In all the thousands of words printed or spoken on the coronavirus in the last few months, there is one reflection I have not seen. Most responses lie somewhere on a scale between fear and contempt, between total acceptance and total rejection of the reality of the virus and the wisdom of various measures taken in reaction to it. A minority call it a ‘scamdemic’ and point to an apparent disparity between fatality rates and the often draconian measures taken to supposedly protect us from a very minor threat. Another group, equally vociferous and far more prevalent in the media, linger ghoulishly over every fatality and tell us that without protective measures hundreds of thousands of us would now be dead.
The first group can sound like conspiracy theorists and the second group can sound like the religious fanatics of a doomsday cult, but both are actually in agreement in one sense: they see the coronavirus and responses to it as exceptional, extraordinary, a radical departure from our normal lives. It is either a chilling expansion of State power and public hysteria or it is a terrible plague we must all combat. Natural libertarians and authoritarians hold the proud banners of each of those opposing armies of thought, but both agree on the nature of the battleground. Most of us, of course, vacillate between the two extremes, like bewildered peasants caught between two medieval forces.
I think I am alone though in having reached the conclusion that the coronavirus and responses to it such as social distancing and other ‘lockdown’ measures are not exceptional, nor are they surprising. After all the history of previous pandemics and far more fatal outbreaks tells us that a connected world which brings the benefits of trade also brings the dangers of transmission. The wonderful flow of goods and ideas is also the road used by dangers and diseases, so a pandemic at some stage was an inevitable consequence of growing globalism and the increasing engagement of once isolated or exotic regions in global trade. Outsourcing large chunks of our economy to China for short-term benefits has a significant, even if not solely causative, link to the rapid spread of viruses from China, of which we should remember that this current virus is the nineteenth recent incarnation.
But in a far broader and more philosophical sense we see in the coronavirus and supposedly exceptional responses something deeply familiar. The virus and the lockdown are aspects of modernity. Specifically, of our modernity, of the things we have been doing and thinking for the last hundred years. All they are, really, is an accelerated version of processes that have been ongoing for quite some time. The State has been expanding for more than a century, and expands faster in response to a declared crisis. The Church has been in abject retreat for more than a century, and thus predictably greeted this crisis with the compliant closing of its doors, a refusal to speak or lead, and general invisibility on the stage of events. It’s curious amalgam of bureaucratic incompetence and monopoly on compassion and charity, once absolute, has long been challenged by state funded bodies and institutions, in the UK most notably the NHS, which during the current explosion of saccharine mandated sentiment has finally been enthroned as the only really universal religion. This is an acceleration of, not a departure from, our normal experience.
Perhaps the saddest of all these measures, the one that is most in tune with modernity and the least noticeable as a departure from normality, is social distancing. We have been social distancing ourselves for well over a hundred years, possibly for several centuries. When we leave ancient villages to work in crowded cities, that, ironically, is social distancing. We removed ourselves from the traditional and the familiar. We became rootless, all of us moving again and again in our lives. Communities do not meaningfully exist anymore for most western societies, because communities require the kind of strong and sometimes controlling social ties we wanted to abandon. Similarly, who can say that families, today, are not quite often broken, atomised, and separated in ways that would be unfathomable a century ago? Tell us that we are safer huddling behind our own doors and not interacting with strangers? Isn’t that a lesson everyone learns in a modern city, regardless of a virus? Tell us not to visit elderly or distant relatives? Isn’t that, sadly, something we have been practicing by degrees for a very long time? Tell us to interact through screens and technology? Hello, that’s also an old friend already.
It’s not the ‘new normal,’ in that horrible phrase that reporters love. It’s just normal. We started doing it all before the coronavirus.