Living in an Age of Pandemics: Is COVID-19 a Blessing in Disguise?

March 13, 2020 Updated: March 24, 2020
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Commentary

Asking whether the new coronavirus is a blessing of any kind requires some explanation.

Opinions differ about the seriousness of the threat the pandemic poses to public health or to the economy. But almost no one talks about it as a blessing.

A few callous economists may have pointed to the economic benefits, for the viability of social security and pension funds, of reducing the “surplus population” (in Scrooge’s words) of the elderly. You may see the new virus as the pathogen of the century or as no big deal.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, took one view, saying, “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” while Bill Gates, by contrast, said, “I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume that it will be until we know otherwise.” Whichever view you incline to, you probably don’t see it as a blessing.

Like other people and governments, I’ve tried to steer between panic and complacency. I look for a middle way that takes sensible precautions but avoids either hasty and rash decisions or the kind of denial that says there’s nothing to see here and blames the contrary view on politically driven conspiracies, stupidity, or personality problems.

But individuals and governments are not in the same position. There are things that we as individuals should think and do in the face of such a threat that a government dare not.

Consider a newspaper article by C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age.” It was published in 1948, three years after the unprecedented slaughter of World War II ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. The Soviet Union was already developing its own nuclear program during the war and carried out its first atomic bomb test in 1949.

There was widespread fear, East and West, that the world was headed for a nuclear war that would wipe out human civilization. The fear was palpable. Some of us grew up convinced that we were the last generation of our species.

The subject of Lewis’s article—living in an atomic age—wasn’t what governments should or shouldn’t do to mitigate the danger or the dread. Rather he discussed what we civilians should be doing as we lived our lives under such a threat of immediate death and the possible extinction of our species.

He wrote about the anxiety people felt who had survived a world war and now lived in the shadow of an even more apocalyptic nuclear exchange. Global catastrophe, according to the Doomsday Clock maintained by atomic scientists since 1947, was only minutes away.

Lewis points out that our forebears had lived under such fears of sudden death in past centuries, from plagues, Viking raids, and invasions to other risks of imminent death. He argues that the threat of death, like death itself, is part of the human condition. We may not be able to avoid death from such causes, whatever the government does or fails to do.

He makes an argument for the hope that comes from faith and belief in life beyond death and beyond the natural world we currently inhabit. I don’t want here to go into that argument, but to cite a passage from Lewis’s article about how we can choose to live now with such threats of sudden death:

“If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They might break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

Getting on With Our Lives: Doodlebugs and Disease

Lewis’s response to the unprecedented experience of living in a nuclear age reminds me of stories I heard as a child of my elders carrying on with their lives, as civilians, under the fear of sudden death in the last year of World War II.

I was too young to remember them, but the war stories that most impressed me as a child were of the first flying bombs or cruise missiles. Hitler sent the V1 rockets, which the British nicknamed doodlebugs, to cause havoc and demoralization in Britain as the Allied invasion got under way in 1944. The V in the rocket name was for vengeance or retaliation (Vergeltungswaffe).

I was born in southeast England, over which the rockets flew on their way to London. Adults told me years later about the distinctive buzzing sound the doodlebugs emitted as they passed. When the buzz stopped, the bomb fell. If it happened before reaching London, the bomb’s ton of explosives might fall somewhere very close to us.

The rockets came in their thousands, only to be replaced by the even more deadly V2 rocket. The V2 was supersonic, reaching speeds of more than 2,000 miles per hour. Silent and invisible, it fell without warning, seemingly out of nowhere, on those below. There was no defense against it except the slow success of the Allied invasion. The rockets stopped when the Allies overran the bases from which they were launched.

What struck me as a child wasn’t the scale of the killing—small compared to that of the war as a whole—but the anxiety of civilians who lived day after day under this threat of death coming suddenly from the skies.

We all, especially those of us in one or more high-risk categories (I am in two that I know of), live now under the threat of this microbe in 2020. We all have complaints about the official response and advice for the government on what it should do. We have our own opinions about the risk of infection and what seems the inevitable failure of containment.

Lewis was writing about a threat that seemed even more serious at the time, though it hasn’t so far materialized. He invites us to focus for a while on our own lives and how we respond to living, as we all do, in the shadow of death.

Memento Mori

Lewis’s advice here is right (adjusting for the demands of social distancing in a pandemic), but it isn’t advice a government can readily give without appearing callous or complacent.

His advice can be summed up in the words of a famous British government poster produced in World War II: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” But the poster itself didn’t become well known and much imitated until our present century. At the time, the government produced large numbers and then destroyed nearly all of them.

It isn’t advice for the government to give to a man whose family has been killed and his house destroyed by a flying bomb against which, in the case of the V2, the government had no defense.

So in what sense is a pandemic like the new coronavirus, for which we have no immunity or vaccine, a blessing? It is a reminder to us all of our mortality. In that sense it’s like Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Catholic tradition. On that day, Catholics are marked with ashes on the forehead as a public reminder that we come from dust and to dust we will return.

We all need such reminders, and they are common practice in other world faiths, whatever their beliefs about life after death and beyond the natural world. Some Buddhist monks visit a charnel house to contemplate death. Sufis have the practice of visiting graveyards to meditate on death and their own mortality. The 13th century Zen master Dōgen reminds us in his Gatha or evening prayer, not to squander our lives: “Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.”

Some kept a death’s-head on their desk as a memento mori, to help them keep in their minds the inevitability of death. It’s a reminder that we all must die, though we don’t know when or how, and need to live our remaining days mindfully, not sleep-walking through life.

Most of us need a lot of reminding, and many whistle in the dark to avoid the subject. The Swiss medical doctor and Catholic mystic Adrienne von Speyr (quoted by Kathryn Jean Lopez in her recent essay, “Love in the Time of Coronavirus”) notes that “even when stern messengers forewarn us, we manage to stifle the thought of our death and to go on living as if our earthly existence would never end.”

A sustained reminder, like the German doodlebug or our current worldwide plague, is a blessing, however effectively disguised, in that it reminds us to live our lives well, purposefully, and so that our remaining days, long or short, will be a blessing for others.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.