Date: Apr. 10, 2020
By: Andrew Sullivan
Of all the lessons that plagues teach us, surely the most valuable one is humility.
Look around you. The most advanced, sophisticated, and wealthy civilization ever to exist on planet Earth — our glorious, multinational, globalized, technological miracle — has now been brought to a screeching halt by a pathogen so tiny no one was able to see their complex structures until the last century. For all our unparalleled wealth and knowledge, our streets are empty; our businesses for the most part are suspended; and our efficiency and technological mastery have been mocked by a speck of nature. This minuscule organism that isn’t even technically alive could, all by itself, generate a global depression unlike any since the 1930s.
All our carefully maintained, just-in-time supply lines have crashed in a matter of days. Our addictive elixir, economic growth, has evaporated. Global trade has been put on ice. We have no vaccine — and, barring a miracle, we won’t until next year. We have no effective treatments, although that may, with any luck, change. We have only very porous defenses — social distancing — which amount to a drastic, utterly unsustainable shift in how we live from day to day. And that’s it. We don’t know how contagious this virus is, how exactly it may mutate, how widespread it already is in the population at large, and even if it can reactivate in those who have recovered from infection.
We obsess about the responses of our governments, as is only proper, and we parse charts and debate tactics, to gain some sort of edge on tackling it. But when you look at the graphs of the viral curve in most of the major countries, most of them are unsettlingly similar. Yes, there are some more successful countries like Germany, and some outliers, like South Korea, but the rest seem to be following the same rough trajectory. And yes, we are flattening the curve … but it’s a temporary flattening due to unprecedented global shutdown of human activity. We may well be able, by suspending our entire way of life for a long while, to keep this virus from wreaking excessive and immediate damage, and overwhelming our hospitals. But we will not have beaten COVID-19. We will merely have stretched out the time it takes to spread.
The moment we relax, it will come back. Singapore, an early model for suppressing the virus, is now seeing a new wave after relaxing some controls. A leaked draft of a memo from the E.U. notes that “any level of [gradual] relaxation of the confinement will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases.” The same risks of a rebound are being seen in China, in so far as we can believe a word that murderous dictatorship tells us. Meanwhile, I look around me and see a slow attenuation of social distancing — the park where I walk my dogs is increasingly crammed. Humans are social animals. There is a limit to our capacity to remain alone. In crises, in particular, our instinct is to seek one another, gather strength from our common experience. The virus exploits this mercilessly.
It’s a brutal reality check, this thing — relentlessly ripping the veil off our delusions of control. So much is being laid bare. The promise of a truly globalized world, where government is increasingly international, and trade free, and all would benefit, was already under acute strain. Now, it’s broken, perhaps irrevocably.
The nation-state was beginning to reassert itself before, but COVID-19 has revealed its indispensability. Europeans realized, if they hadn’t already, that a truly continental response was beyond the E.U. Borders were suddenly enforced, resources hoarded by individual nations, and the most important decisions were made by national governments, in national interests. Americans, for their part, saw their own dependence on foreign countries, especially dictatorships, for core needs — like medicine, or medical equipment — as something to be corrected in the future. Japan is now spending a fortune paying its own companies to relocate from China to the homeland. [FULL STORY]