I was mansplaining to my wife earlier this week about why we ought to be very, very concerned by the coronavirus. It wasn’t the prospect of one person in 50 dying, I said — or not just that. It was more, I said sagely, the knock-on effects. You know, if everyone self-isolates, you’re only about two missed food deliveries away from starvation, looting, cannibalism etc.
‘You’re always catastrophizing,’ said my wife. ‘You were like this about Trump. And Brexit. I think it’s because you spend too much time reading the news.’
‘But Trump is very bad,’ I said, because he is. ‘He could start a war.’
‘He hasn’t started a war.’
‘He hasn’t yet,’ I said sulkily, before attempting to undo her deft change of subject. Coronavirus, I said. This, I mean, this could be the big one. Think of the damage to the economy. Yes, I know I said that about Brexit but that hasn’t happened yet, and — no, obviously a cut in interest rates would be kind of a good thing given the mortgage but, look, I’ve just been to the grocery store, and…
Well, I had just been to the grocery store and slightly to my disappointment it was floor-to-ceiling reasonably priced hand sanitizer and a very bountiful supply of three-ply toilet paper. It didn’t look like the apocalypse in East Finchley. It didn’t feel like the End of Days. But then again, I warned/consoled myself, the End of Days doesn’t feel like the End of Days until it is. As Hemingway wrote, you go broke two ways: gradually then suddenly.
The first you know of the Four Horsemen is a distant clip-clop clip-clop. You think, perhaps, gosh, I wonder if some nice old-style rag-and-bone men are coming down the street. Then, boom: the Last Trump blows out your double-glazing, the Whore of Babylon is twerking away right in your dismayed line of sight, and the physical resurrection of the dead is having, like, a very dampening effect on north London property prices.
So, yes, it doesn’t feel like the great catastrophe. But who knows that it won’t be? Viral pandemics (along with nuclear war, climate collapse, meteor strikes and, oddly, the invention of over-enthusiastic paperclip-making AI) are among the handful of plausible threats to civilization as we know it. It was pure dumb luck, as outlined in Richard Preston’s hair-raising book The Hot Zone, that the virulent form of airborne ebola that showed up in suburban Washington in the late 1980s was one that killed off monkeys like billy-oh but didn’t affect human beings.
So there are two schools of thought, as exemplified by me and my wife. Hers — ‘It will all probably be fine’ — is the one that seems most nearly to accord with the relative normality of our day-to-day lives. Mine — which we could call the ‘We’re all doomed’ position — is based on a big ‘What if?’, or at least on the sneaking sense that when really disastrous events happen they tend not to announce themselves as such. A downpage news item about some dead toff in Sarajevo; a few demobbed soldiers feeling a bit peaky; those shouty clowns parading down the street in those stupid shiny boots; a dinosaur raising its long neck to look at a pretty light streaking across the sky…
The fissure between those schools of thought runs, I think, not only through my family but through the government and through many human hearts. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves by predicting doom when it doesn’t happen; but at the same time nobody really wants to be the person telling everyone to return to their desks and await further instruction as burning jet fuel pours through the building. Chicken Little got it wrong, but Cassandra got it right. What Nassim Taleb has called ‘black swan’ events catch you by surprise exactly because they are so rare we have no means of expecting them. The writers of speculative fiction are better at imagining these events than insurance actuaries.
My friend Ben — a more sympathetic audience to my anxieties than my wife — has been rereading John Wyndham, and notes that what Wyndham does so well is imagine the speed and totality with which society can collapse in the face of an unexpected threat. He picked out one point: in post-triffid London the fronts of buildings have fallen off (a folk memory of the Blitz refracted through fiction, perhaps); nobody has cleared the guttering, so rainwater has poured down and destroyed the façades. A brilliant, unexpected detail.
And Wyndham was writing in and of an age when the ripples of disaster moved more slowly. Looking at our modern global web of just-in-time supplies, it doesn’t seem impossible to imagine that we aren’t all that many days of no deliveries away from empty shelves and empty bellies and all that comes with that. Panic is contagious. Even if they’re not doing so in our local grocery store, people have been recorded already having vicious punch-ups about a so-far non-existent shortage of toilet paper, and the reports of those punch-ups are having a cascade effect through social media. The idea of a crisis can beget a real crisis.
And there’s the other problem. As with terrorism, it’s often not the thing that has the potential to do damage, but the reaction to the thing. The September 11 attacks took a huge number of lives and caused many more to be lost. They indirectly destabilized the whole of the Middle East. But, in a more mundane way, think also of the billions of hours of time and money lost to the economy from all those people glumly de-belting, taking off their shoes and putting their laptops in trays every time they go through
I don’t envy the government as they wonder what the hell to do or say about Covid-19, knowing that how they call it will have a direct and dramatic effect on everyone’s lives; that saving lives from a virus may cost them, down the line, elsewhere and in different ways. Confine everyone to quarters and wreck the economy — which, obviously, isn’t just stocks and shares but livelihoods; which is the taxes that pay for the hospitals that keep all sorts of unwell people from the reaper? Or — as some have seemed to suggest — take the virus ‘on the chin’, and seem callously to accept that it’s worth the lives of many thousand old or poor or sick people to keep the show on the road?
I hope, and in truth expect, that in a few weeks we’ll be saying: not this time. Thank goodness. Not this time. But really, who knows? Clip-clop.