Our Plague Year

We must heed the logic of rationality and science—but also the logic captured by artists, poets, and storytellers.

Dark clouds opening up to the sky
Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Getty

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and dean of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

Thus Albert Camus in The Plague. We, too, now find ourselves surprised by pestilence, dancing a dance that feels both strange and familiar—the early disquieting cases; the assurances by authority that the initial outbreak has been contained; the spread by individuals who can, however, be tracked and isolated; the imposition of quarantines; the realization that some of the initial statistics were too low because of flawed counting rules; the realization that the ailment may not, in fact, be containable; and the first tremors of public apprehension turning to fear, and in some cases panic.

Anyone in a position of authority—running a school, a business, or an organization—turns to experts at moments like this. We attempt to absorb the information from epidemiologists who know what they are talking about. They speak of morbidity and mortality rates, of R naught (the basic reproduction number, or how many individuals a victim may infect), of the little-known mortality of the annual flu season, and of the futility of face masks as a means of avoiding COVID-19, which is the correct and emotionally neutral term for the disease caused by the virus. The scientists build tracking maps and model future spread; they announce trials of vaccines and make rational recommendations for social distancing and, of course, hand-washing.

Their cool balance, which must inform any decision making, rests on a logic of rationality and science. And one must heed it. Yet one must also heed a very different logic, the one captured by artists, poets, and storytellers.

In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe tells the tale of Prince Prospero, “happy and dauntless and sagacious,” who, as the Red Death sweeps his dominions, gathers his closest friends into his magnificent castle, which he then seals off from the outside world. All manner of supplies have been stockpiled, all manner of entertainments prepared, and, for a time, all is well. The prince stages a masked ball in his eccentrically designed palace; the partying is exuberant, until the guests note that one of their members has made a tasteless joke. “Shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave,” his mask that of a corpse dabbled with blood, he has appeared as the Red Death. The crowd, now a mob, turns on and pursues the figure, who vanishes, leaving only the shroud—as the revelers, Prince Prospero first among them, fall to the plague. “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

The coronavirus will not be as bad as that, we can be quite sure, but what Poe—and, in a different way, Camus and many others—captured is the logic of fear and dread that is also part of an epidemic. And that logic is ignored at our peril too. Walk through crowded airports, and you will see useless masks adorning the faces of people who are undoubtedly quite well. Talk to chief executives, and they will tell you of stockpiling vitamin C and canceling all foreign travel. Meet a cosmopolitan friend, and he will embarrassedly refuse to shake hands, preferring to wai, Thai style (a palm-to-palm salute), or put his right hand to his heart (Arabic style), or simply bump elbows (an American innovation).

The statistics about the relatively low mortality rates of the coronavirus, the more ominous term that normal people use, and the unquestionably more deadly toll to date of the common flu are undoubtedly true, and in some measure beside the point. The technocratic impulse is to damp down unreasoning fear with an antiseptic spray of statistics, or if that fails, simply to shrug one’s shoulders and dismiss the foolish anxieties of ignorant people. Neither will quite do the job.

Why do we fear the coronavirus more than the common flu? Perhaps because even if we fail to get our annual flu shot, we know that such a thing exists. And even if one side of our brain knows that the cocktail that goes into this year’s vaccine is a gamble on the part of the pharmaceutical companies, which may be more or less effective, the other side is saying: The threat is, if not under control, controllable. The coronavirus, like the plague of old, does not feel that way. It does not feel controllable, because it is not. Indeed, the main resort seems to be a centuries-, perhaps millennia-old response: quarantine. And even that proves leaky in an age of ever-expanding travel and human contact.

We live in an era when the masters of Big Data, be they in corporations or political campaigns, know an appallingly large amount about each and every one of us: our tastes, our prejudices, our aversions, our vulnerable points. They spend a great deal of effort on manipulating us, apparently with success. There are social scientists who believe that this data can and indeed should be used to nudge us into healthy or commendable forms of behavior. And in an era of ubiquitous facial-recognition software, we are all, in some measure, perpetually under surveillance.

But somehow, the plague creeps in behind the precisely targeted Facebook ads, and human beings must confront the limits of their ability to control events, and the primordial fear that a friend—or worse, a loved one—could, in an invisible and wholly unintended way, cause our deaths. Governments and businesses that pride themselves on their ability to exert control are at the mercy of individuals who have incentives to misrepresent the truth or temporarily suppress it. Face a population fearful of epidemic, and you face, potentially, an angry and uncontrollable mob.

The coronavirus can bring ugly deaths, and has done so to some of the doctors and nurses attempting to contain it. It is nothing like the real plague, with blackened buboes and excruciating death agonies. But it is scary enough, and if it’s true that the mortality rate is 2 percent, or even half that, and if the hasty quarantines being thrown up everywhere fail to work, the chances are that many of us will know someone who dies from it.

In our rational, technocratic way, we will of course find countermeasures and even celebrate them as accelerators of progress. Schools and businesses are learning how to exploit teleconferencing in ways that will improve our ability to teach and work together in cyberspace, which is a good thing. We are all learning (the hard way, admittedly) about the vulnerability of global supply chains, and will make them more resilient in the coming months and years. And there is nothing like a good scare to improve one’s institutional contingency planning for the next time, as the British government discovered after the Munich crisis of 1938.

All true, and all necessary. But as we react to this problem with the tools of medical science and dispassionate thought, we should periodically check ourselves—not so much for fever, but for the arrogance of Prince Prospero, and for the illusion of control that set him and his guests up for a ghastly end. The truth is, we live in the midst of multiple plagues—after all, it is considered a good thing when your tweet “goes viral.” We would be wisest if we could react to all those plagues with the unillusioned heroic calm of Camus’ hero Dr. Rieux, who has “no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends,” and who will simply go about his business of curing those he can, and comforting those he cannot.