SARS-CoV-2 virus (novel coronavirus) particles; image courtesy
the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH
With all that has happened just halfway through 2020, you might think the only thing this year lacks is an apocalypse brought on by the undead. But you would be mistaken.
We already have one.
The novel coronavirus has infected more than 10 million people that we know about, and likely tens of millions more we don’t. It has killed millions. That, and the economic devastation it has wrought, ought to qualify as an apocalypse. And the virus – like all viruses – is “undead,” in the sense that it is not actually a living thing, but it isn’t quite dead either.
A virus does not feed, does not capture or use energy, and cannot reproduce on its own. In a world of cellular life, a virus is not a cell; it lacks a nucleus and a membrane. It is a bit of genetic material, either DNA or RNA depending on the sort of virus (the coronavirus is an RNA virus), with a sheath of protein around it.
The coronavirus, like all viruses, exists for a single purpose: to hijack a cell and make copies of itself. If the process happens to kill the host, well, that’s life – the virus is indifferent. It is not alive. I could describe a vampire in much the same way.
A virus is also as soulless as a vampire. The novel coronavirus is typical in the way it spreads itself via close contact among people. It makes no difference to the virus whether the close contact occurs at a protest demonstration, a political rally, a sports event, a happy hour, a graduation party or a funeral. The virus will do what it does wherever and whenever it has a chance to do it. It does not pause to eat or sleep or reflect. No consequences matter to it.
We humans are the opposite. We compromise. We rationalize. We make conscious trade-offs between competing priorities, and we rationalize those compromises and trade-offs to fit our own biases. Public gatherings are unacceptably dangerous, except when they aren’t. So we gather to protest injustice, or to watch Independence Day fireworks, or to rally for a political candidate. Government officials who discourage or even prohibit mass gatherings make exceptions, and permit or facilitate the ones they rationalize into acceptability. They acknowledge that masks are useful in containing the virus, but they still tolerate or organize events at which mask wearing will not be enforced.
Everyone bemoans the horrific toll the virus has taken on certain industries, like bars and restaurants. But when those establishments reopened under constraints of social distancing and mask wearing, patrons rebelled. Now, in some places, the same establishments face new restrictions or closures. While the virus acts with single-minded consistency, human responses are a hodgepodge of the constructive, the destructive and the self-destructive. Some of the same individuals who hugged one another at bars or graduations will carry the virus home to vulnerable relatives, who will help it reproduce before potentially succumbing to the damage the virus does to its host. If it were sentient, the virus might say “thank you” to the humans who gave it a lift. But the virus is not alive and it does not care.
The virus may be consuming the presidency of Donald Trump, too. Objectively, his administration’s handling of the pandemic – while riddled with flaws and contradictions – has not been worse than that of many other nations once you account for the size and demography of the country. The United States’ mortality rate is better than in much of Europe. The economy is in better shape. Allowing state and local officials to craft their own responses prevented months of potentially needless and unproductive isolation in areas that were not heavily affected right away.
But scheduling events like tomorrow’s planned fireworks show at Mount Rushmore, which the president plans to attend with thousands of un-socially distanced supporters, makes little sense even to those who don’t relish the idea of a Biden presidency. Nor does holding an indoor political convention with a planned audience of thousands next month in Jacksonville, Florida, where cases are currently surging. Nobody is forced to attend such events, of course. Vulnerable people can stay home. But what about the doctors, nurses and EMTs who will deal with whatever fallout follows? What about the bar owners who cannot reopen until cases in Jacksonville are brought under control, and the restaurant owners who dread being forced to curtail operations again? What about their staffs?
The same criticisms can apply to any careless and needless gathering, however lofty, worthwhile or sentimental its purpose. We don’t need healthy young adults to cower in their homes forever just to protect the older and more vulnerable members of society. But we do need them to behave reasonably and responsibly. Many have. Some haven’t.
Until biology or science provides the immunity stake to drive through the heart of this microscopic vampire, the coronavirus will move where it can and do what it does. It is not alive. It will neither know nor care what it is doing. But we should.