The Covid 19 epidemic threatens in two ways. Firstly, a vast plague is sweeping the globe and nobody seems able to stop it – not governments or international organisations, so there seems no way for me to ensure my safety or that of people I care about.
Secondly, there’s the reaction of other people, which seems blind, irrational, and violently emotional.
I first noticed this tendency years and years ago, watching the funeral of Princess Diana. She was a tragic and badly treated figure. We were all very familiar with her and liked her, and her death was a shock, but the howling, animal misery of the crowd over the death of a woman they didn’t know terrified me. I think if somebody had been presented to them, then, as the cause of her death, they’d not only have torn them to pieces, they’d have eaten the corpse.
Now people are wearing plastic visors, like welding masks, and surgical gloves to go shopping. Many are bleaching all the packets when they get home. This would be fine, if they simply didn’t want to get sick or give the virus to other people who might get sick, or even die. It’s also not a mad precaution to avoid the slim chance of dying yourself – a bit OCD and probably futile, but, hey: each to their own…
But some seem genuinely terrified of dying, as if it was imminent and highly likely. Others seem to have a generalised anxiety that, if they don’t keep to the rules, somehow civilisation will come to an end.
So seeing somebody in full HAZMAT gear reaching for the last packet of sugar is profoundly disturbing because either they are right to take such precautions, in which case I should be very frightened of the virus, or they’re crazy, in which case I should be very frightened of them. And I wanted that sugar!
And, rather than being the beliefs and behaviours of quiet, individual eccentrics, these attitudes are held by huge, shouting crowds of people, on-line, who mercilessly persecute anyone who is singled out as having stepped out of line, their blood-lust given energy and legitimacy by each other, and by the idea that they are performing a public service, given that the rules aren’t enforceable by law. They are doing it for the good of their community, because PEOPLE COULD DIE!
I think a lot of these people aren’t so scared. They just want to do the right thing by self-isolating, but now they’re bored, mean-spirited and misanthropic, and they like persecuting each other. It’s fun.
And they all drive to Tesco’s, even though thousands of people die in car accidents each year. They all accept these background risks because they’re used to them and because, ultimately, that’s what they are: risks, not culpable homicides.
They’d point out that we now have to add the risk of death by Corona-virus to the pre-existing risk of death by car, making life even more hazardous. That’s true, but I still don’t see that a tipping point into mass hysteria needs to be reached. Wouldn’t it not be better to extend the stoicism that has served us so well in facing car deaths to our response to the Covid 19? Would it not be better to enforce and fund a humane and comfortable isolation of the vulnerable and let everyone else carry on?