomness of it all sinks in. No, this is not under control. And no, we are not in control. Because we never are.

And this will change us. It must. All plagues change society and culture, reversing some trends while accelerating others, shifting consciousness far and wide, with consequences we won’t discover for years or decades. The one thing we know about epidemics is that at some point they will end. The one thing we don’t know is who we will be then.

I know that I was a different man at the end of the plague of AIDS than I was at the beginning, just as so many gay men and many others were. You come face-to-face with mortality and the randomness of fate, and you are changed. You have a choice: to submit to fear and go under, or to live with the virus and do what you can. And the living with it, while fighting it, is what changes you over time; it requires more than a little nerve and more than a little steel. Plague living dispenses with the unnecessary, lays bare whom you can trust and whom you can’t, and also reveals what matters.

I know also that the AIDS epidemic, more than any other single factor, transformed the self-understanding of gay men and lesbians, opened the eyes of our fellow citizens, and revolutionized the world of gay rights. It showed us, with blinding clarity, what we had hitherto not seen: the ubiquity and humanity and dignity of homosexuals. And, having seen this, we were all changed. Within a couple of decades, out of the ashes, we had marriage equality, a new world of visibility and toleration.

Plagues destroy so much — but through the devastation, they can also rebuild and renew.

I was watching the movie 1917 the other night and there’s a scene in which the protagonist, a British soldier, is trying to navigate a vacated, devastated town in no-man’s-land at night. He makes his way through the shattered, urban wasteland where German soldiers are still hiding, but from time to time, a flare goes up, light suddenly floods the scene, and there is no hiding. Everything is clear for a moment — clearer than it was in daylight. Every cranny in the ruins and every quivering rat appears suddenly in sharp contrast and then disappears again, as the flare falls from the sky. But in an instant, you see the whole vista, and you orient yourself. You see where you are.

Like wars, plagues can make us see where we are, shake us into a new understanding of the world, reshape our priorities, and help us judge what really matters and what actually doesn’t. Testing kits matter. Twitter not so much. Politically, who knows? Much will depend on the skills of the politicians grasping this moment for their various ends. But a lot is at stake, and I suspect that those who think COVID-19 all but kills Donald Trump’s reelection prospects are being, as usual, too optimistic. National crises, even when handled at this level of incompetence and deceit, can, over time, galvanize public support for a national leader. As Trump instinctually finds a way to identify the virus as “foreign,” he will draw on these lizard-brain impulses, and in a time of fear, offer the balm of certainty to his cult and beyond. It’s the final bonding: blind support for the leader even at the risk of your own sickness and death. And in emergencies, quibbling, persistent political opposition is always on the defense, and often unpopular. It requires pointing out bad news in desperate times; and that, though essential, is rarely popular.

Watching Fox News operate in real time in ways Orwell described so brilliantly in Nineteen Eighty-Four — compare “We had always been at war with Eastasia” with “I’ve felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic” —  you’d be a fool not to see the potential for the Republican right to use this plague for whatever end they want. If Trump moves to the left of the Democrats in handing out big non-means-tested cash payments, and provides a stimulus far bigger than Obama’s, no Republican will cavil. And since no sane person wants the war on COVID-19 to fail, we will have to wish that the president succeed. Pulling this off as an opposition party, while winning back the White House, will require a political deftness I don’t exactly see in abundance among today’s Democrats.

On the other hand, even further incompetence or failure on Trump’s part could finally, maybe, puncture the cult, and deliver the White House to Biden and the Congress to the Democrats. And the huge sums now being proposed by even the GOP to shore up the economy and the stock market at a time of massive debt, as well as the stark failures of our public-health planning, could make an activist government agenda much more politically palatable to Americans. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” as Rahm Emanuel once put it. And if a public-health catastrophe doesn’t bring home the need for effective universal health care, what could? This virus is also an opportunity for the left to move away from its unpopular woke identity obsessions toward a case for structural economic change fitting for the scale of the epidemic.

Or maybe this epidemic will merely accelerate some of the worst cultural trends of our time. One of the more fascinating theories to explain why Italy has been hit so hard in this plague is that Italian society remains more humane and human than others in the West, involves much more social connection and community, and brings generations physically together, where they find both happiness … and viruses. Maybe our comparative loneliness saved us some lives this time, and this plague’s “social distancing” will permanently and tragically entrench an American way of life that has already stripped so many of community and connection.

For the weeks and months ahead, we’ll be spending much, much more time at home, or communicating entirely virtually. There will abruptly be less work to do, and less money coming in, and marriages under the acute stress of unending cohabitation. We will retreat into our online worlds, where viruses only affect computers, and withdraw from our neighbors when we could do with coming together. Online delivery will replace restaurants; Amazon will continue to displace local retail outlets; packages will just be left on the doorstep, no human interaction required. Our society will disperse inward, and the loneliness will be at times intense.

During the AIDS epidemic, those of us in the thick of it grew closer, caring for the sick and each other, hugging, supporting, bonding, or just showing up when we were needed. Or we’d get together in groups to remind ourselves we weren’t alone. This time, that kind of physical solidarity and comfort is impossible — because, with this virus, we cannot touch each other without risk of infection. It’s now been two weeks since I got a hug. And those weeks may become months. What will we do to cheer ourselves? How do we have sex without fear of infection?

Good will happen too. Surely it will. The silence in the streets portends something new. The other day, I realized I’d been texting a lot less and calling a lot more. I wanted to make sure my friends and family were okay, and I needed to see their faces and hear their voices to be reassured. As we withdraw from each other in the flesh, we may begin to appreciate better what we had until so recently: friendship and love made manifest by being together, simple gifts like a shared joint, a head resting on your shoulder, a hand squeezed, a toast raised. And in this sudden stop, we will also hear the sounds of nature — as our economic machine pauses for a moment and the contest for status or fame or money is canceled for just a while. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal said. Well, we’ll be able to test that now, won’t we?

These weeks of confinement can be seen also, it seems to me, as weeks of a national retreat, a chance to reset and rethink our lives, to ponder their fragility. I learned one thing in my 20s and 30s in the AIDS epidemic: Living in a plague is just an intensified way of living. It merely unveils the radical uncertainty of life that is already here, and puts it into far sharper focus. We will all die one day, and we will almost all get sick at some point in our lives; none of this makes sense on its own (especially the dying part). The trick, as the great religions teach us, is counterintuitive: not to seize control, but to gain some balance and even serenity in absorbing what you can’t.

There may be moments in this great public silence when we learn and relearn this lesson. Because we will need to relearn it, as I’m rediscovering in this surreal flashback to a way of living I once knew. Plague living is almost seasonal for humans. Like the spring which insists on arriving.

See you next Friday.

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Andrew Sullivan: How to Survive a Plague