The poetics of pandemics: why ‘living with covid’ gets squeezed out by ‘life after covid’

A recurring thought that has plagued me (ha) over the last year is how the linguistic structures through which we tell stories about this crisis shape our expectations of it. We could think of this as the poetics of pandemics in the sense of analysing how the different elements we draw on come together in recurring narrative forms. This includes the tropes which are ready-to-hand, such as the military metaphors which are so familiar as to seem utterly unremarkable:

The metaphor of “fighting” a disease, apt for the body’s immune response to a pathogen, is incongruous for the social response to an epidemic. Nonetheless, the language has become so familiar today that it is adopted unreflectingly—a mark of true hegemony. The traffic in metaphors runs both ways. When mobilizing for war or authoritarian measures, political leaders inveigh against “infestation” by invaders or infiltrators that are akin to pathogens. In times of health crisis, they like to “declare war” on a microbial “invisible enemy.”

Alex de Waal on loc 395-409 of Boston Review’s Thinking in a Pandemic

I’m particularly interested in what this means for how we conceive of the ending of pandemics. As Jeremy A. Greene & Dóra Vargha point out in their contribution to Boston Review’s excellent collection Thinking in a Pandemic: “The history of epidemic endings has taken many forms, and only a handful of them have resulted in the elimination of a disease” (loc 695). The military metaphors described above lead us to tend to deny this: “Campaigns against infectious diseases are often discussed in military terms, and one result of that metaphor is to suggest that epidemics too must have a singular endpoint. We approach the infection peak as if it were a decisive battle like Waterloo, or a diplomatic arrangement like the Armistice at Compiègne in November 1918” (loc 695). I thought this was a deeply evocative way of describing the shape and tempo of pandemics:

Like a bag of popcorn popping in the microwave, the tempo of visible case-events begins slowly, escalates to a frenetic peak, and then recedes, leaving a diminishing frequency of new cases that eventually are spaced far enough apart to be contained and then eliminated. In other examples, however, like the polio epidemics of the twentieth century, the disease process itself is hidden, often mild in presentation, threatens to come back, and ends not on a single day but over different timescales and in different ways for different people.

Jeremy A. Greene & Dóra Vargha on loc 695 of Boston Review’s Thinking in a Pandemic

Elsewhere in the piece they talk about epidemic time:

And epidemics produce their own kinds of time, in both biological and social domains, disrupting our individual senses of passing days as well as conventions for collective behavior. They carry within them their own tempo and rhythm: the slow initial growth, the explosive upward limb of the outbreak, the slowing of transmission that marks the peak, plateau, and the downward limb. This falling action is perhaps best thought of as asymptotic: rarely disappearing, but rather fading to the point where signal is lost in the noise of the new normal—and even allowed to be forgotten.

Jeremy A. Greene & Dóra Vargha on loc 876 of Boston Review’s Thinking in a Pandemic

Recognition of what they earlier call “a typical pattern of social choreography recognizable across vast reaches of time and space” (loc 664) sits uneasily with what Charles Rosenberg describes as the dramaturgic form of epidemics and their propensity to be enrolled within all manner of communal and intellectual projects:

Thus, as a social phenomenon, an epidemic has a dramaturgic form. 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 towards closure. In another of its dramaturgic aspects, an epidemic takes on the quality of pageant – mobilizing communities to act out propitiatory rituals that incorporate and reaffirm fundamental social values and modes of understanding. It is their public character and dramatic intensity – along with unity of place and time – that makes epidemics as well suited to the concerns of moralists as to the research of scholars seeking an understanding of the relationship among ideology, social structure and the construction of particular selves.

Explaining epidemics, pg 279

This lead Alex de Waal to suggest in the same volume we can talk of a familiar narrative: “The standard ‘epidemic narrative’ consists of a stable “normality” threatened by the intrusion of a novel, alien pathogenic threat, followed by an epidemic and an epidemic response (of variable proficiency) and ends with a return to the status quo ante.” (loc 235). As Graham Crow once pointed out in a criminally under-cited paper:

The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them. The ideas of reaching the end of the line, the bitter end, or a point of no return, flogging a dead horse, giving something up as a bad job, being on a sinking ship, fighting a losing battle, throwing good money after bad, cutting ones losses, writing something off, and the proverbial straw that breaks the camels back have different implications from the ideas of a turning of the tide, calling it a day, the darkest hour coming before the dawn, or one door closing and another opening which also mark end points but are less linear and more rhythmic in their understanding of time (Young 1988). Modernity’s linear conceptions of time produce more final understandings of endings than the conceptions of cycles of renewal and regeneration (Adam 2004: 14) that characterise ancient perspectives on temporal processes.

Furthermore, “[a]ccounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations. in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised”. The metaphors through which we respond to putative endings incline us towards simplification while our treatments of those endings after the fact reinforce that simplification from the other side. In reality, as Crow puts it, “moving towards and beyond endings is rarely a smooth, linear progression through a succession of stages”.

If we consider how COVID-19 has been represented, it’s clear vaccines play a crucial role in propping up this imagined ‘smooth, linear progression’. To suggest vaccines won’t constitute a deus ex machina, in the sense of a plot device which brings the story to a conclusion so that we can begin again at the beginning, isn’t to question their significance for public health or the remarkable achievement they represent. However it is a reminder of things which are well understood:

  • Their effect on transmission remains uncertain, even if they do change the risk calculus enormously
  • They don’t confer permanent immunity, necessitating revaccination programmes while the virus is endemic
  • They will need to be adapted to viral mutations, with a degree of uncertainty about how time consuming and resource intensive this process will be
  • Even in the best case scenario there will be still be a threat ‘in here’ because vaccine nationalism precludes global herd immunity

This is why vaccines could be said to be just the end of the beginning. Jeremy A. Greene & Dóra Vargha caution that the roll out of vaccines is not a uniform and linear process, with the ‘end’ being reached “through widespread acceptance of a newly endemic state” as with HIV aids (loc 801) and/or it becoming “simply a background fact of life—something that happens elsewhere” to people who are not seen to matter (loc 817), as in the case of tuberculous which is “no longer part of the epidemic imagination of the Global North” (loc 832). As they put it on loc 821, the “social epidemic does not necessarily end when biological transmission has ended, or even peaked, but rather when, in the attention of the general public and in the judgment of certain media and political elites who shape that attention, the disease ceases to be newsworthy.”

Yet a closer look at one of the central vaccine success stories of the twentieth century shows that technological solutions rarely offer resolution to pandemics on their own. Contrary to our expectations, vaccines are not universal technologies. They are always deployed locally, with variable resources and commitments to scientific expertise. International variations in research, development, and dissemination of effective vaccines are especially relevant in the global fight against epidemic polio.

Thinking in a Pandemic, loc 758

However even this reverts to the poetics which I’m suggesting we may need to dispense with as we try to grasp the post-pandemic horizon which confronts us. There’s certainly a value in trying to periodise the pandemic but we need to make sure we’re doing this in an analytical rather than diagnostic mode, remaining wary of imputing a ‘return to normality’ which is constantly deferred. This could perhaps be seen as an instance of Berlant’s cruel optimism. In what I thought was a deeply prescient piece the economist James Meadway talks about what this might mean for British politics:

The need for long-term strategising persists despite the vaccines. Vaccines will make life easier and safer, but they are not a magic wand: new strains of the virus and the uncertainties around length of immunity and effects of vaccination on transmission rates and reinfection make it unlikely that vaccination will provide a simple exit route from Covid-19.

At the very least, it is likely that rounds of revaccination will be necessary to keep the virus at bay – in the UK and across the globe. This will probably need to be combined with ongoing social distancing of various kinds, significantly increased costs for some activities – particularly travel – and a permanently increased state presence in the economy.

Taken together, these changes amount to a deep shift in how the economy operates. Some, including Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane and management consultancy firm McKinsey, have talked up the potential productivity improvements that could result from companies making necessary changes, such as rapidly introducing digital technology. But although some firms and sectors may make net gains, it is hard to envisage the entire economy benefiting in the long run from the new costs that endemic Covid-19 will impose.

The pandemic has accelerated existing trends towards automation, the death of the high street and the devastation of much hospitality. Health care systems will have to operate with much greater spare capacity. The state is likely to play a much bigger ongoing role in the economy, not least of all because the crisis playbook of 07/08 has now been rolled around across economic life. It remains to be seen whether large cities will regain the vitality of the high neoliberal era. In fact it’s an open question whether we are still living under neoliberalism or, as Varoufakis has argued, if it’s even still capitalism in any meaningful sense.

In this sense, the post-pandemic does not mean post-covid. It means the point where endemic covid becomes sufficiently manageable so as to constitute one mechanism amongst others reshaping a global system which has been in an awkward state of manic stasis since the financial crisis of 2007/08.

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