02 Apr Living in the Age of Viruses
MY four grandparents not only survived WW1, they survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–20.
I doubt they realised how fortunate they were .
They had no way of knowing that these two global catastrophes wiped out over 100 million fellow humans: approximately 8% of the world population, and left many millions more financially destitute, physically crippled and emotionally traumatised.
That was a mere 100 years ago. It puts our peaky Covid-19 problem in perspective, don’t you think?
But Covid-19 is unique in the annals of human history, and the reason why is indicated in the opening paragraph.
This is the first truly global catastrophe to hit humankind that is playing out on our screens, 24/7. My grandparents had no idea what was happening around the world because most of the world was off limits to them; physically and imaginatively. They lived in Lancashire (north of England): a world away from Shanghai, Tehran, and New York. Indeed, back then Lancashire was a world away from London. They had the relative comfort of living in a bubble; a cultural vacuum into which greater humanity’s problems and terrors couldn’t readily intrude.
No such luck nowadays.
You may feel fit and healthly, but let me tell you — you are already infected with the Covid-19 virus — the discursive one.
Information and knowledge, whether it be true or false, rhetoric, propaganda or reality, are discursive viruses. They always have been. The difference today is that the information and knowledge viruses are instant, potent and persuasive.
They infect us the moment we open our devices.
And once we read, listen and see, it is immensely difficult to undo it all. We remember everything, even when we don’t realise we are doing. No bubble for us, I’m afraid. We are fully exposed to the best and the very worst of humankinds’ actions and experiences; the good, the bad, the very ugly and the simply terrifying.
I know how many died in Spain yesterday, how many caught the virus in the UK this week, the latest mortality forecast coming out of the USA, and the chances of me catching it in Thailand. I can read of the suffering of victims, the pain of their loved ones, the shock of another young life taken before its time. I can watch it all being played out in real time and be informed by experts as I do so.
The information and knowledge viruses are nothing if not persistent and there is no cure. There is barely any protection.
Long before Covid-19 hit us, there had been been indicators as to consequences of the global information virus; trouble minds, mental health problems, depression, pessimism, shock, anger, fear, anxiety, deep insecurity; even copycat suicides. Sure, the vast majority of people will emerge from their enforced lockdowns/quarantines/brush with Covid-19, completely healthy. At least in body. But what this experience is doing to humanity’s self-awareness, the individual’s mental state, we can only speculate.
To reiterate, much worse happened a century ago, and more was to follow (WW2, Great Depression, for example), but there was no national or global concern regards how people would cope. To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill; during those dark times, ‘people just kept buggering on.’
The compartmentalised lifestyles of most people kept them protected. It served as a sort of immunity. No radio, no television, no videos, no global news, no social media, no trolls, no influencers, no global awareness — just small lives, mostly lived in relatively isolated places.
Indeed, globally, the vast majority of people couldn’t even read the news. The literacy rate in America in 1920, for example, was around 10%.
This morning I opened my emails. In among the many and familiar was an unusual one. I very nearly opened the attachment; a voice in my head told me ‘No!’. It was spam, clearly designed to wreak havoc on my computer. A lifetime ago, when I was innocent, I’d likely have opened the attachments. Nowadays I am wary. I have learned how to protect myself from viruses. Mostly.
I must remember, while much of the world is worried about catching Covid-19, there are still lunatics out there working hard to make it worse for all of us.
So here I sit, in my office at home in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Surrounded by viruses.
Just like you.
Our innocence has disappeared. I hung on to mine for as long as possible. But the combined assaults from virtual and real viruses, marshalled together by some nameless monster eager to invade my physical and mental well-being, means I can never again, fully relax my guard.
One stream of viruses may bring down my computer system, another stream may kill me or at least change my life quite dramatically and in ways I certainly don’t appreciate. And if I survive, then I must not forget that those closest to me are similarly under siege. These threats are not simply in my imagination. They are as real as trench warfare and some are as deadly: HIV, SARS, MERS, AIDS, Ebola, Bird Flu. Strangely, the list seems to lengthen.
I am hunkered down in my own trench: alert for the online virus sent by a malicious troll, hopefully protected by my anti-spam and anti-virus systems — but ultimately relying on my own alertness. I have my face masks and sanitizer ready to hand. The equivalent of my grandfather’s army helmet and gas mask.
Hopefully, I also have the world’s best technology to spare me the consequences of spam email, though nothing can spare me from the information virus. It is cleverer than any spammer, or indeed any pandemic. The reason being, it has a hook which I can barely stop myself biting onto every hour of every day.
It is addictive.
I need to know the latest news, especially if it is bad. I am mesmerised by the increasing death tolls in Italy, UK, USA, Iran, Spain. I find it fascinating to watch egotistical and powerful world leaders despairingly trying to ‘stay ahead of the curve’. Even more engrossing when said leaders and their governments themselves succumb to the virus. The rich and famous are now starting to catch it; their tired, lined Covid-19 photos a stark contrast to their celebrity videos. Status, fame and wealth are no protector — any more than they were in 1918. It is thrilling and frightening, engrossing and repulsive.
I compulsively follow the latest news, even while doing so leaves me worried for my kids, my friends, my family. But they are scattered around the world and anyway it is all out of my control.
At least we now have Zoom.
I may be physically isolating, but I am most definitely part of it all. Now as spectator, perhaps to be a statistic. The ultimate postmodern condition: simultaneously participant, contributor, commentator, observer. Feeding that which infects me and duly infecting others. After all, you read this far.
I am appalled by my voyeurism, even while I indulge it. But I forgive myself. I am only human. Plus, it comforts me to know that you are as just as addicted as I am.