The Coronavirus, and Why Humans Feel a Need to Moralize Epidemics

Every plague must have its point. That’s been more or less the universal human response to sudden or unexpected bursts of pestilence, of the kind that seem to put not just individuals but entire societies at risk, for as long as we have kept records, literary and narrative, of what happens when these things happen. The truth that there is a constant, unending, and unpredictable warfare between human and bug, which takes place in a state of moral indifference, at least on the bug’s side, is somehow profoundly counterintuitive. This war, of course, takes place not just between human and microbe but engages all life on earth, with each living thing in a constant state of unequal warfare with microscopic bugs of all kinds, parasites and bacteria and viruses.

In the face of that unending and often frightening cycle, we seek not merely material cause but moral purpose—a price paid or a lesson learned from sickness. When bad things happen to good people, we seek a cause; when bad things happen to everyone, we seek a reason, and it had better be a very good reason, on a par with the pain that it inflicts.

The most famous of these efforts, of course, attaches to the first great recorded plague of modern times, the black plague of the fourteenth century, which produced unimaginable devastation throughout Europe. It was carried by rats, or by infected fleas that travelled on rats, but at the time it seemed utterly mysterious: people would sicken and die in the most horrible ways, and anyone who approached them would, too. The rot had to be rising from within. It was a judgment from God, or, perhaps, a poison from the Jews; modern European anti-Semitism, including mass killings of Jews, is often thought to date from the plague years. That you couldn’t see the cause because it was too small to see—or perhaps because fleas were so common that no one could absorb the idea that something so mundane might be a source of the disaster—was hard to grasp. The trick was to understand that something on such a huge scale could happen for a reason that was, in itself, absurdly small—because of rats and fleas, not gods.

Again and again, in the history of illness, we find the same desire to attach a moral to a microbe. Even as late as the nineteenth century, when scientific medicine was just beyond the toddler stage, the idea that a “miasma” was responsible for cholera was widespread among even educated people, and with it came a moralizing: the poor and the immigrants died because they were always in sickness, or brought it with them, or kept it inside them.

One of the great revolutions in human thought and consciousness was the realization that microbes are amoral—that they come not to punish or instruct but to live, to reproduce, as living things will, completely indifferent to the terrible results they can wreak. With this insight came the knowledge that what we needed was not moral reform but public hygiene. The one great advantage we have over medieval people is not that we worship a better god but that we know to wash our hands.

In this sudden current plague, this desire to find a moral agent to blame has produced an urge to, as they say in the academy, “other” the bug. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, called the novel coronavirus, in a tweet, the “Chinese coronavirus,” in an apparent effort to other it right out of American responsibility and back to the Mysterious East.

But people on all sides of the political equation make the mistake of seeing pestilence as punishment—as, perhaps, a function of our broaching the edges of the environment. Though some have suggested that the encroachment of urban spaces on rural ones in China is causing novel viral varieties to spring up, there’s a plausible case that the spread of this coronavirus was not the result of a sudden descent of one way life upon another but an intersection of snakes and bats and pangolins at a traditional “wet market,” where seafood and wild animals are sold. (These markets, where, it is believed, novel viruses have spread in the past, have now been banned from selling wildlife throughout China, though apparently there is sufficient demand for the animals to create the possibility of a black market.)

Though preventing the “drivers” that mix animal viruses together in a toxic brew makes sense, it is also the case that no one prophylactic, however environmentally virtuous, will stop all future plagues. Life and its enemies seem likely to be, at the least, inflected by more contingency than we can quite bear. A bug will pass, and then, even if we reform ourselves and our environmental behavior completely, the history of life on the planet suggests that another will rise and bite us all again.

What is now taking the place of moralizing stories are many-pronged efforts, which seem shocking for what is, so far, a limited disaster—one that still counts hundreds of confirmed cases in cities of millions of people. The cheering news is that in Singapore and South Korea it seems that extreme measures of social isolation and quarantine have produced small but notable declines in the incidence of infection—the small decline “flattens the curve” and seems to have begun to turn the pestilence around. (On Wednesday, though, Seoul reported a new cluster.) Italy is trying a similar experiment on an unprecedented scale. How authoritarian a society has to be for such measures to work is what is called in scientific circles “an interesting question,” and one of the unknowable consequences of the current crisis may be a shakeup in our understanding of how much rigidity is necessary for a government to flourish in our era.

One of the ironies of the moment is that, where it’s been the usual path, in modern times, to find small, incremental measures having big effects on public problems, in this case, big, seemingly outsize measures—cancelling public activities, closing schools and offices—are necessary to create the small changes in vectors that can at least manage the pandemic. This novelty perhaps explains why it is so hard to wrap our minds around the changes: it turns out that it is possible for something to be at once a huge public-health crisis while creating, so far, a minimal number of visible, obvious cases of illness.

The sane thing right now is not to hope for a miracle cure but to accept that maximal measures might have usefully minimal effects. “Don’t other the bug; flatten the curve!” is a good motto, and pretty much all the wisdom that science—or simple rationality—offers in this jumpy moment.