Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Really Change the Way We Think?

Far from making us revise our fundamentals and reform our thoughts, major historical
crises often reinforce our previous beliefs, and make us entrench deeper into our dogma.

The coronavirus pandemic, everyone tells us, is changing and will change everything that we think, believe, expect, and do. It’s what used to be called a “world historical moment.” Yet the curious thing about this certainty is that it seems to sit comfortably with the reality that, to a first approximation, no one has actually changed any view about anything because of the pandemic. The sins that you think the plague is punishing are the sins you were preaching against before it began. 

If, like Bernie Sanders and his followers, you believed in the absolute importance of national health insurance, of “socialized medicine,” then looking at the mess of the American health system under extreme duress—even at the simple reality that many of our doctors are primarily small businessmen and our hospitals profit-seeking firms—you are more than ever convinced of the necessity of Medicare for All. But this truth, undeniable on its own terms, does run silently aground against the parallel truth that, despite excellent, public-spirited health-care systems, France and Italy have per-capita mortality rates worse than our own. Paris, where the system is quick and flexible and universal, is shut down even more tightly than New York.

On the other hand, if, like the distinguished historian Niall Ferguson, you accept the importance of escaping, Brexit style, from big transnational bureaucracies, such as the European Union, you find proof in the superiority of the small, flexible, responsive city-state model you have long preferred—although the skill with which, say, Singapore has actually evaded the plague seems to alter from week to week.

If you see that issues of identity and inequality are central to our time, then the harsh proof that prejudice and poverty have created disproportionate casualties in the African-American community during the pandemic is the central fact. (And yet, it would be strange to look past the parallel evidence that men of all kinds and classes are dying from the virus more often than women—a correlation that seems to be largely biological, because even female mice have stronger defenses against coronaviruses than male mice do.)

And if you were indignant about the “culture wars” before, you have no time for them now; if you hated people cancelling “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” before the plague started, you are even colder about it now. (Though coming out against the culture wars now would be more impressive if you had ever been enthusiastic about them in the first place.)

In fact, it makes no more sense to moralize this virus than it did to moralize earlier plagues. This pandemic has acted with equal cruelty in theocratic societies, social-democratic ones, and in free-market citadels. To the degree that states seem to be more or less successful against the pandemic—predictably, in Iceland, or unpredictably, in Greece—the true and full cause of their escape is as yet unclear. California may have done so much better than New York simply by closing sooner, but its advantage was at most three days, with New York seeming to pay an unduly large price for a reasonably small delay. Certainly, plagues X-ray each government’s inequities and flaws, but they do so indifferently, universally. This one exposes the failures of the authoritarian opaqueness of China’s Communist Party as much as it does the indecencies of the Trump Administration. To seek one set of social sins as somehow central to the crisis is to miss the reason they put the “pan” in pandemic.

Nor is it necessarily our weaknesses and dysfunctions that account for our fatalities; it is often our greatest strengths and virtues as people and communities that are responsible for the worst consequences. New York City is the U.S. epicenter of this pandemic—the picture would look much less serious in America if it were not for us. But the best guesses as to why point to what are largely consequences of many of the most admirable things about the city and its people; things that are as good and as green as mass transit, high-rise living, and the glorious density of kinds that make New York New York. (The habit of driving alone in cars rather than crowding together on subways may be one reason that California has suffered less than New York, but that does not mean that driving alone in cars is now morally virtuous.) And the intergenerational mingling of Italy—until months ago, one of the boasts and joys of Italian life—seems partly responsible for that beautiful country’s woeful record. At a time when people longed for community, they had it, and have suffered for it.

There is no surprise in this. Far from making us revise our fundamentals and reform our thoughts, major historical crises almost invariably reinforce our previous beliefs, and make us entrench deeper into our dogma. By Christmas of 1914, it was apparent that no European power’s war aims could be achieved, and that to continue the course would entail only meaningless mass slaughter. But that didn’t make the European leaders revise their views; it just made them redouble the effort. They just dug in—literally, into the mud on the Western front, and ideologically, into the dogmas of heroic militarism and the necessity of war.

What makes it hard to maintain our intellectual integrity in such times is that crises can expose some political truths, though we have to struggle to see straight and recognize the limits of what they expose. It is not false to see a vast difference between the Five O’Clock Follies of Donald Trump and the noontime sanities of Andrew Cuomo. (One New Yorker is so dependent for reassurance on Cuomo’s appearances that she claims to feel calmer as soon as she hears the odd New Age-y music that precedes them.) But while Cuomo’s candor and clarity may have helped flatten the curve, the plague has not nearly ended, and in the face of the uncertainties he has had to rely on essentially the same therapies that until Trump’s latest swerves, the White House had, however reluctantly, enjoined as well: shutdowns and social distancing. The performances have moral content in themselves, but everyone’s efficacy is severely limited in the face of an as yet incurable virus.

If there is a point to be drawn from the plague it is, perhaps, that we are caught in a conundrum of numbers not easily parsed by human minds. The scale of modern populations—about nine million people in New York City—are so vast that even small statistical minorities represent huge numbers of human beings. The covid-19 “truthers”—the self-proclaimed and mostly self-instructed skeptics about the gravity of the coronavirus crisis—are not entirely wrong when they point to what are, by historical standards, the limited fatalities of this plague and to the accompanying truth that the fatalities largely fall in predictable groups, chiefly of the elderly and the already ill. But in this country alone that “limited” number means more than sixty thousand people dead already, many of whom were healthy and some of whom were young. Even a small percent of an enormous population is an enormous number.

In times past, societies accepted mortality from infectious disease as part of existence—death as part of life—without stopping work or study or love or dinner. (When Beth March dies after contracting scarlet fever, in “Little Women,” it is heartbreaking, but not surprising.) It is a part of the moral acquisition of our time that we don’t feel this way, and part of our material improvement that we don’t have to feel this way. We could, until recently, rely on science to relieve us of a good deal of our suffering. That we have so little to rely on for the moment may be the real lesson that the plague is teaching—a lesson, really, in the fragility of progress and the suddenness of its possible reversion. Such ambivalence, at least, contains more truth, if of a tragic kind, than the simplicities of ideological self-soothing.

Adam Gopnik