The COVID-19 pandemic is a shocking, confusing and life-altering occurrence. For hundreds of thousands of people, it has already proved fatal. Many of us have never experienced anything like this in our lives. And for in the West who were alive during previous pandemics, the reaction to this one feels different, due to the internet and 24 hour news coverage.
So the current pandemic forces us to face all sorts of challenges that most of us are not equipped to deal with. It’s an uncertain situation and this kind of uncertainty brings out our deepest hopes and fears.
Every day, I see someone on social media post something that suggests they feel like this pandemic will help fix the world. Sometimes the intention is nice, sometimes less so.
For example, sometimes a friend posts something that argues that the crisis will help to reduce income inequality by forcing us humans to get our acts together and make the world fairer.
Other times, though, someone shares something saying that early COVID-19 deniers are getting sick and they deserve it.
But the intentions of posters strike me as fundamentally similar: kind of desperate to find some kind of meaning in a virus slowly infecting as many of us as possible.
But there’s no inherent meaning to this virus, and the world won’t become fairer just because we all think it should because we’ve experienced a pandemic.
The virus does not care what you think – it can’t care; it’s a virus.
The virus is not here to punish people, nor is it here to provoke us into solving some or many of our problems. It has no motivation. It is a virus.
The virus is not targeting people who minimized the problem initially more than others. It’s a virus. It doesn’t care what people say. It doesn’t know what people say. It. Is. A. Virus.
The virus is not here to redress income inequality.
Yes, it’s true that great wealth disparities of the past have been lessened by plagues and revolutions. But pandemics don’t cause revolutions. People cause revolutions. And wealth disparities are lessened by people, not viruses.
And the virus is not here as a trial run to show us how we can unite to limit or end climate change. Sure, industrialization has increased zoonotic diseases while also being the largest contributor to climate change.
But this pandemic is not happening so that we can learn from it – it’s not training us for how to work together so we can fight climate change together.
It’s just a virus, folks.
Why Do We Want the Virus to Have a Will?
The most obvious reason why we humans attribute motives to a virus is because we do this with everything – whether its animals or inanimate objects. If there is one thing humans are good at it’s pretending non-human things have human characteristics, especially wants and needs.
Pick something inanimate and humans have attributed human characteristics to it, e.g. “The Universe wants me to be happy”.
No, it doesn’t. The universe doesn’t want anything. It can’t want anything. “Universe” is shorthand for all of space and time. That doesn’t have any wants or aims, especially when it comes to me or you.
And we do the same thing with animals, even plants. We can’t help ourselves.
But we also do this because we believe in a just world.
We believe the universe (or god or whatever) wants the world to be fair for us, so we get our just desserts.
We believe we should be treated fairly by other people.
Many if not most of us believe we should treat all people fairly.
Some of us believe plants and animals should be treated fairly.
We all want to believe that the world is a fair place, even if we know rationally that it is not a fair place.
When something shocking like this happens, something which hasn’t happened in many of our lifetimes, we don’t know how to make sense of it. It is meaningless but we cannot accept that. We need meaning in our lives. We have evolved a requirement for meaning.
So, instead of accepting that it is just a virus, which reproduces as much as possible, we attribute to it a special mission.
For some, that mission is punishing those that denied it was a big deal early on. (It’s not doing a very good job of that, is it?)
For others that mission is fixing our economic problems by forcing us to realize we’ve done a really bad job of looking after the least well off in our society and way too good a job of looking after the most well off.
For some that mission is to show us how we can all work together to end or at least slowdown climate change.
For others, that mission is exposing the dangers of new technologies, like 5G.
And for some, that mission is to get the Democrats to defeat Trump.
All of these things are just failed attempts at finding meaning in the meaningless, at looking for justice where there isn’t any.
There is nothing just about COVID-19.
But we attribute a motive to it because we want it to do the heavy lifting for us. We want a cleansing apocalypse to get rid of the evil, the ignorant, the stupid or whomever and leave us, the Elect, behind to inherit the world as it should be, as it was meant to be.
The World is Not Fair
If we want people to believe scientists we need to do a better job of science education in schools and with the public at large.
If we want less income inequality we have to tax the super-rich more but many countries need to significantly reduce white-collar corruption and crime first. (And we need a global tax system…)
If we want to slow down climate change we have to figure out better ways to convince those in power to do something about it, or to find ways to replace them when they fail to do so.
If we want people to stop spreading conspiracy theories about the latest technology, we need to figure out what they’re truly upset (angry/scared) about and address that.
The same goes for political conspiracy theories: if we want fewer people to believe them we have to figure out what they’re really unhappy about and try to fix that.
If we want to make the world a less unfair place we human beings have to do that. We cannot rely on Acts of God.
The pandemic is not here to cleanse the world of its problems. Nor is it here to punish the ignorant or the evil for their thoughts and behaviour.
It’s just here.
How we react to it is up to us.