Oh my goodness. The social illness that the pandemic launched into its active phase is far from over. That is obvious from the comments on my last post, where I asked for suggestions on how to approach the Covid topic from a post-pandemic perspective. I can’t say the intensity of the responses surprised me, but it shocked me into noticing a feeling that I’d been derelict in my duty to follow up on an issue I wrote about extensively in 2020 and 2021. Like many of you, I’d kinda like to move on. Forgive me. Also I was wary of getting addicted to identifying with my partisan role in the issue, with its attendant indignation and righteousness. But I still have a lot to say that feels important to me. The Covid pandemic may be over (or it may not be), but the process it initiated has hardly begun.
The social illness I speak of was not Covid per se, but our response to it. I will call the illness pandemania—a social, psychological, and political derangement that caused much more harm than the disease itself, and continues to do so. Like Covid itself, which kills people indirectly by provoking a cytokine storm, the pandemic provoked a socio-political tempest far out of proportion to its epidemiological danger.1 And, like an opportunistic germ that reveals and exploits an underlying imbalance, Covid landed on a social tissue already severely diseased.
Some advocates of bioterrain theory2 theorize that germs are not just opportunistic, but sometimes can exercise a healing role. For example, by aiding the clearing of accumulated wastes through mucous discharge, they can restore balance to unhealthy tissues. Extending the metaphor, I would like to say that the disease process that Covid initiated in the body politic may also bring us to a place of healing.
It may—if we learn its lessons, if we receive the initiation it offers. Otherwise, the disease will continue to deepen, morphing into new and diverse forms that may not fall into the category of epidemic, but will highlight the same social maladies that made us so susceptible to Covid pandemania.
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What is the disease and what are the lessons? I will trace it through some of the responses I’ve received. Keep responding in the comments, and if there is reader interest I’ll make this into a series.
One of the main themes in the comments was betrayal and a shattering of trust. Many people are asking, Do we just forgive and forget and go back to normal? One commenter put it like this:
How do we move on with these people, some of them cherished friends and community members, in a way that honors and respects the pain, anger, anxiety, etc that went with being excluded or shut down or simply disengaged with as a result of our (courageous) positions taken over the last two years?
I imagine that people on the other side of the issue might express a similar sentiment. They might say, “How do we move on with these people who flouted the advice of the best experts, ignored the consensus science, tried to enroll us in their dangerous conspiracy theories, and thus put us all at risk?”
There is, however, a profound asymmetry between the two sides. One side experienced ostracism, censorship, cancellation, loss of jobs, loss of licenses, and exclusion from public spaces, while the other did not. The following comment, from a Vermont woman named Susan who’d been banned from her ukulele group, speaks to our experience. I would like those on the Covidian side to read it without the overlay of “you deserved it,” and try to connect with what it was like for us.
It’s not just about this ukulele group. It’s about all the others—the yoga class filled with friends and a real sense of community, now open only to vaccinated people. The annual summer reunion of high school friends that has met every year for the past 45 years, from which I was expressly (and sanctimoniously) excluded last year. Two museums my husband and I used to love to go to. Two “open and affirming” churches I used to frequent that have closed their doors unvaccinated people, and no one sees the irony. My therapist, who is alternatively minded (for lack of a better term) and commiserated with me about Big Pharma and modern medicine, but who, when Covid hit, got the vax and said it would be “difficult” to see me unless I was vaccinated. Recently she said maybe she could start seeing me again, if I wore a mask and used nasal spray that has been shown to kill SARS-CoV 2—even though I told her I’d had Covid and was immune. A Celtic music trio I was part of, a Course In Miracles Study group, two favorite museums we’re long time members of, a favorite bookstore, the local repertory theater, and on and on.
Most of us who chose to remain unvaccinated have stories like this. We carry some unresolved feelings that make us resistant to going back to normal and forgetting it all happened. It isn’t that we are vindictive. It is tempting just to let everyone forget the whole thing. To let people forget that they excluded, denounced, canceled, censored, and ostracized us. I am willing to let bygones be bygones, except for one thing: How are we to know it won’t happen again? Partly it’s a matter of PTSD: I don’t feel very safe among these people. But more important than my own comfort or safety is what kind of world my descendants will live in. As George Santayana famously wrote, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I fear the possibility that pandemania will become permanent, woven into our social and political institutions, our habits, taboos, and norms.
Imagine you live with an alcoholic spouse. He goes on a bender and subjects you to all kinds of abuse: yells at you, shames you, locks you out of the house. The next day he wakes up sober and wants to pretend it never happened. The invitation to return to normalcy is strong. But with no change to the conditions behind the alcoholism, without even an apology that recognizes harm was done, you will probably not fully trust the durability of the return to normal.
Susan has been invited to rejoin the ukulele group, conditionally, as long as they meet outdoors. Should she say yes? Another commenter articulated her dilemma as follows:
How do we respond if/when we’re invited back by people who, last year, chided/berated/challenged/questioned/excluded/feared/shamed us? How do we respond to the sanctimony, the lack of understanding, the impatience, the shaming, the “can’t-we-just-move-past-that?”
For sake of completeness, and to communicate some degree of the unresolved fury that is out there, I want to mention that the “abuse” in the alcoholic analogy isn’t just emotional. It’s not that we were merely yelled at, shamed, and locked out of the house. It was physical too. Some of us were beaten bloody. Last weekend I spent some time with a friend who lost his brother and uncle to the Covid vaccine. The decline of the previously healthy brother started immediately after the shot. It was obvious to the family but not to the doctors, who said it must be coincidence because the shots were proven to be safe. Can you imagine asking someone like that to forgive and forget, without any acknowledgment of harm?
That said, I don’t want to discard the forgive-and-forget impulse too quickly. There is a truth in it as well. The truth lies in what Jesus was reported to have said on the cross: “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Real forgiveness is not some kind of indulgence, where we hold ourselves superior to those who have wronged us. It comes from the recognition that we might have done the same, had we been in the shoes of perpetrator rather than victim. It recognizes that those who played their part in what Mattias Desmet calls mass formation are subject to powerful psycho-social forces to which none of us are immune but for fortune’s grace.
Instinctively, powerful institutions and ruthless individuals hijack these forces to advance authoritarian goals. The individuals who contribute to mass formation are their puppets. Even the elites are not the true puppet-masters, since they too act largely unconsciously according to the primal psychology of the mob. Those who rule the mob are never free of it; they must continue to goad it on to new victims lest it turn on themselves.
So, the desire to forgive and forget comes not only from wishful thinking that it won’t happen again, but also from an important truth: the origin of the wrongness lies beyond those who have wronged us.
Accordingly, the most useful response is not to turn aside from the anger we feel at our treatment by the mob, but to follow it to its source. The anger is an important signal of a boundary violation. It gives us the energy and daring to do something about it.
As anyone in an abusive relationship can confirm, the perpetrator’s apology is no guarantee that the abuse won’t happen again. Even if the apology is sincerely contrite, still it is no guarantee.
It can be gratifying to receive an apology, but too often apology represents merely the reversal of a dominance-submission relationship, not its transcendence. And usually it is a temporary reversal. At best, it is a gateway to a deeper exploration of the background situation (the trauma, the environment) that drives the abuse. But apology is not necessary for forgiveness or for healing.
It is not of highest importance that those who have ostracized and shamed us apologize. What is most important is to create conditions where it does not happen again. In the case of a ukulele group, that might mean not rejoining the group. Or it might not. I can’t offer a clear formula. I do find, though, that when I let go of my identity as an aggrieved party, I am better able to recognize sincere acts of contrition, even unspoken.
Here are some clear signs that abuse is likely to happen again:
(1) Humiliating conditions are put on the abused.
(2) The power to inflict abuse remains in place.
(3) The perpetrator refuses to admit harm was inflicted.
(4) The perpetrator maintains the justifications and pretexts for harm.
Obviously, on a collective level we have a long way to go. In fact, the harm has only subsided, not ceased. The authorities have not changed at all—all four signs are starkly visible. Many in the Covid dissident community expect a renewed attempt to impose medical totalitarianism come the fall. I am not so sure. The abuse may take a new form. Covid was a test-drive for technologies of control and habits of submission that can be applied outside the pandemic context. All that is required is to direct the attention of the mob onto a new threat and a new enemy-in-our-midst.
I am aware that I seem to be ending this piece on a somber note. In the next segment of this series I think I will address the despair and cynicism that many people expressed in the comments. A lot of people seem to have given up on humanity. The above notwithstanding, I have not given up. In fact I think we are at a crossroads (the one I invoked in my first Covid essay, The Coronation), where a new path is open before us. Let us not internalize the abuser’s message of our helplessness. We can choose a better way, if only we know what we are choosing. That is why it is so important to digest the lessons of the pandemic and recognize the deep causes of pandemania. When we do that, we no longer get stuck on blaming the proximate perpetrators. We might still hold boundaries with them and respectfully refuse to comply with their humiliations, but we will refuse the game of us versus them, the good and the wicked, the woke and the sleeping, the saved and the damned. That is the aforementioned “diseased tissue state” that allowed the illness of pandemania to run rampant in the first place.