The arc of the pandemic
Looking at the moon
thoughts of a thousand things
fill me with sadness—
but autumn’s dejection
does not come to me alone.
Ōe no Chisato, Poem 23 from One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each (Hyakunin Isshu)
Autumn, that most Japanese of seasons, has arrived again. The beauty of the leaves and sky, tinged with the deep melancholy that comes with decay. That distinct sense of loss and sadness autumn provokes, these feelings are in the air as I reflect further on where we collectively find ourselves. In March 2021, I suggested:
The social world feels like a snow globe that has been shaken, and as the snowflakes slowly settle, it will be easier for us to recognise that contained reality.
While emphasising the difficult of seeing clearly, the hope implicit in the imagery is that in the future the snowflakes would settle, the contained reality would become clearer. Increasingly I wonder whether a more appropriate image is a snow globe that has been pushed off a table, smashing on the ground. The possibility of seeing a contained reality instead dashed on the floor, shattered in pieces. Yet that might all be a touch dramatic, we still can try to give voice to our ‘unnamable present’.
Even if the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to circulate, cause loss and damage, as a societal phenomenon the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be coming to an awkward, asynchronous end. Individuals, communities, institutions, countries are unevenly moving out of conditions dominated by the virus and our responses to it. The historian of medicine Charles E. Rosenberg observed that, ‘epidemics ordinarily end with a whimper, not a bang.’ He noted this in sketching out a larger dramaturgic form for such phenomena:
Epidemics start at a moment in time, proceed on a stage limited in space and duration, following a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character, then drift toward closure.
Rosenberg presented this arc when considering AIDS in historical perspective, it also appears to apply to the last few years. And so, perhaps we are reaching a point where we can more directly reckon with what we have experienced, and how it has changed our world. We need to try to make sense of what has unfolded, where we are, and might be going. As David Wallace-Wells recently observed, ‘increasingly, it feels possible to take stock not just of what happened but also of the inadequacy of some of the stories we told ourselves to make sense of the mess.’ This is what I hope to do here and in some future notes.
Nancy Bristow’s book, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, commences from the disjuncture between the huge impact of the Spanish flu and its much more limited incorporation into cultural memory:
If the pandemic was not forgotten, but rather lived on in individual and family memories and in countless lives remade by personal trauma and family loss, such a finding only heightens the need to explain our nation’s public amnesia.
While Bristow focuses on the US, some of what she captures arguably has wider applicability. She points to the role played by ‘preferred narratives’, which are ‘those stories that best fit a culture’s beliefs about itself and about its past, present, and future’. From this perspective, the ‘influenza pandemic was, simply put, the wrong narrative for its time and place’. There was little appetite to dwell on experiences of vulnerability, harm and trauma, this was not a story people wanted to tell themselves. And so, the loss and disruption was soon pushed from the collective memory. This all resonates with the present moment, as COVID-19 has moved to the edges of our media feeds and our minds. There seems to be a rather widespread desire not to reckon with what has occurred, a certain kind of disavowal. We dash forward to our ‘new normal’, regardless of how abnormal so much of it remains.
In understanding the move towards accepting SARS-CoV-2 virus as endemic, an important part has been the overlap of two significant developments: first, the rise of the Omicron strain, which has proven more manageable than prior variants, and second, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an event that soon captured the world’s collective attention. There is an another historical echo here, insofar as the Spanish flu overlapped with the First World War. On this, Bristow observes:
The military conflict trumped the epidemic in public discourse, keeping the pandemic both literally and figuratively relegated to back pages and small type. The war and the epidemic were soon conflated into a single struggle…
In this case, we can point to dynamics triggered or accelerated by the pandemic being conflated into issues primarily caused by Putin and Russia’s aggression. The preferred narrative taking shape appears to be one that moves our attention on and elsewhere, ‘nothing to see here, move along’. Perhaps it is easier to redirect fear than to dial it down, and so we move from being scared of COVID-19 to being scared of conflict spreading.
Separate from how we should now consider the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a health issue and a societal concern, there is a pressing need - individually and collectively - to try to make sense and give meaning to what has occurred. Fernand Braudel once reflected that, ‘great catastrophes ... make it necessary to think, or rather to think afresh, about the universe.’ As autumn leaves spread across the ground, and we collectively drift toward closure, there is a need to more actively engage in this process of reckoning.
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