Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

Fear and Extravagance in a Plague

A woman arrives at a hospital for coronavirus patients near Moscow, Russia, March 19, 2020. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)
Some similarities across the ages

Plagues can dissolve the normal function of our lung cells, and our societies. March 7 was a bright and warm day where I live, one of the first of the season. I spent it playing with my young children in the backyard, helping them give names to the bugs and rocks that share their home. And then the news was beamed down into my phone that, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, northern Italy would be locked down. The churches were already abandoned; weddings and funerals would be prohibited until further notice. Hospital visits were forbidden in many cases. Desolation was not just visited upon Bergamo and Milan, but made official and mandatory. It was as if the virus had been given the key to the cities and used it to lock their inhabitants up and torture a number of them. 

A dark thought occurred to me, one that hadn’t before. This infernal disease could isolate you from your spouse and children before it kills you, and then deny them the consolation of a public funeral. Burials in the worst-hit regions of Italy are now often done with just a single priest and an attendant from the funeral home. There was a smaller outbreak just a few miles down the Saw Mill River Parkway from where I live. We had as many confirmed cases in my county as Italy had had ten days earlier. 

Our response was to shut our children in the house with us. To hold them from school that Monday and begin pleading with the superintendent to close the schools. We made a crash course in the final preparations. Should we disinfect packages delivered to the house? Should we order takeout from our local restaurants? We closed in around one another, and my wife and I began texting our aged parents about the holiday and birthday celebrations that would be canceled. I will be honest. We are governed by fear. Fear of the unknown. The small but gnawing fear of the improbable event of leaving young children bereaved for a grandparent or parent too early. 

No less human a reaction is to become suddenly heedless. Thucydides described the way the plague of ancient Athens brought about “lawless extravagance” in which men set aside the normal rules. “They resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day.” He wrote, “It was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.”

And I saw the same. As schools and offices eventually shut and rumors of forthcoming “shelter in place” orders or a cordon sanitaire circulated in social media, the local wine bar made a small killing. My younger, far-flung relatives went out in Brooklyn, Dublin, and Melbourne for a “final night.” These scenes have been repeated in the nights before every rumored war and plague. What Athens then and Brooklyn in March of 2020 share is a lack of widespread testing and a rational regime of isolation and quarantine of the sick. 

It is easy to get angry with the revelers, who may have spread the disease unknowingly. But it will prove impossible to hold them to account. With widespread testing, South Korea has identified a single member of a church as creating three separate clusters of the disease in that country. This poor woman, if identified by name, will bear a heavy cost for life. Widespread testing allowed normal life to return to Singapore and will soon allow normal life to return to South Korea, because it restores the senses of accountability and fairness that are necessary in a law-governed society. 

The fear and lawless extravagance are two understandable reactions to the unknown. A state of ignorance liberates some and confines others. A widespread test for the virus would put an end to both simultaneously. We instinctively know that both responses are wrong. One threatens public health, and the other threatens the functioning of the economy. 

COVID-19 is devilish because so many of those who contract it are without symptoms, or with symptoms that are indistinguishable from the common cold. These days, in Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York, if you have a cough or a low-grade fever but no access to a test, you have no idea whether your actions are putting others in danger. You cannot know whether delivering canned goods to elderly neighbors is saving them some trouble or exposing them to fatal danger. 

My friend Eve Fairbanks got tested after landing back in South Africa. She referred to the previous uncertainty as placing her under a guilt. To describe it, she called upon the concept in Roman law of dolus eventualis, the injuring of someone by taking a risk whose consequences can be foreseen. Until we are tested, our daily tasks are shadowed by this guilt.

As I write, America is collectively tending toward the decision to shut ourselves in, close schools, and telecommute. Some states are shutting down bars and forcing the heedless back to their homes. It is an ancient way of fighting disease, one available to the Athenians and to us. But a modern society cannot use ancient methods for long without an immense cost to modernity itself. 

We are using the ancient method of self-imposed quarantines to keep the body safe, and the modern Internet to keep up a semblance of schooling, commerce, and work. But the modern methods will have to rescue us from disease before long. 

In the meantime, there is a form of ignorance that feels like sanity as well. I see it in my children. Our oldest is old enough to learn and repeat the word “coronavirus.” But she is young enough not to be troubled by it. She is too young to worry about lost access to the Sacrament of Confession. Too young to comprehend or worry about death. She is bothering her parents throughout their workday for attention. She is relieved of the anxieties of fitting in with her peers at kindergarten, which already manifest in her wanting to wear one pair of shoes and not another. And in her own humble way, she carries on the work of preserving civilization. To rescue her from boredom, we taught her to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the piano. As her parents discuss the news and the provision of food, waiting for lawless extravagance and fear to abate, she plonks away, a little light against our darkest imagination. And a reminder that better times will come soon. 

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