It’s odd to know, as a citizen of your own time, what future historians will argue about it, but not to know what they will say about it—and, even odder, what they ought to say about it. We should, after all, be experts on our own experience; yet we aren’t. In a way, this isn’t surprising. Someone who fought in blue at Antietam would, presumably, be able to tell Civil War historians a thing or two about the face of battle. But, overwhelmed by smoke and noise, a soldier would more likely emerge from the battle simultaneously cursing his time and blessing his luck for surviving the fight, but having no more insight into the course—or the meaning—of it than anyone else. Veterans read military histories of the battles that they fought in more voraciously than do people who weren’t there. They, too, need the God’s-eye view in order to see their own experience.
Most of us living through the coronavirus pandemic are a little like those veterans—what we see is limited by the noise and the smoke of our immediate surroundings. We know that there’s a relation between our pandemic fears and our political anxieties, but articulating it is hard. Not long ago, the historian Niall Ferguson offered a succinct summary of the ways in which pandemics have historically infected politics, stretching back to the Plague of Athens—which induced, or oversaw, the Peloponnesian War—and to ways that the 1918 flu may have triggered the rise of both Bolshevism and Fascism.
We could hold the 1918 flu ultimately responsible for crises that occurred twenty years later, but it would have first had to tumble its way, domino by domino, through the excesses of the Jazz Age. Too many other causes came along the way to single out any. Similar efforts to moralize on this pandemic have so far proved slippery in certainty. Last summer, the admirable Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis tried writing a summary of the political lessons of the pandemic. Beginning with the idea that vaccines were unlikely to arrive any time soon—an idea now consigned to the hospital dustbin of history—he went on to the notion that Canada had done much better in handling the pandemic than the United States. As much as Canadians (myself included), proud of our long history of national health care, might want this to be true, the reality is more complicated. Montreal and Toronto recently have been under tighter restrictions than New York City, and the vaccine rollout is seen as inefficient. The larger, scary truth is that the mortality rate in the pandemic is remarkably labile from country to country; nations with strong national medical systems, such as France and Spain, haven’t always done much better than those with anarchic systems, such as the United States. Open democracy doesn’t seem to help as much as we might have hoped, either. Australia and South Korea have done extraordinarily well, but so, if the numbers are to be believed, has China. According to the Lowy Institute’s Covid Performance Index, “despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time.”
Turn to the past, and what you find are not neat historical vectors but the same indeterminacy. The historian Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., an expert on the relationship between plagues and people, has, story by story, exploded the neat, cartoon versions of history in which diseases point to unidirectional political vectors. In his extensive scholarship, including the book “Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS,” a staggeringly exhaustive study of the correlations between pandemics and political violence— taking in everything from the Black Death in fourteenth-century Florence to cholera in nineteenth-century London, syphilis in Impressionist Paris, and tuberculosis in early-twentieth-century New York—Cohn has shown, that, although pandemics and infectious diseases do sometimes lead us to blame some “other” group, they just as often create new kinds of social solidarity. “Pandemics did not inevitably give rise to violence and hatred,” Cohn writes. “In striking cases they in fact did the opposite, as witnessed with epidemics of unknown causes in antiquity, the Great Influenza of 1918–19 and yellow fever across numerous cities and regions in America and Europe. These epidemic crises unified communities, healing wounds cut deep by previous social, political, religious, racial and ethnic tensions and anxieties.”
Pretty much every generalization we might attempt in pandemic politics turns out to be unpersuasive. The Black Death destroyed Siena’s governmental system and increased violence there, but, just fifty miles away, in Florence, the same plague led to a marked decrease in civil disorder—the “tenor of life” there became less, not more, violent. In some places and moments, Cohn writes, in “The Black Death: End of a Paradigm,” fear of the plague “may have initiated a new intensity in the history of Jewish persecutions,” but in other, not-too-distant places and times, reactions to the plague inspired a new proto-scientific skepticism of authority, so that “the new plague doctors relied on their own ‘experience’ ” in battling illness. Looking in detail at the history of cholera, syphilis, and other diseases, it seems that, in each case, so to speak, for every anti-Semitic riot you get (and you get them), you also get social solidarity around threatened groups. No unidirectional pattern, just contingent acts.
The same truth holds today, as the research group ACLED’s COVID-19 Disorder Tracker shows: social disorder in the pandemic year has been planetwide, and it has been polarized in purpose. In some places—Hong Kong is an obvious example—the pandemic has provided cover for political repression. In others—the U.S. among them—it has been a catalyst for both legitimate social demonstrations and scaremongering protests. The only pattern that emerges is the absence of one.
Yet, within all that fluid movement, something solid surely can be seen; the uncertainty of outcomes—the wild oscillations between reform and reaction, between productive protest and riot—rests on the inherent ambivalence of pandemic psychology. Pandemics make people feel precarious, and feeling precarious can either focus our minds or fry our circuits.
If the entangled mysteries of plague and politics do point to a moral, it may lie in a novel that seems to be all about a pandemic but is actually primarily about politics. This is, of course, Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” Despite the novel’s omnipresence during the past year, its point is often missed. Long rightly understood as an inspired allegory of the German occupation of France, Camus’s novel is about how unprecedented pressures challenge and change ordinary people. Change happens in all kinds of vivid and unpredictable ways. Brave people panic, small people rise to the occasion. Some minister to the ill, others try to flee. Some of the characters who do flee have understandable reasons for doing so, such as to reunite with a loved one; some who stay have dubious motives. The pressures of a pandemic push us all to similar moments of moral choice: to march or not; to turn inward or outward; to become, like those Renaissance Florentines, skeptical of authority or furious at the outsider. None of it is fixed in advance.
Plagues don’t have plans. People do. What the unreasonable pressures of an inexplicable, universal medical crisis do is enlarge human possibility in all its variety, place it on the stage, and make it vivid. The basic existential choices that make meaning become inescapable then. The only moral a plague dictates is that nothing is dictated, and everything can alter, sometimes overnight. That pluralism of human possibilities is what we are still trying to enact as democratic politics.
More on the Coronavirus
- There are three moments in the yearlong catastrophe of the pandemic when events might have turned out differently.
- Citizens around the world, from Brazil to Rwanda, share their experiences of the pandemic.
- In countries where the rate of infection threatens to outstrip the capacity of the health system, doctors are confronting ethical quandaries.
- Surviving a severe coronavirus infection is hard. So is recovering.
- Can the COVID-19 vaccine beat the proliferation of new virus mutations?
- The pandemic has presented companies with an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the fundamentals of the physical workplace.