A 14th century illustration of two lepers denied entry into a city

In the ancient world, leprosy was greatly feared. There was no known cure, and the victim became increasingly disfigured and disgusting looking.

In Biblical times, they were segregated, dressed in rags, had to muffle their beards and ring a clapper bell to alert people to their presence, crying out: “unclean, unclean”. In the popular imagination leprosy was often thought to be connected with some sort of sin or spiritual uncleanness.

Lepers could associate only with other lepers and live outside the towns. The book of Leviticus contains very detailed instructions for how to diagnose the disease. Jewish priests had to go through complicated procedures over a period of time in order to confirm that a skin lesion was leprosy.

Jesus touched and healed several lepers and healed a group of ten at a distance. They were instructed to show themselves to the priests to have their cleansing verified so they could rejoin the community. (Since then medicine has advanced. Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, is not especially contagious and can be treated.)

Some saints are famed for reaching out to them. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) suffered from extreme disgust for lepers until he was able to kiss one, and after that he undertook a special ministry to lepers. More recently, Damien of Molokai (1840-1889), went to a leper colony in Hawaii to minister to them. In the spirit of his namesake, Pope Francis in 2019 washed and kissed the feet of 12 prisoners in a detention canter including women and Muslims.

Nowadays only about 150 Americans contract leprosy every year; it’s no longer a public health problem in the United States. But the official response to the coronavirus demands that we should treat everyone (even ourselves) as though they were a source of deadly contagion – in ways that resemble the way lepers were once treated.

Wearing masks both expresses and encourages this kind of fear. The disturbing thing now is that we have to behave this way in the absence of evidence that they, or we, are sick in any way. Rather than being innocent until found guilty, others are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

This profound shift has had devastating effects on our social world. The coronavirus entered a world that was already deeply fragmented in ways that divided families and friends. Therefore, hiving off with your “pod” and cutting off everyone else was, for many people, welcome.

The ancient Jews were very careful in diagnosing leprosy and willing to re-integrate lepers into the community when they had been declared cleansed. Under the new Covidist regime, there is no diagnosis or cure. We are just told that we must treat people as sources of deadly contagion as a way of keeping us and them safe. A vigorous and healthy grandmother I know was not even allowed to hold her grandchild. This is irrational and destructive of all communal ties.

We might hope that the churches would provide a refuge from this attitude of rejection and suspicion and make people feel welcome and accepted. Unfortunately, many of them have succumbed to the irrational attitudes put forth by the Covidist ideologues.

Even after the resumption of public masses, the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, where I live, requires that we “avoid personal contact with anyone … at all costs” and that “the priest or other minister will always sanitize his hands before giving communion, and do so again whenever he accidentally comes into contact with a person.” (Even touching a person, thus, makes you unclean.)

Cutting down singing (which draws people together in worship) and forbidding the usual gestures through which we express acceptance of and solidarity with others, such as handshakes or hugs goes deeply against the grain of human sociality and undermines the idea of gathering for worship which is essential to Christianity – and other religions.

People in forced isolation and subjected to manipulation of their fears often develop problems with opioid addiction or alcoholism and are driven to deaths of despair.

Domestic violence and child abuse increase when troubled families are cooped up together. We have spent the last year being lectured about the evil of systemic racism. But if racism is bad, fear of and hostility toward human beings as such (anthropophobia) is worse.

And, during the Covid panic, the wave of fear and anger let loose by it have caused people to look for scapegoats, as often happens in such cases. Asian-Americans have been unjustly punished for the (no doubt real) sins of the Chinese government.

Curiously, government responses to the virus appear to have a theological dimension.

Finding that so much in the pandemic eludes our control, citizens feel anxious and guilty. And so we punish ourselves by destroying our culture, our economy and our social fabric, hoping, by quasi-magical means, to make ourselves and others immune to suffering and death.

We have adopted measures that are self-punishing – as though we are doing penance for some unidentified sin. As in Lent or Ramadan, we are exhorted to give up things that give us pleasure and make our lives meaningful to become more virtuous.

There is a lot of concern about the fragmentation of our society and the difficulties of communicating with others we disagree with. The measures taken to fight Covid break down commonalities and feed hostility. Everyone is to socialize only within their “pod” in such a way that they have no chance to understand the concerns of fellow citizens not in their pods.

How will isolation, fragmentation, suspicion and anxiety shape the next chapter of our history?

Looking to the past, back to the dawn of political theory, gives us some insight into the future. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described ways (Politics, Book 5, Part 11) in which tyrants of his time divided their populations in order to rule – and all can be observed in the world of Covid.

Tyrants should “prohibit literary assemblies or other meetings for discussion, and he must take every means to prevent people from knowing one another (for acquaintance begets mutual confidence)”. Think masks and lockdowns.

Tyrants should “know what each of his subjects says or does and should employ spies … for the fear of informers prevents people from speaking their minds.” Think social media.

The tyrant “likes foreigners better than citizens, and lives with them and invites them to his table; for the one are enemies, but the Others enter into no rivalry with him”. Think WHO and Tedros Adhanom.

Around the world, the coronavirus has been exploited for a variety of political purposes, ranging from winning elections to proposals for a “global reset”. Often they seem quite reasonable. But what it hasn’t done is to reset democracy.

If we are to continue to live in a democracy, let alone enjoy the revitalized democracy many people desire, this sort of manipulative politics must stop.

Celia Wolf-Devine

Celia Wolf-Devine is retired from her position teaching philosophy at Stonehill College. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA with her husband Phil Devine, who is also a retired philosophy professor....