As the global pandemic raged, many people failed to take her advice. Voices including an Islamic State spokesman, Hulk Hogan and a conservative pastor from Florida named Rick Wiles declared that the virus was a punishment from God. Other, greener voices suggested it was nature’s revenge on the human race — though, to be fair, there were louder voices warning against anthropomorphizing “Mother Nature.” The old science-fiction idea that the human race is the virus from which the Earth is trying to recover got some airtime too. Politicians characterized the pandemic as a war. Arundhati Roy called it “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” And sales of Albert Camus’s 1947 novel “The Plague” went through the roof.
I didn’t buy any of it, the stuff about divine or earthly retribution, or the dreams of a better future. Many people wanted to feel that some good would come out of the horror, that we would as a species somehow learn virtuous lessons and emerge from the cocoon of the lockdown as splendid New Age butterflies and create kinder, gentler, less greedy, more ecologically wise, less racist, less capitalist, more inclusive societies. This seemed to me, still seems to me, like Utopian thinking. The coronavirus did not strike me as the harbinger of socialism. The world’s power structures and their beneficiaries would not easily surrender to a new idealism. I couldn’t help finding strange our need to imagine the good emerging out of the bad. Europe in the time of the Black Death, and later London during the Great Plague, weren’t full of people trying to see the positive side. People were too busy trying not to die.
We are not the dominant species on the planet by accident. We have great survival skills. And we will survive. But I doubt that a social revolution will follow because of the lessons of the pandemic. But yes, sure, one can hope for betterment, and fight for it, and maybe our children will see — will make — that better world.
It is a part of our tragedy that in this time of crisis we have been cursed, in many countries, including all three of those I have most cared about in my life, with leaders of astonishing cynicism and bad faith. In India, Narendra Modi’s government used the pandemic to put the blame on Muslims. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson (despite having had and recovered from the virus himself) handled the crisis with stunning incompetence, at first downplaying the dangers, reacting too little and too late and continuing to play the Brexiteers’ anti-immigrant card, in spite of the fact that both the primary caregivers who looked after him in the hospital were immigrants and the British National Health Service as a whole depends on their skills and courage.
And in Donald Trump’s America, where nothing was unthinkable, no matter how low he and his followers sank, there was always a lower level to sink to — in Trumpistan, the virus (like everything else) was politicized, minimized, called a Democrat trick; the science was derided, the administration’s lamentable response to the pandemic was obscured by a blizzard of lies, wearers of masks were abused by wearers of red hats, and the mountain of the dead went on growing, unmourned by the self-obsessed charlatan who claimed, in the face of all the evidence, that he was making America great again.
To repair the damage done by these people in these times will not be easy. I may not see the wounds mended in my lifetime. It may take a generation or more. The social damage of the pandemic itself, the fear of our old social lives, in bars and restaurants and dance halls and sports stadiums, will take time to heal (although a percentage of people seem to know no fear already). We will hug and kiss again. But will there still be movie theaters? Will there be bookstores? Will we feel okay in crowded subway cars?
The social, cultural, political damage of these years, the deepening of the already deep rifts in society in many parts of the world, including the United States, Britain and India, will take longer. It would not be exaggerating to say that as we stare across those chasms, we have begun to hate the people on the other side. That hatred has been fostered by cynics and it bubbles over in different ways almost every day.
It isn’t easy to see how that chasm can be bridged — how love can find a way.