By now, we’ve all heard it time and again, uncertainty remains the greatest foe of this ongoing pandemic.
And uncertainty does affect an endless array of matters, from the more specific when-will-the-next-vaccine-delivery-arrive? to the more general when-can-we-expect-this-pandemic-to-be-over? Questions are also raised whether or not there will actually be a real end to this health crisis or whether human mingling will ever be a given again. Uncertainty all around.
Back in 2018, I had to come up with a topic for my Master’s thesis in English literature. I chose to write about Max Brooks’ dystopian novel World War Z, one, because it was the most recent book I had read at the time, and two, because I never had a chance to really engage with the concept of utopianism while being at university. Little did I know that my reading up on a fictional pandemic would become relevant so soon after submitting my final paper in summer 2019.
Although the premise of the book is built on the global spread of a virus that turns hosts into zombie-like creatures, the text primarily focuses on people’s decision-making process in the face of this unlikely pandemic. Constructed as an oral history, Brooks uses a list of personal interviews to display the kinds of challenges that individuals had to grapple with after their world was turned upside down. These range from global state leaders to working-class citizens.
I cannot help but occasionally think how strange it is that Brooks managed to “predict” a number of events that would actually occur over the course of our real-life pandemic: a contagious virus emerging in China, premature overconfidence in the US, or Israel coming out on top with its response to the threat. Lucky for us, nobody has yet thought about nuking the infected, so I guess we have that thing going for us.
Back to uncertainty. People have struggled with it since the first countries decided to go into lockdown and the if-the-virus-comes-here conversations turned into as-soon-as-the-virus-comes-here discussions. And every single stage of the pandemic was accompanied by a seemingly endless number of uncertainties.
Is Covid-19 more dangerous than the average flu? Are there effective treatments for it? Where exactly did it originate? Is somebody responsible for it? Is lockdown the most adequate response? IS THERE ENOUGH TOILET PAPER? Can we risk pursuing herd immunity? How long can businesses survive a shutdown? How long can the government uphold its financial support? Are masks effective? Can we get enough masks for everyone? When can we expect a vaccine? Can we trust the vaccine?
All of these questions have repeatedly been raised over the past 12 months, and unsurprisingly, people’s anxieties are not going away. While the survivors of the zombie pandemic in Brooks’ novel persevered through adaptation, our reality appears to be marked by numbness. So much so that we even have a term for it. Pandemic fatigue.
And unsurprisingly so. While former US president Donald Trump may have been wrong about many things during his spell at the White House, his referring to Covid-19 as the “invisible enemy” was indeed spot on. While our state leaders bear the pressure and responsibility of having to take executive action that affects the lives of every citizen, we have to contend with the fact that there is not much we can do as individuals to change the course of this pandemic. Certainly, we can follow public health directions, maintain few social contacts, wear masks, and so on, but after a year of doing just that, one does feel a tad empty. At times, the solution seems as invisible as the problem.
Blowing a zombie’s brains out must certainly feel more empowering than buying home office supplies does. Or at least the latter does not really appear to support the growth of resilience or personal responsibility in the face of an ever-present threat. This begs the question whether or not this pandemic will end up having a formative effect on any of us. Another uncertainty, marvellous.
I will attempt to leave the issue on a more positive note then. For one, I believe that it is admirable how well the majority of the population has adapted to the restrictions of this new age. Some may call it compliance (I’ve heard the word sheeple quite a few times), I think it’s perspective. Citizens do understand that politicians find themselves in an unforgiving dilemma and that the uncertainty of the situation makes it impossible to always take the right decision at the right moment.
For another, I believe that the uncertainty-related anxiety we cannot seem to escape will leave us more resilient than we were before. Whatever waits on the other side of this health crisis, people will have new experiences to rely on. Even if staying at home may be an incredibly passive way of contributing to a cause, it is nevertheless a formative experience given that it threw most of us completely out of our routines. If anything, it has taught us to understand ourselves better I would say.
On that note, I will end with a sobering, yet I think hopeful conclusion, which Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard drew a long time ago: “I will say that this is an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing in anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate” (155).
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Translated by Reidar Thomte, Princeton University Press, 1980.