“In an entangled and entangling world, abandonment is not possible…”
I am in the kitchen, making cheese on toast. Hamish has a monitor set up at the table, his laptop to the side. The new normal, I muse. “More just figuring it out,” says Hamish. Adjusting. Then Anna comes in – “Did you hear? We’re at 102 now.” 36 new cases. It’s happening, just as they said it would. Exponential growth. The curve kicking up. We talk about how official case numbers lag behind actual infections. How the health system only has so much capacity. How if you don’t stop it, it spreads – at an accelerating rate.
“every person passes it to three… if each of those three passes it to three, and that happens at ten layers, I have been responsible for infecting 59,000 people.”– Professor Hugh Montgomery
So that’s it then. The shut down. It must be. The hypothetical becomes real; certain anxious types get their wish. I feel strangely distant, slightly numb. How anxious should I be?
Often, these days, anxiety misfires. We get scared when we shouldn’t be, tend to panic when the need’s not there. From an evolutionary standpoint, panic’s an old response, tried and tested (and passed on) for so long that it comes ‘hard wired’, emerging from deep within, that most reptilian part of our brains. Over time, panic is what’s kept humans alive. Hear a rustle in the long grass. Sense someone watching you. In each case, anxiety is the call, panic the response. Don’t step there!
But the things that used to trigger it, the sensory inputs we read and reacted to, instinctually – a snake in the grass, a fin in the surf – aren’t so common these days, and in their white-lit place a whole new set of tasks (isolation, exclusion, competition, scarcity) vie for attention, response. Challenges that are less acute, harder to pin down. You can run from your bills – but it won’t help.
As a result – in the shifting mismatch between ancestral environments and the maddeningly fast and competitive matrix that modernity has become – we find ourselves anxious, uncertain, reacting in adversarial, reptilian ways, the threats vague, often undefined, endless. How anxious should I be?
Such exposure dulls us to anxiety, to the call its tightness brings. I think about melting ice-caps. Tuvalu in a spring tide. The emissions belching from our cars. Our cows. Our future. In this sense, we have become used to anxiety, familiar. Perhaps too familiar.
As Covid-19 has spread around the globe, so too has our collective anxiety, the geographic distance of New Zealand manifest in the timing of our cases – never removed from the world, but less populated, less connected, slightly, and so less infected, or rather, less infected (for now). How anxious should I be?
Assume a risk of a multiplicative viral epidemic, still in its early stages. The risk for an individual to catch the virus is very low, lower than other ailments. It is therefore “irrational” to panic (react immediately and as a priority). But if she or he does not panic and act in an ultra-conservative manner, they will contribute to the spread of the virus and it will become a severe source of systemic harm.Nassim Nicholas Taleb & Joesph Norman, New England Complex Systems Institute (15 March 2020)
Even though most of us will only experience a mild to moderate version of Covid-19, many of our whānau, friends and colleagues may not. That’s why it’s so important we take this virus seriously, and all play our part.Siouxsie Wiles (22 March 2020)
In this (as in all things) there are trade offs. Costs to the economy. Disruptions to the freedom we claim as our right. For some the anxiety spiked earlier, present in calls for lockdown, warnings of the compounding problems waiting would bring. Others ignored or felt none, still out in the bars, crowded on Courtney Place. Perhaps they didn’t know, hadn’t engaged with the scale. The risk of ruin. But whatever mix lay in the past, 102 was enough. The curve spiked, the government responded. Lockdown in 48 hours. An unprecedented move. But a necessary one. How else do you fight what’s not there?
On the bike to my partner’s house people looked scared. Anxious. What will this mean? We talk to our loved ones. Back and forth about the change. Our acceptance – even with the unknowability. This is what it will take to get through. The hammer, then the dance. A long winter. A new normal.
“The best chance we can give to the people who do fall ill, is if we’ve got enough beds, and enough staff, and enough kit to be able to be there for you. And if you are irresponsible enough to think you don’t mind if you get the flu, remember it’s not about you, it’s about everybody else.”Professor Hugh Montgomery
There’s so much we can’t know. I imagine a spike in searches; contribute to them: ‘cascading effects’; ‘downstream implications’, ‘global supply chains affected’ – what to do, but write? So many things stand to change. Already we have seen a reversal, economic projects dismissed as impossible before now rolled out, money put in service of the people, once again revealed as the construction it is.
And yet, no change without its cost. Disruption can kill. Higher falls have harder hits – and not all have safety nets. In the constriction necessary to respond, certain economic imperatives stumble. Growth falters, emissions drop. Cancellations in one domain have implications in another. Shortages shut down supply chains. Backlogs cause delays, errors compound under pressure. Cut paycheques see rents bounce and mortgage payments stop. If it goes too slow, the wheels fall right off. Doesn’t matter that it’s the same recipe as climate disruption – hell, understand the phenomenon sufficiently and you see that it is climate disruption – but for some reason, the blindness ‘we’ have to diffuse future effects gets reigned in here. Some leave it later than others. But eventually, reality intrudes. Responses are forced. The social contract remains! No other rock but this. No other time but now.
Call me cynical, but it’s not surprising the governments are printing money: they have too much skin the game. It’s the conversation we haven’t figured out how to have. What happens, after growth? Isn’t debt just a construction, a promise that mightn’t be fulfilled? What then? How will we learn from this?
Still, for now, the madness continues. One friend’s landlord is selling their house, decides to move the auction forward – to the last day before the lockdown. There are sales to close, supermarkets to ransack. Anxieties to address. We can but move forward.
How a nation responds determines its character. We are, inescapably, in this together – the hyperobject that is society, huge and ultimately unknowable in its entirety – a complex evolving system of which we are part, made and re-made by our collective choices. An evolutionary process, in one sense; in another, a virus. Do we, too, not replicate for our own sake? Exploit resources to collapse, growing, expanding just to move on and repeat the destruction again?
Of course, such simplistic comparisons miss much, conflating all humanity’s diversity into one toxic strain, ignoring crucial differences and all the possibility they contain. Viruses aren’t sentient. They don’t cooperate or network or coordinate systematic responses. They can’t invent vaccines or heal ecosystems, acting as stewards for life, bringers of beauty and care. They can’t pause – their hand forced by a smaller entity, cast (eerily) in their own image – and reflect on where and how they are, for such are human traits, our animal reality and its evolved past bringing us forward to here, the anxiety of change, of risk, of collectivity and the lives we lead, our potential for good or for ill. Much has been made of our distinction from other animals, our power and reach, the ape that could, now brought to the edge of its world.
Because still, despite it all, our sentience remains. So too our morals, our interconnection. Our actions. Our choices.
By what will we be known? For who will we choose to work?