The pandemic prattle

Not being gentle reader’s “news hound,” I have nothing to add, nor even subtract, from mass media reports of the coronavirus pandemic. (In China, Iran, and Italy, we already have three dispersed regions to justify that label.) I have my suspicions on how it started, and even how it first spread, but these could not be useful, now. I lack exact medical knowledge of the pathogen and its behaviour, and have otherwise no way of guessing its future course. No one yet knows the death rate, or can master the epidemiology, until the disease has run more of its course.

From the (partly legendary) history of “plagues,” I know that human efforts to stop them will generally be counter-productive, and that confidence in new methods is misplaced. Some, today, are impressive, nevertheless, and the speed at which medical labs have been responding creatively in the United States, Israel, and other free countries, is encouraging: within months we may have working firewalls and a “cure.” But within weeks the whole population of our “globalized,” “interactive,” “synergetic” world will have been infected. The virus has already landed in hundreds of global locations, and that was all it needed.

We can know that panic is, not seldom, but never helpful, and we live in a time when the technical means of spreading panic have advanced suddenly and tremendously. They are intentionally abetted. The crisis will be — is being — used for political ends, which must necessarily undermine the bless├ęd “stay calm and carry on” impulse. On the other hand, there is no more way to stop a panic, until it has burnt itself out, than to stop a novel virus; at best we can slow it if the public authorities are factual and candid. But what will be, will be. Such pain as may be coming, will come.

Pain, in the broadest sense, including the imaginary, is the issue. Our modern societies have been, we might say, trained to cope with it poorly. Our anxieties about quite modest forms of physical discomfort, are often no longer in our control. All traditional societies were better in this respect: both Christian and non-Christian. Without being explicitly stoic, people were raised to embrace “coping mechanisms” which range from purposeful distraction from the pain at hand, to fatalist assumptions.

We were once raised to expect pain, to accept it as part of having a living body. It came with nature, and so, living there, we were prepared to endure it. A distinction between pain, which may or may not be “objective,” and suffering, which involves a commanding element of choice, is common to all previous societies; ours are actually innovative in this regard. We want instant relief, and even demand it, propelled by our absurd faith in technology. We distribute blame when it doesn’t arrive, as if every disaster were the product of a plot. I get this from the tone of so much media reporting: malicious allegations of malice. I’ve been guilty of it myself.

For us, the virus is a useful growing up experience. The world is still the world, though we thought we had changed it. Events happen which we didn’t foresee. Live with them, or die, as necessary. For Christians, neither should impinge upon our overriding joy.