“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.