The Menace of Banality
Moving from the collective psychology of crisis to one of acquiescence, we are gradually moving into a wartime state of mind in which abrupt death is treated casually: far more so than objectively lesser evils. There is little good that can come of this; a temporary spirit of the imagined common good is nothing compared to the broader social callousness that will overcome us in being surrounded constantly by death. This is the gravest toll of plague.
In much of Europe, that locked down fairly early in March 2020, there is a sense now that we have overcome the first wave of Coronavirus. Nevertheless we are bombarded daily with reports of catastrophic spreads of the virus in other areas of the world, in particular in the Western Hemisphere but also in Russia. People remain afraid, but the sense of fear is fading as we become habituated to risk of exposure to a potentially deadly disease. Gradually bars, restaurants, means of public transport and public spaces are being repopulated. Measures of social distancing, and masks, intended to reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of exposure, are embraced but inconsistently so. The trend towards resumption of normality, and increased voluntary self-exposure to a virus we know persists, will be maintained.
News reports, a few weeks ago dominated by Coronavirus reporting at well over 90% of media outlet, has resumed reporting regular stores albeit with perhaps 50 to 60% of news items relating to the virus. This downward trend will continue, as we get used to the reality of living with a persistent and contagious virus in the knowledge that any of us might become infected any time. Death will become anodyne, as each of us learns to greet the loss of the relatives of friends with anodyne expressions of regret. Indeed we are all becoming more distant from one-another. Friendships are fraying away to nothing, as we become self-obsessed with the daily ordeals of economic survival, managing anxiety and caring for our immediate families. The youthful, those with the fewest commitments, are the most carefree and for now maintain their social bonds. But the rest of us are self-absorbed with keeping our families healthy and preserving our jobs in times of the utmost financial jeopardy. We have all become more inward looking.
The Coronavirus will return in subsequent waves. Already we are seeing a phenomenon of late spikes in transmission of the virus in the United States and Brazil, and to an extent in Russia. There are concerns that it will return to Europe, and that social distancing will remain a pervasive phenomenon at least into 2021 as we persistently battle with the virus while trying to avoid the proven economic devastation of total lockdown. Nobody yet knows what the effect of winter weather will be upon transmission of the virus; its coincidence with the winter season influenza may make us all more vulnerable. For now a vaccine remains a remote possibility.
At the same time, we are now facing mass unemployment and hollowing out of the high street and of our hospitality and recreation sectors. Bars and restaurants remain closed in large proportions, and those open remain empty. Hotels remain empty because nobody is travelling for pleasure: either foreign or domestic tourists. High streets remain half closed, the luxury sector hurt disproportionately as financially insecure consumers flock to discount chains and their online counterparts. What remains open is a series of struggling Pound Shops. Nobody has yet come to acknowledge just how bad the lockdown-generated recession will really prove to be. Consumers are becoming increasingly nervous, and retailers are anguished. Rent defaults on the part of businesses are surely a precursor to wholesale insolvency procedures, reflecting the gross drop in demand.
Amidst unemployment and the devastation of high streets and closure of businesses, we will experience subsequent waves of death from the Coronavirus. The economic costs of locking whole populations down again will be too formidable, and therefore we will have to deal with future peaks in the number of deaths just by getting used to them. The disease is fatal for relatively few people, but it does place a substantial burden upon healthcare systems as a significant minority of sufferers require inpatient ventilation. The result has been the casual medicalisation of popular culture. The typical conversation in a bar or restaurant is now an affair relating to Coronavirus, its treatment or its consequences.
Because further proportions of the population of the globe may die beyond the approximately half a million worldwide the virus has so far killed, we may see a reduction for now in open warfare as governments struggle to manage the spread of disease and death. Their economies in contraction and tax revenues slashed at the same time as public debt balloons, once belligerent states have no money to spend on the expensive hobby of warfare. Nevertheless the virus will kill take far more lives than the absence of war saves. Wars typically kill a few tens of thousands a year; our virus promises to kill in the region of one million per year based upon a projection of current data.
We will travel less, both in our own countries and abroad. Our families will become more atomic, as we stay at home more through fear of contracting disease as well as impoverishment. Habituated to working at home and consuming goods delivered to us, our reclusiveness will be reinforced. Loneliness, and the depression and other mental distress accompanying it, will become ever more pervasive a problem. We have all already suffered from a substantial reduction in our standards of living compared to February 2020, and this trend will continue. Although a sense of solidarity has crept into communal behaviour, our sense of community is being dissolved by the prevailing new norms of social distancing and social isolation. Our social groups will inevitably become smaller. As the full economic impact of our current situation continues to be felt ever more gravely, we will become more selfish, coming to understand that we preserve our financial wellbeing at the expense of others.
Government will need to take bold steps to reverse this downward spiral of economic selfishness that emerges in times of hardship, as it is profoundly recessionary. In all likelihood government will take the requisite Keynsian steps to stimulate the economy towards recovery, but the time lag between economic stimulation and the creation of jobs is typically extended. We may expect two to three years of bleak existence, living to make ends meet and confining our lives to our immediate families. As in wartime, we will also become increasingly habituated to death and suffering on the part of others as we nonetheless expose ourselves to risk in ever-increasing proportions, seeking to make a living in the face of dire economic conditions.
Plagues ultimately have Malthusian benefits: they may slim down fat populations and restructure the economy out of the hands of marginal, luxury and unnecessary businesses. They may also strip away much government regulation, a feast of rules struggling economies can ill afford. Nevertheless there is little pleasure for the generation trapped in the midst of a Malthusian transformation. All we can say is that the generation reading this may have the curse to live in interesting times.