Turns out, I underestimated the potentials regarding COVID-19. I thought this would be another SARS or MERS — potentially dangerous, but containable; burning out relatively quickly. I wish I’d read this February 24 article in The Atlantic, which is still a worthy read now:
With its potent mix of characteristics, this virus is unlike most that capture popular attention: It is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways. Last week, 14 Americans tested positive on a cruise ship in Japan despite feeling fine—the new virus may be most dangerous because, it seems, it may sometimes cause no symptoms at all.
If you really want an icewater bath, read the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team’s report Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID- 19 mortality and healthcare demand. This is the modeling that scared governments and health organizations across the globe shitless.
The modeling paints a stark picture, the reason behind the most disruptive action taken by government and societies in my lifetime — perhaps in the modern history of the West. We’re locking down in ways that weren’t even seen in the West during World War II. The rationale behind this is understandable and, it appears, necessary. Given the stealthy nature of the viral infection, quarantine is probably the only means of interrupting the progress of the disease, which, if left unchecked, could collapse the health care system.
I get it. The problem is, like chemotherapy, the treatment is as toxic as the disease is deadly. My mother chose to die rather than endure another round of chemotherapy.
Suddenly, the thriving community newspaper, which I have spent the past 27 years of my life helping to build, is facing the same existential threat that thousands and thousands of other small businesses are facing. I believe we will pull through, and I damn well plan to keep on swinging the sword, but only a fool would pretend that anybody is going to emerge unscathed. Lives will be deformed by the economic fallout as surely as they are damaged and lost in the pandemic.
If the disruption is sharp but brief, the damage may be limited and recoverable. If it extends for months rather than weeks, it will fundamentally change the state of play.
There will be a great winnowing.
We may be in the midst of a civilizational crisis, an acceleration of the Crash that Rullman and I (and many others) have long foreseen, the prospect of which lay behind the original mission and purpose of The Running Iron Report. Massive dislocations such as what we are now experiencing mean profound change.
The Great Plains smallpox epidemic of 1837–40 broke the mighty Blackfoot Confederacy and forever changed the balance of power on the Plains and in the Rocky Mountain West. The Black Death nearly destroyed Europe — but also helped to usher in the Renaissance.
There may be those who still think we’ll be just fine and soon enough return to normal. I hope they’re wrong. Because what the Great Pandemic of 2020 has shown us is that “normal” was an illusion, that everything about our way of life is extremely fragile and unstable — from the way we work to the way we wipe our asses. The COVID-19 global pandemic of 2020 will be an epochal event. It will have profound knock-on effects for the rest of the 21st Century. The way we are governed and the way we will live will be affected in countless ways. There are dark potentials — and glimmers of light.
Draconian authoritarian responses to a crisis are sometimes necessary — but always dangerous. A taste of authoritarian power is as addicting as smack; it gets easier and easier to wield and, like a sentient hammer, it looks further and further afield for nails to pound. Massive government intervention in the economy — from Wall Street to the kitchen table — seems necessary if we are to avoid a Second Great Depression. But those who rejoice at the possibility that expanded government intervention will open the door to a new acceptance of democratic socialism should take a sober look at the national debt. Bailing out the world now (if that’s achievable) won’t mean free college tuition and health care are just around the bend — there won’t be any resources left for that sort of thing. The desire for fixes and some level of certainty and security in a truly frightening environment could make us susceptible to the siren song of purported political saviors and ideologies that purport to have all the answers — and that never ends well.
Or, we may just be forced to change the way we live in the world.
I keep coming back to the work of Patrick J. Deneen, which I wrote about here almost exactly two years ago.
Deneen argues that 21st Century Western Civilization is paying the price for the success — the very real successes — of the ideology of liberalism (the 17th/18th theory and practice, not as in the “liberal vs. conservative” framework of modern politics). We are stuck in a feedback loop where we seek to solve the problems liberalism has created by applying greater and greater doses of liberal “fixes.” As I wrote back in 2018:
Steeped as we are in an ideology that we scarcely recognize as such, we are tempted to apply liberal solutions to the pathologies and discontents that liberalism has created. If only we elect the “right” people, get big money out of politics, enact better policies and somehow make the system work better, surely we can correct the course and march on into a dazzling future. Deneen asserts, I think rightly, that applying liberal solutions — or, more realistically, Band-Aids — to ameliorate our discontents is doomed to failure. More consumer options in a globalized economy, more personal autonomy, more state intervention to try to “put things right” won’t save us. In fact, doubling down on what brought us to this pass will only deepen the crisis.
Seems we’re there. Will this profound shock to the system jolt us sufficiently to seek another path? On a civilizational scale — I doubt it. It would take a still more profound crisis —which may yet evolve out of this one — to do that. But this one certainly reinforces a sense of urgency for those who know we have to live differently to continue to try to build a meaningful, generative life in internal exile amidst the ailing, reeling empire of nothing.
* Art by Tim Bradstreet except where noted.
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