State of denial: how the coronavirus caught the West off guard


Sustainable Livelihoods

Picture of Zachary McGuinness
Zachary McGuinness

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one of the characters is asked how he came to be bankrupt: “Two ways,” he replies, “gradually and then suddenly.”

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19 has followed a similar logic. At first, the disease spreads slowly, almost imperceptibly. But the nature of exponential growth means that in almost no time, the slow trickle of cases quickly becomes a steady current, and then a cascade.

As with the spread of the virus, so too with the faltered and frenzied response of governments and citizens – “gradually and then suddenly.” In Wuhan, China, where the virus is believed to have originated in a live animal market, it took over a month for authorities to realise they had a new and deadly pathogen on their hands, and longer still before they marshalled a forceful response, after a lengthy time delay of deception and cover-up. By the time China took the unprecedented step of shutting down much of the country, it was already far too late.

The insouciance and sense of fatalism were astonishing

Europe and the US were under no such veil of ignorance. Epidemiologists have been warning since January the risks of a global pandemic, urging authorities to ramp up preparations. And yet the West inexplicably squandered the two months of warning. Even as cases began mounting in Italy, much of the rest of Europe went on with business as usual – wash your hands, people were told; avoid touching your face. The insouciance and sense of fatalism were astonishing. And then, suddenly, in a flash – offices and schools closed, restaurants and bars shuttered, sporting events and concerts postponed, and now – in some countries – complete home confinement. One week, the Spanish government was encouraging its citizens to join a march for gender equality, the next –a complete lockdown.

What took so long for Europe to wake up to the severity of the coronavirus threat? A glimpse of the dynamics of this kind of human behaviour at work here can be found in Albert Camus’s allegorical novel The Plague, a story of a deadly disease overwhelming the French Algerian town of Oran. “At first, people seem to go on with normal life as if nothing has happened,” he writes, “a pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end.”

The idea of a deadly but invisible virus is so abstract, we have difficulty reconciling it with our day to day lives. Even in a globalised age of quick travel and shortened distances, the news reports coming from China were slow to register – it was something happening over there, in a foreign land. The idea of a pandemic striking the West seemed quite literally unbelievable, an affront against modernity itself. As the narrator in The Plague describes it, the virus was “merely an incident, annoying of course, but nonetheless temporary.”

There were various stages of denial. There was the delusion the coronavirus was not much worse than the flu; after all, it was said, tens of thousands die of influenza every year and the world does not shut down or go into panic. More egregiously, many young people comforted themselves with the idea that the virus appears to disproportionately affect seniors and those with preexisting conditions, as if society had a lesser obligation to care for its elders, or their lives were of lesser importance. Others lost themselves in the crude and abstract utilitarianism of statistics, even though the story of coronavirus was never just about the absolute death toll, but the effect on health systems, the stress on hospitals, the damage to the economy.

The challenge in a pandemic like this is that it runs counter to all of our instincts in how to respond to a crisis

Even if the initial response was slow and reactive, the remarkable turn of events in the last week should not be underrated. Many people questioned whether aggressive quarantine measures would be palatable in free societies, if liberal democracies had the willpower and enforcement capabilities of an authoritarian state like China. With the dramatic actions taken by Western governments in the last week, the answer so far has been surprisingly affirmative, but how long the public is willing to adhere to voluntarily social distancing and home confinement is still an open question.

That gets to the heart of the problem: the challenge in a pandemic like this is that it runs counter to all of our instincts in how to respond to a crisis. In times of difficulty, people turn to their communities and find solace in the company of others, but with a virus, it is isolation that is called for. In Europe especially, social distancing seems alien to its particular way of living. The philosopher and critic George Steiner characterised Europe’s many plazas and cafes as representing the very idea of Europe. To abandon these institutions, to shut down life in its city and village streets, thus seems like an attack on the very essence of Europe’s spirit.

This idea of Europe has been under threat before, during the wave of terrorist attacks in France, Germany, Belgium, and elsewhere that targeted concerts, restaurants, Christmas markets, and other public spaces. But whereas the best response to terrorism is to resume normal life, to repopulate restaurants, to not cower into fear, this kind of show of defiance is in fact dangerous, socially irresponsible and in any case not much use against an invisible and fast-moving virus.

In the Middle Ages, people often reacted to plagues as if they were judgments of God, punishments for wicked behaviour. A scientific and secular society cannot find any comfort in such a rationalisation. But the coronavirus pandemic is nonetheless nothing if not an exercise in humility, against an overconfident civilisation that thought it had mastered the forces of contingency, but is being awakened to the reality it is nature that has the upper hand.

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