Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, no story has so captured our attention as this year’s coronavirus pandemic. Even as the year draws to a close, our newsfeeds and nightly bulletins continue to update us on the spread of the virus and the many efforts afoot to mitigate it.
There is no question that 1.2 million deaths is a significant number, and that each of these represent a tragic loss to the many loved ones left behind.
But it is truly fascinating to consider how mesmerised everyday people have been by this crisis when compared with the response to much worse calamities in the past.
Take for instance the Spanish flu of 1918, which took the lives of some 50 million people. Comparing population data then and now, the Spanish flu was at least 200 times more deadly than the present pandemic. During those years, the number of public statements issued about the Spanish flu by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was precisely zero.
Granted, the First World War and the economic and social struggles of that time were big distractions. But zero?
Even the Hong Kong flu of 1968 killed a comparable number of people to Covid-19 has thus far — but back then no one dreamed of locking down entire populations or shuttering economies.
“The reason why the global impact of Covid-19 is so huge,” writes sociologist Frank Furedi, “is because of the way that governments, international organisations and communities have responded to it.” Reflecting on past viral outbreaks, Furedi explains that “unlike today, the pressure on governments to be seen to be doing something was relatively modest.”
In other words, as serious as our current situation is, what accounts for the unprecedented global interruption posed by Covid-19 is not how infectious or deadly it is — but how risk-averse we now are. Put simply, we think very differently to how we did in the past.
“What history teaches us is that the scale of destruction unleashed by a pandemic does not explain how that pandemic is viewed and experienced by people and by society,” writes Furedi.
Just as ancient cultures might have viewed a comet or solar eclipse as a “catastrophe” — despite no actual loss of human life — so in the modern age, our response to crises has shifted based on our society’s “broader cultural script on risk and uncertainty,” he explains.
Spanning decades, Furedi has authored over twenty books and is well known for his work on fear, modern parenting and therapy culture. In his own words,
I have drawn the conclusion that the most important influence on fear today is the dramatic redefinition of personhood, of what it means to be a person… The most important change in the way individuals are viewed in the 21st century is the shift from a presumption of resilience towards defining individuals by their vulnerability.
Furedi argues that it was once common for us to view a person as “an agent in charge of his or her destiny”. In late decades, however, we have seen a fade of confidence in our ability to exercise autonomy and endure hardship.
In the 1950s, the Queen responded to a series of floods by praising the courage and fortitude of the communities affected by them. She was “impressed by the stoic and heroic manner of the people who had obviously been through a bad and trying time, suffering heavy losses,” according to contemporary reports by the Times newspaper.
This, says Furedi, was typical of official responses to disasters in an age when “the cultural script contained an expectation that communities and individuals would be able to cope with calamities that they encountered”.
But compare this to similar flooding events that took place in the year 2000. Newspapers then warned of the post-traumatic stress disorder that many of survivors would face long after the events had faded. Writes Furedi, “newspapers in 2000 constantly sent the message that flood victims would suffer serious psychological damage” as a result of these “uniquely threatening events that were likely to overwhelm the coping capacity of individuals”.
It’s easy to miss the cultural shift that has taken place over the last century, but it is seismic.
Even the word “vulnerability” is quite new, Furedi points out — at least as far as human beings are concerned. Until the 1980s, only physical objects like bridges or buildings were described as “vulnerable” until the word was repurposed to describe people in the face of adverse experiences. “Today, vulnerability is one of the defining features of personhood,” Furedi concludes.
It is a compelling thesis. Seeing ourselves no longer as mostly resilient but primarily as vulnerable explains not just our response to the Covid-19 crisis. It also helps account for many other modern phenomena common today, from trigger warnings and safe spaces to identity politics and cancel culture — all of which trade on a currency of hurt feelings.
Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
No hell below us, above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today.
When John Lennon wrote those words half a century ago, he spoke on behalf of a generation buoyed by the thought of unbridled freedom and personal autonomy.
But is it possible that with the eclipse of the transcendent in the West, we have produced the very opposite? With only sky above us, we are in fact alone in a dark, cold, cavernous universe. If this is our true state, it is a very vulnerable position indeed.
When the West lost its faith, we lost more than we anticipated. Maybe it’s time to turn back.