Coronavirus: This Is Not a Plague

The metaphor obscures clear thinking

17th- and 18th-century watercolors of physicians wearing plague preventive costumes (Iconographic Collections/Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons)
17th- and 18th-century watercolors of physicians wearing plague preventive costumes (Iconographic Collections/Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons)

As COVID-19 consumes the culture, a sense of proportion is ever more elusive. Last week, the brother of a close friend died of pancreatic cancer in the Midwest. My friend, who lives here in New York, couldn’t go to see his brother, either before his passing or after. In the new consciousness, the risks of contagion wipe out the usual conventions of intimacy. The awful death of a man in his early 50s, father to a young daughter, from a throwback disease like cancer is suddenly cast into a different light: a minor occurrence, a light bulb that happened to burn out while the flood tides were rising to our necks. The death is no less disastrous, but the larger catastrophe against which it is seen quickly engulfs it.

Meaning is always imputed when deaths proliferate from a new sort of illness. The expected sorts of death—nowadays that would be heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer—are allowed to be meaningless, just sad, merely “the sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always,” as Philip Larkin put it. By contrast, the epidemic is meaningful. Lives are said to be lost heroically, or needlessly, or too soon. As if we don’t, as did everyone who has ever come before us, all lose our lives too soon.

Indeed, a disease qualifies as epidemic because meaning is imputed to it. It’s not the widespread illness nor even heavy loss of life—if the current coronavirus outbreak kills a million people worldwide, which it might, it will still fall well short of the regular yearly toll of deaths from vehicle crashes globally, estimated at 1.35 million. It won’t reach the annual toll of deaths from tuberculosis—a curable illness—that still kills more than a million people a year. Or the deaths from diarrhea, more than 1.5 million. Those tolls will continue. They will never be called epidemics. They will be allowed to be meaningless.

In epidemics, the meaning often sought today is a comment on human society. So I’m not surprised that plague is suddenly a popular theme in this coronavirus era. In the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the novelist David Grossman writes that “a disaster of biblical scale has entered our lives.” The New York Times columnist David Brooks writes of “The Moral Meaning of Plague”; in New York magazine Frank Rich writes about “What a Plague Reveals”; and a Foreign Affairs feature announces, “Plague Tells Us Who We Are.” Demand for Camus’ novel The Plague is so high that publishers have had to do new print runs.

The word plague comes from the Latin plaga: a stroke, blow, or wound. It always implies punishment. To view an outbreak of viral disease as punishment implies, in turn, that the phenomenon in question is beyond human understanding. Its origins are imputed, instead, to some inexplicable (sometimes divine) realm. Further, it implies that we humans are guilty. This is an extraordinary position to take, perhaps all the more so now, when nearly 40 percent of Americans and almost a third of Britons see climate change as a “minor threat” at worst—when, that is, human humility in the face of natural phenomena seems to be difficult for many to muster. How can we be so ready to examine the culpability of our culture for a sudden disease outbreak and yet so diffident about it when it comes to the slower and yet more consequential shifting of the climate? Or to tuberculosis, car crashes, and so forth? Plague, in other words, deserves to be seen as the most vexatious of metaphors.

Early writing about AIDS in America, like David Black’s The Plague Years, James Kinsella’s Covering the Plague, and Larry Kramer’s Reports from the Holocaust, invoked the plague metaphor exactly because, in the 1980s, so many Americans were willing to see AIDS as a moral judgment on same-sex intimacy (or were indifferent because gayness was so easily dismissed as irrelevant to “authentic” American life). The writers who invoked plague in those days sought to reject the moral freight outright, refusing to buy into the foundational assumption that normality equals heterosexual couplehood. They were inverting the moralism of the plague metaphor.

Today, that metaphor isn’t inverted but earnest. It signals not the AIDS-era pushback against sexual moralism but a moral view of its own, one that comes from a belief that disasters like the present one ought not to happen. The “ought” in this view tends to be a moral blueprint for how society should be organized, how people should behave toward one another, how selflessly people should act, or how dedicated officials should be. (Although sometimes it’s just a way of attributing to God what are really a set of personal prejudices: Ralph Drollinger, the evangelical Protestant minister who leads Bible study in the White House, ascribes the coronavirus pandemic to “God’s sowing and reaping wrath,” a divine judgment aimed, he says at different times, at environmentalists, the Chinese, the entertainment industry, or the “proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality.”) To refer to the coronavirus outbreak as a plague is to say, “Now that there is trouble, everyone will pay more attention to what I’ve been saying all along about society.” It is a return to the 18th-century notion that illness expresses character—now, though, in the form of a claim that an epidemic expresses the true character of the culture. As if Nature were trying to confirm the uprightness of the speaker’s own personal stance.

The plague metaphor, like all metaphors, is a way of talking about what is happening without talking about what is happening. In 1978, when cancer was often deadly and still hard to speak about, Susan Sontag wrote that illness metaphors embody what she called cultural insufficiencies: the superficiality of our approach to death, the discomfort we have with our own feelings, the (in her view, justifiable) fears about the “increasingly violent course of history.”

What is happening with coronavirus is clear enough, though, and it isn’t removed from the violent course of history. It is normal violence—no different from my friend’s brother’s death from cancer at a relatively young age, just multiplied many times. It is an outbreak of disease that comes from a new chapter of an old story: the interplay of viral genetic material with our own. This chapter features an explosive and, sadly, deadly new step in evolution, but neither evolution nor mass death is new. And it is a reminder that the “course of history” is nobody’s plan. History has no plot, and it eventuates in no victories.

The problem with the plague metaphor is dual, then. First, because it’s a metaphor. We could be talking instead about what is happening and what we feel about it. People are dying. To gauge by reports from the ICUs, they are often dying horribly. While all death is scary, the sort of death that comes with overwhelmed lungs and an inability to breathe is terrifying. The coronavirus might float in the air around us as we walk along the sidewalk or lodge on the hand with which I just pressed an elevator button, and to feel unsure of the safety of the very infrastructure around us—infrastructure that we surrounded ourselves with exactly because we rely on it to shield us from the terrors of raw Nature—this is unspeakably disorienting. Further, the standard policy response to these unknowable phenomena has been to isolate ourselves, even to force people into isolation. Yet isolation itself is grueling, sometimes mortally so. The isolation means that we can’t even witness the deaths of our family members, as with my friend. Finally, those pundits yakking about plague keep telling us it’s our fault for accepting the society of which, after all, none of us was the sole architect. The plague metaphor states none of these truths.

Second, the plague metaphor is an excuse. It is a way by which some people assert that they cannot align their view of the world with actual events, yet they don’t want to give up their view. To say that they are committed to history being peaceable (which seems ignorant), or history being violent only at the hands of identifiable evildoers (which seems naïve). To say that they don’t want to think about Nature, which means that they don’t really want to think about humans and whatever it is that makes human life valuable.

Reject the plague metaphor. It distorts the sense of proportion, so threatened today. It obliterates the capacity to see things for what they are. It worked poorly enough in the late 1340s, when clergymen sought to convince Europeans that they deserved pestilential death (on the metaphor’s ineffectiveness, read Boccaccio’s introduction to The Decameron). Let the plague metaphor work equally poorly now. Seeing what is true means believing one’s own mind, working against the received idea—especially difficult work when our minds are, understandably, preoccupied with the deaths of people around us. But seeing truly is all the more valuable. The coronavirus outbreak is nobody’s doing. It is not even extraordinary. This is not a plague.

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Philip Alcabes trained as an infectious-disease epidemiologist and has been writing about health and illness for the Scholar since 2004. He is a professor of public health at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is the author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu, a history of epidemics as social phenomena.


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