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The spectral character of Covid-19, or, will growing deaths undermine denialism

This was another really interesting discussion in Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas Christakis. He considers the particular characteristics of Covid-19 which have lent it an almost spectral quality in many people’s experience, lurking on the horizon of their lives as an immaterial threat. It’s easy to see how denialism can flourish under these conditions as nefarious actors displace virological ones as the imagined agents of our fate. From 203-204

One of the features of COVID-19 that made it hard for people to take the disease seriously was the lack of visible symptoms (in most cases). Cholera kills by copious diarrhea and dehydration, to the point that patients are gaunt. Smallpox is brutally scarring. The bubonic plague was disfiguring and odiferous. The 1918 Spanish flu made people black and blue, and they often died gasping. The visibility of the symptoms of these diseases, quite apart from their much higher lethality, galvanized public action. Furthermore, with COVID-19, what little the media could capture visually about the deaths—such as shrouded bodies piled on a nursing-home floor or in the back of a truck—had a surreal, disembodied feel. Thus, because so many sick people were sequestered in health-care facilities or were alone at home with no one to document their suffering when they died, and because reports focused mostly on visible signs of the economic collapse (with pictures of shuttered stores or lines at food banks), Americans did not see how the virus did its awful work. The deaths and even the mourning for COVID-19 victims occurred strangely offstage, making them harder to appreciate. This in turn affected our ability to join together to fight the pathogen. To the extent that the risk of death seemed distant and abstract—a problem for them rather than us—the economic sacrifice and disruption to our lives seemed unwarranted. We could delude and reassure ourselves that “It’s just a dozen elderly people in a nursing home in Seattle,” or “It’s just meatpackers,” or “It’s just New Yorkers.”

However he then makes the suggestion that increasing encounters with deaths caused by Covid-19 will counteract this process. Will growing deaths undermine denialism? From pg 204:

And so, of all the societal divisions that emerge in the time of plague, perhaps the most meaningful is the divide between those who know someone who has died and those who do not. But as more people die and as more of us come to know someone who has died or see a death up close, the epidemic will seem more real and more worthy of a coordinated response. For every hundred thousand people who die, there are a million people who were close to them and ten million people who knew them personally. 83 Slowly but surely, as the deaths mount, we will see that this is a problem that affects us all.

This connects to a point Mike Davis makes in the Monster Enters about the relationship between individual suffering and mega-tragedy. This paragraph from loc 520 suggests that the former is our entry point into the latter, as Christakis observes, but it also risks being lost in it over time:

In a time of plague, like the influenza pandemic that swept away my mother’s little brother and 40 to 100 million other people in 1918, it is difficult to retain a clear image of individual suffering. Great epidemics, like world wars and famines, massify death into species-level events beyond our emotional comprehension. The afflicted, as a result, die twice: their physical agonies are redoubled by the submergence of their personalities in the black water of megatragedy.

Categories: Covid-19

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