Photo: Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock
Of all the lessons that plagues teach us, surely the most valuable one is humility.
Look around you. The most advanced, sophisticated, and wealthy civilization ever to exist on planet Earth — our glorious, multinational, globalized, technological miracle — has now been brought to a screeching halt by a pathogen so tiny no one was able to see their complex structures until the last century. For all our unparalleled wealth and knowledge, our streets are empty; our businesses for the most part are suspended; and our efficiency and technological mastery have been mocked by a speck of nature. This minuscule organism that isn’t even technically alive could, all by itself, generate a global depression unlike any since the 1930s.
All our carefully maintained, just-in-time supply lines have crashed in a matter of days. Our addictive elixir, economic growth, has evaporated. Global trade has been put on ice. We have no vaccine — and, barring a miracle, we won’t until next year. We have no effective treatments, although that may, with any luck, change. We have only very porous defenses — social distancing — which amount to a drastic, utterly unsustainable shift in how we live from day to day. And that’s it. We don’t know how contagious this virus is, how exactly it may mutate, how widespread it already is in the population at large, and even if it can reactivate in those who have recovered from infection.
We obsess about the responses of our governments, as is only proper, and we parse charts and debate tactics, to gain some sort of edge on tackling it. But when you look at the graphs of the viral curve in most of the major countries, most of them are unsettlingly similar. Yes, there are some more successful countries like Germany, and some outliers, like South Korea, but the rest seem to be following the same rough trajectory. And yes, we are flattening the curve … but it’s a temporary flattening due to unprecedented global shutdown of human activity. We may well be able, by suspending our entire way of life for a long while, to keep this virus from wreaking excessive and immediate damage, and overwhelming our hospitals. But we will not have beaten COVID-19. We will merely have stretched out the time it takes to spread.
The moment we relax, it will come back. Singapore, an early model for suppressing the virus, is now seeing a new wave after relaxing some controls. A leaked draft of a memo from the E.U. notes that “any level of [gradual] relaxation of the confinement will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases.” The same risks of a rebound are being seen in China, in so far as we can believe a word that murderous dictatorship tells us. Meanwhile, I look around me and see a slow attenuation of social distancing — the park where I walk my dogs is increasingly crammed. Humans are social animals. There is a limit to our capacity to remain alone. In crises, in particular, our instinct is to seek one another, gather strength from our common experience. The virus exploits this mercilessly.
It’s a brutal reality check, this thing — relentlessly ripping the veil off our delusions of control. So much is being laid bare. The promise of a truly globalized world, where government is increasingly international, and trade free, and all would benefit, was already under acute strain. Now, it’s broken, perhaps irrevocably.
The nation-state was beginning to reassert itself before, but COVID-19 has revealed its indispensability. Europeans realized, if they hadn’t already, that a truly continental response was beyond the E.U. Borders were suddenly enforced, resources hoarded by individual nations, and the most important decisions were made by national governments, in national interests. Americans, for their part, saw their own dependence on foreign countries, especially dictatorships, for core needs — like medicine, or medical equipment — as something to be corrected in the future. Japan is now spending a fortune paying its own companies to relocate from China to the homeland.
And for both Europe and America, the delusions that sustained the 21st-century engagement with China have begun to crack. We still don’t know how this virus emerged — and China hasn’t given any serious explanation of its origins. What we do know is that the regime punished and silenced those who wanted to sound the alarm as early as last December, and hid the true extent of the crisis from the rest of the world. There had been 104 cases in Wuhan by December 31, including 15 deaths. Yet as late as mid-January, the Chinese were insisting, in the words of the World Health Organization, that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” On January 18, despite the obvious danger, the Chinese dictatorship allowed a huge festival in Wuhan that drew tens of thousands of people.
On January 23, President Xi locked down all air traffic from Wuhan to the rest of China — but, as Niall Ferguson pointed out, not to the rest of the world. It’s as if they said to themselves, “Well, we’re going under, so we might as well bring the rest of the world down with us.” This is not the behavior of a responsible international state actor. Trump’s ban on Chinese travel was better than nothing, but it did not prevent over 400,000 non-Chinese from arriving in the U.S. from China as COVID-19 was gaining momentum. It’s fair to say, I think, that after the immediate, unforgivable cover-up in China, a global pandemic was inevitable.
I’m not excusing Trump for his delusions, denial, and dithering — he is very much at fault — but the core source of the destruction was and is Beijing. Bringing a totalitarian country, which is herding its Muslim inhabitants into concentration camps, into the heart of the Western world was, in retrospect, a gamble that has not paid off. I remember the old debate from the 1990s about how to engage China, and the persuasiveness of those who believed that economic prosperity would lead to greater democracy. COVID-19 is the final reminder of how wrong they actually were.
The Chinese dictatorship is, in fact, through recklessness and cover-up, responsible for a global plague and tipping the entire world into a deep depression. It has also corrupted the World Health Organization, which was so desperate for China’s cooperation it swallowed Xi’s coronavirus lies and regurgutated them. At the most critical juncture — mid-January — the WHO actually tweeted out Communist Party propaganda: “Preliminary investigations by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel Coronavirus.” On the same day, another WHO official was telling the world that there was “limited spread” of COVID-19 by human-to-human transmission, and alerted hospitals about the risk of super-spreading the virus. And so the virus has forced us to accept another discomforting reality: Integrating a communist dictatorship into a democratic world economy is a mug’s game. From now on, conscious decoupling is the order of the day.
In other cases, the cold triumph of reality represented by the virus has been salutary. It’s been remarkable to observe something Donald Trump cannot lie his way out of. He tried. And he’s still trying. He’s gaming out various ways to get himself reelected in a pandemic, but the pandemic keeps reminding us that this is in its control, not his. His daily performances are not informing anyone about anything — they are failing attempts to impose a narrative on an epidemic which has its own narrative, and doesn’t give two fucks about Trump.
And this is the truth about reality. It really does exist (whatever the postmodernists might argue). It’s complicated. And even if it can be ignored or forgotten in our very human discourses, it wins in the end. This virus is, in a way, a symbol of that reality. It can be stymied for a while; it can be suppressed and avoided. It can be controlled so it doesn’t overwhelm us in one fell swoop, metastasizing the damage. But it is unbeatable and is winning this war, as it was always going to, and only a vaccine can make a real difference. The coming months will be an unsatisfying series of starts and stops as we struggle to live with it. We are not, in other words, fighting and winning this war — we are merely negotiating the terms of our surrender to reality. And there is nothing more humbling for humans than that. And nothing more clarifying either.
Beneath the overwhelming COVID-19 news, this past week was a critical moment for the left in Britain and America. In normal times, much chin-stroking would be in order. So allow me to remove my N95 for a second and note something. Labour and the Democrats are inching back toward the center. Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the race and Jeremy Corbyn’s retirement as Labour Party leader may prove the final prick in the far-left bubble that was burst in the last British general election and in the U.S. Democratic primaries. And the new Labour leader is Keir Starmer.
Keir who? A good question. And once again, bizarrely, I’m conflicted by personal ties. I went to college with Boris, and knew him a little from the Oxford Union. But I went to school with Keir for seven years, traveled each morning with him on the same public bus, back and forth, and sat directly behind his desk (alphabetically, Sullivan came just after Starmer) for much of my teenage years. More than that, actually, we fought almost daily, from the minute he got on the bus in the morning till he got off it in the afternoon. These were the ’70s, and I was a teenage Thatcherite and Keir was, well, a raging anti-Thatcherite, a defender of trade unions, a socialist true believer, and a proselytizing atheist who even crashed my Christian Union meetings to pick a fight. His name tells you a lot: His parents named him after the first leader and founder of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie. I’m still pinching myself that my old sparring partner is now leading the party his parents venerated so deeply.
Keir has obviously mellowed a bit and is physically very different. As a teen he was an unkempt bruiser, his collar always undone, his tie crafted into a super-fat knot, and his scraggly hair parted down the center. He wasn’t the coolest character in our cohort of 30 boys — Quentin Cook, now known as Fatboy Slim, held that honor — but he carried himself with a certain laddish swagger. Today, he is somewhat mocked for how controlled he seems to be, how well his suits fit, how boring and conventional he appears. And to be honest, when we reconnected a few years ago, he did strike me as a much more subdued version of his teenage self. But who isn’t? And I doubt his core convictions have changed much. He hasn’t indicated a major shift in policy from Labour’s 2019 manifesto, and he was an enthusiastic Remainer who wanted a second referendum on Brexit. As director of public prosecutions, a rough equivalent to the American position of attorney general, he emerged as a mainstream and gifted public figure, and even became a knight.
He is not a Blairite, and has radicalism in his bones. (One of his leadership campaign ads was full of images of Labour’s 1970s and ’80s struggles with Thatcher.) But he is infinitely more electable, more appealing, and more professional than Corbyn. And Labour, unlike the Democrats, chose a 50-something with only five years in Parliament, rather than a 70-something who’s been in politics forever. Starmer’s first statements, more to the point, were bang on. He pledged to be a strong leader of the opposition but insisted that in an epidemic, he would go out of his way to avoid partisan polemic, wouldn’t demand the impossible, and would criticize and scrutinize the government with only one objective: to get through the plague with as little damage as possible. He’s a grown-up, a pragmatist, and marinated in the legal, rather than the activist, left. And then he came out fast with a clear and heartfelt pledge to rid his party of anti-Semitism. On becoming leader, he said:
We have to face the future with honesty. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry … I have seen the grief that [anti-Semitism] brought to so many Jewish communities. I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.
I’ll forgive him the mixed metaphor just this once. His wife, for good measure, is Jewish, and they have brought their own children up in the Jewish faith. All I can say from knowing him for many years is that he is a decent bloke, who stays in touch with his old schoolmates, all of whom love the guy. And maybe that word is the parallel with Biden: decent. That’s what he and Starmer have in common: They represent a decent left, in both America and the U.S. in an often shockingly indecent time.
I was moved by the recent New York Times piece talking to veterans of the AIDS epidemic about our current COVID-19 travails. My old friend and ACT-UP pinup, Peter Staley, put it this way: “To the extent that all of us from those years have some version of PTSD, all of that is flooding back.”
And it is. There are, of course, huge differences. HIV was and is far, far harder to catch than COVID-19, had a far longer incubation period, and, until 1996, had a near 100 percent fatality rate. It was also restricted for the most part in America to gays and IV drug users, not the general, hetero public. But it’s been impossible for some of us not to feel transported back at times.
The most resonant feeling for me is simply the tension of not knowing when or if this virus is going to get you. An invisible thing haunted us all those years ago — and it remained confoundingly elusive. There were rules for staying safe — always wear a condom — and they were largely effective in the way social distancing is now. But they weren’t foolproof, accidents happened, as I found out to my dismay, and so you lived in a constant uneasy tension with life.
At times you almost wished you had it, just to break the suspense. “Sometimes it feels like some bogeyman in the forest,” my friend Patrick once said to me, “waiting to pounce on my back, and sometimes I wished it would, just because then I’d know where I was. And I’d know how to fight it. I really wish I had it, somehow. It would be less frightening than not knowing.” Within weeks of that conversation, Patrick found out. Within a couple of years, he was dead at the age of 31.
For my part, I’m still haunted by my failure to stay HIV-negative in those tense years. Each time I put on my mask today, or wash my hands, or avoid someone on the sidewalk, I remember how I could still get unlucky — at the supermarket, or entering my apartment building, or scratching my nose — and I suddenly reexperience that gut-churning dread that drained me repeatedly in the past. There would be a mordant irony to surviving one plague for decades only to die of another one in a couple of weeks. And in some ways, COVID-19 scares me more. It comes quickly and kills quickly. It aims directly for my weak spot — my asthmatic and bronchitic lungs — and shows no mercy. It isolates you from your family and friends, and you always drown and die alone.
So now, as then, I feel a certain cold fear but also a calming fatalism. There’s only so much you can do. There’s no safe space in this universe. And so you learn to lean into the inevitability of risk, to live with a sense of impermanence, and, after a while, to find a place in your mind and soul where the plague can’t get you.
This remained essential even after I knew I was HIV-positive, and the fear of infection abated. Then the suspense existed about the day your symptoms would start, when the first opportunistic infection would send you to the hospital ward. The political authorities, then as now, seemed clueless or panicked or simply helpless. And yet we carried on, scanning the horizon for a pharmaceutical breakthrough, which kept disappearing from view. The wait for that moment, like the wait for a COVID-19 vaccine now, became more poignant the longer it lasted and the more deaths and losses hit home.
There are also the direct echoes. Many Americans have come to know and respect Tony Fauci, but for us AIDS vets, his name and voice bring back acute memories of his sanity in a mad time. And I expect that when this epidemic ends, we will have no single moment of triumph, as we didn’t with AIDS, but a slow and fitful return to normalcy, laced with a deep desire to forget about it all. It doesn’t surprise me that we have no real collective memory of the 1918 influenza pandemic, because I’ve watched as gay men moved on so swiftly from thinking about AIDS. The younger generation barely knows anything about it and cares less. Their amnesia is a blessing for them; as no doubt it will be for us when this nightmare is over. The dead, however, remain.
See you next Friday.