Pandemic as prologue

A failure of imagination has stymied our outbreak response, but that’s just the beginning.


The novel coronavirus officially arrived in the United States on Jan. 19, when a sick person went to an urgent care facility in Snohomish County, Washington. But it wasn’t until two months later — weeks after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic — that Congress passed a massive spending package, cities enacted major travel restrictions, and rural towns started begging visitors to stay home and not overwhelm their limited medical facilities. Many people died, yet it took months for the imminent threat of the virus to become apparent to national leaders.

Why? In part, I think, because U.S. leaders, cynically trapped in a false sense of security, were unable to imagine how a pandemic might play out here, even as they watched it unfold abroad. This lack of imagination, underpinned by privilege and a dangerous nationalism, does not bode well for the future. The world has changed in the past few months, but climate chaos still looms, and this pandemic is but a prologue.

As the number of cases climbed and travel restrictions tightened, I found myself returning to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, a critique of the modern imagination. Ghosh, an award-winning novelist and essayist, argues that sometime in the 19th and 20th centuries, people began to feel more at ease with a “new regularity of bourgeois life.” That sense of ease manifested itself in a collective failure of imagination, replaced by a reliance on probabilities and statistics. Our inability to imagine catastrophe, in other words, has brought it to fruition. As a society, we simply cannot imagine what is coming, because we have become too inured with the comforts that be.

A pandemic blows apart the idea that humans are separate from their environment.

Ghosh argues that we are living in an era of the “uncanny” — the strange, the disorienting, the unsettling — in German, unheimlich, un-home-like. “No other word comes close to expressing the strangeness of what is unfolding around us (including) the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors.” Ghosh means climate forces, but he could just as easily be talking about viruses, which challenge our notions of inside and outside, our selves versus our environment.

There is nothing more intimate than a virus that enters your body from the outside, infects you, then becomes part of you. A pandemic blows apart the idea that humans are separate from their environment, much as climate change blows apart the idea that we are masters of that misconstrued environment. This newest (not last) coronavirus suggests what climate change demands: A viable future depends on the ability to re-see the world.

Americans were blinded by our own comfort, while our leaders willfully lied to us. It was easy to believe them. But the truth was at the margins. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, a discrepancy appeared across a racial divide, which in America must always be linked to inequality. In early March, a Pew Research poll found that “older adults, black and Hispanic people, and those with no college experience are especially likely to view the coronavirus as a major threat to their own health.” These concerns were ignored, of course; the comfortable scoffed while the president dithered. Now, many, many thousands will die, and needlessly.

This pandemic gives us a chance to re-see the world. Sequestration, isolation, frustration — these offer a new chance for connection, for re-imagination, even if every morning brings a freshly broken heart, every headline a new horror. It is all strange, uncanny, anxiety-inducing. But the truth is this: Many people around the world, in many countries ignored by the United States or actively punished by it, are accustomed to this dread. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought that dread and widespread suffering to the land of the privileged, a preview of what’s to come. It is up to us now to see clearly this unraveling, to consider it, and to remember it.   

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds