The Pandemic’s Pandoras

Despots are seeking a mythological enemy on which to blame the coronavirus. But if we have learned anything about the pandemic, it’s that collective action is the only thing that can bring about change

The Covid Memorial Project in Washington, DC.
The Covid Memorial Project in Washington, DC.MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EFE

In early April when New York City had all but stopped, I listened to the ambulances scream day and night. I read about the refrigerated trucks that had been brought in to accommodate the hundreds of corpses that were carried out of our hospitals daily. I read about the gravediggers who were unable to bury the bodies fast enough. I thought about all the living people who were grieving their dead lost to a virus wholly indifferent to their suffering.

That same week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper called “Escaping Pandora’s Box.” The epidemiologist David Morens and his colleagues used the Greek myth of the first woman who opened her jar and unleashed sickness, death, and other miseries into the world as an apt image for the pandemic. “We must realize,” they write, “that in our crowded world of 7.8 billion people, a combination of altered human behaviors, environmental changes, and inadequate global public health mechanisms now easily turn obscure animal viruses into existential human threats.” In other words we have reason to fear more zoonotic viruses that move silently and invisibly from other species to our species. “With luck,” they write, “we may be able to put the demons back in the jar.”

It is September. The demons are still flying high. In the United States, but not only here, the course of the virus has been strongly affected by the tales told about it, many of them fictional.

Every human culture creates stories to explain why things are the way they are. In the origin myth told by the Greek poet Hesiod, Zeus is furious because Prometheus has stolen fire from the gods, and he orders the creation of woman, a “beautiful evil” as punishment for the crime. Human suffering has a cause, and it arrives in the form of an alluring, deceptive, malevolent female. The pandemic has become a breeding ground for stories that reimagine the blind transmission of a virus as an evil human plot. The Pew Research Center found that 71% of adults in the US had heard the story that powerful people had intentionally unleashed the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A third of them said this was “probably” or “definitely” true.

Unmasked crowds chant at indoor Trump rallies as the president beams and barks his approval. Millions here believe the virus is a “hoax” or that the numbers of the dead have been exaggerated

The official death count in the US, which is surely too low, is over 200,000.

At the moment, New York is an oasis. On April 8, 799 people died in New York from Covid-19. On September 18, two died. After the terrifying spring when the city slept except for the ambulances, it has woken up slowly. The traffic is back. The sirens have returned to their old tempo, but no one can eat inside a restaurant, and school openings have been fraught with difficulties. In my neighborhood, almost everyone wears a mask, although sometimes I see them hanging on chins or sinking below noses. And yet, in the country as a whole, mask wearing is by no means universal. A bare face is a political statement, a visible sign of the story the person has chosen to embrace.

Unmasked crowds chant at indoor Trump rallies as the president beams and barks his approval. Millions here believe the virus is a “hoax” or that the numbers of the dead have been exaggerated. Conspiracy theories about “the deep state” circulate with help from the president. There is a mask for sale online inscribed with the following sentence: “This looks like a simple face mask, but it’s really part of a vast Liberal-Chinese conspiracy to destroy America and subvert white men.” When I saw it, I laughed, but the joke is a grim one. Some conspiracy narratives are more outlandish than others, and they are not confined to inside the borders of the US. The irony is they are also deadly. No one knows exactly how many Trump supporters have taken ill or died after rallies. All we know is that the numbers of cases in those areas have risen afterward.

Human beings are the victims of the collective fictions they spin. The scientists borrowed the old Pandora myth to illustrate the dangers caused by a rapidly changing planet. I doubt they were thinking of the myth’s blatant misogyny, but the hatred of women, as well as the hatred of Black and brown people, immigrants, Jews, LBGQT communities, and urban elites have augmented the spread of Covid-19 in the US. Many states refused to take reasonable precautions. After shutting down, they opened businesses too early. Masks and social distancing were not required. These Republican acts of bravado played to the fear of emasculation. “It’s submission,” a man told the journalist Brie Anna Frank about mask wearing. “It’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak, especially for men.”

The political scientist Tyler T. Reny researched masculine norms and the coronavirus in a paper published in July. He found that sexist beliefs “are consistently the strongest predictor of coronavirus-related emotions, behaviors, policy attitudes, and ultimately contracting Covid-19. This study,” he writes, “highlights how gender ideology can impact health and impede government public health efforts.” Other papers provide further perspectives. The greatest predictor of not contracting but dying from the virus here in the US is poverty. The pandemic has underscored the inequalities of a private healthcare system run for corporate profit and the racism inherent to it.

People with faith in science gape at the wild right-wing stories that have spread around the world – sinister plots that often feature scapegoated Others: the woman, Hillary Clinton; the Black man, Barack Obama; and the Jew, George Soros

Biology is often regarded as a fixed reality, distinct from our psychology and the social worlds we inhabit. We have hearts and lungs and livers and brains and their functions sometimes break down. We run to doctors to fix the problem, but there isn’t always a cure. We die. Our conversations with other people, our political beliefs seem separate from our bodies, airy and immaterial. The pandemic has shown us that these divisions are false. The biological, psychological, and sociological cannot be disentwined. Social circumstances and political narratives are intimately bound up with the global contagion. Hatred and inequality matter to health. The immune system is highly sensitive to stress, and an immune system that is continually stressed can alter gene expression and result in inflammation that has damaging effects on a person over time. Racism is a stressor, and its effects are being studied. Olusola Aijore and April Thames published a pertinent paper in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in August: “The fire this time: The stress of racism, inflammation and Covid-19.”

People with faith in science gape at the wild right-wing stories that have spread around the world – sinister plots that often feature scapegoated Others: the woman, Hillary Clinton; the Black man, Barack Obama; and the Jew, George Soros, all of whom were sent packages addressed to them in 2018. The packages contained bombs. The trio have long figured in Trump mythology – Hillary Clinton is a criminal, “Crooked Hillary”; Obama is not an American, he was born in Kenya; Soros is paying Black Lives Matter demonstrators to protest. Beware, what you see is not what you think it is. The truth is both hidden and terrible. Beneath Pandora’s lovely exterior lies evil. QAnon has attracted vast numbers of followers with its story of malign, powerful, liberal pedophiles enslaving children. Mainstream media outlets are quick to point out that these fictions are not borne out by “the facts.” As far as I can tell, this has little or no effect on believers. What is rarely pointed out is that powerful people have hatched real conspiracies against an unsuspecting public.

Tobacco and drug companies have routinely suppressed damaging research to inflate their profits. US history is dense with abusive medical studies, some of them carried out in secret. In 1941, a group of virologists, including Thomas Francis and Jonas Salk, infected unwitting patients at Michigan mental institutions with the influenza virus. No one died, but that was sheer luck. Between 1946 and 1948, the US government with cooperation from Guatemalan officials, infected 700 women and men with syphilis without their consent, many of whom were prisoners and mental patients. The notorious Tuskegee Experiment in Alabama (1932-1972) on 600 Black men, 400 of whom had syphilis, exploited them by promising them free medical care from the government, which they never received. Long after the antibiotic cure for syphilis had been discovered, the doctors in charge watched the men die of the horrible illness. As one commentator observed, the gruesome “experiment” revealed much more about racism in America than it did about syphilis. Neither the history of science nor its current practice is free of ugly ideology.

Although many government officials have declared “war” on the virus, an inert collection of biochemicals that come to life only in interaction with a host doesn’t satisfy the need for an colle, a Pandora who can absorb the blame for our predicament. A Pakistani cleric, Maulana Tariq Jameel, made world headlines in May when he said that the pandemic was evidence of God’s wrath against “nudity and obscenity.” According to him, the immodest perpetrators that have brought down punishment upon his country, and by extension, it seems, the whole world, were his “nation’s daughters,” not its sons. The cleric made special mention of dancing girls in short skirts.

Fascist ideologies thrive on anxiety, uncertainty, and a strong nativist, national identity, an identity that is often draped in quasi-religious or orthodox religious meanings. Spain, Italy, and Germany developed different versions of European fascism under different cultural circumstances, but they nevertheless shared traits, among them a powerful need to curb the rights of women, especially their reproductive rights. New forms of anti-democratic, fascist like, authoritarian movements are rising again all over the world. The belligerent pose struck by Hindu nationalists reminds me of angry Trump supporters, the members of our right wing militias, and the neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. These belief systems survive only when there are human enemies to vilify. For rampaging Hindu nationalists inspired by Hitler’s ideas of racial purity, Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities are targets. In the West, feminists, people who refuse to conform to gender norms, immigrants, racial minorities, and marginalized people of all kinds are targets, swept up into grand narratives that explain why things are so bad. These stories are both crude and effective. By dividing the world in two, good and evil, male and female, Black and white, the splitters enhance themselves by casting their own demons onto others.

During a global pandemic when vast numbers of people are isolated, economically insecure, and fearful of the future, Pandora stories gain power. In my country we are on the eve of an election, an election that may well determine whether the democratic republic will live or die. Donald Trump and other would-be or full-blown strongmen around the globe have many millions of followers who eagerly swallow paranoid narratives about menacing Others. If they didn’t have mass support, these men would vanish instantly. The terrible irony is that if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we human beings are all vulnerable citizens of the same planet, dependent not only on one another, but also on increasingly fragile ecosystems, without which we can’t survive as a species. Collective action can change things. Noisy protest and voting can change things. And how we choose to tell the story of our shared humanity on Earth can also change things.

Siri Hustvedt (Northfield, United States, 1955) is a novelist and essayist, who won Spain’s Princess of Asturias award for Literature in 2019. She is a founding member of the Writers Against Trump coalition.

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