The coronavirus pandemic is affecting society in countless ways—taking its toll on individual and public health, of course, but also on business, politics, and the trajectory of our culture. Understanding our new reality means seeing the pandemic’s profound consequences from a variety of vantages. The New Yorker invited experts from six fields, ranging from genetics to science fiction, to provide insight into the pandemic; together, they offer a holistic understanding of the virus and the disease it causes, and highlight the areas in which we can learn from history and also the elements of our situation that are entirely new.
The evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar describes how the virus developed. sars-CoV-2 is one of a number of infectious diseases that have come from “animal reservoirs,” he says, which act as a keep of rapidly mutating RNA chains that have found their way to humans on more than one occasion. Meike Dittmann, an assistant professor of microbiology, explains how the virus travels inside the body. Its trek typically starts in the “naval cavity and the bronchi,” like many viruses that lead to common respiratory illnesses. But the intensity of this coronavirus comes, at least in part, from the body’s reaction. Dittmann explains that the human immune system sometimes “overshoots” in response to the virus and makes its first line of defense go “ballistic.” “The havoc actually does not come from the virus itself,” she explains: the body’s response is part of the disease’s lethality.
Using history as his lead, Poinar tracks the lifespan of pandemics from a societal perspective. They were originally perceived, he says, as a mysterious miasma. Then there’s a recognition that a highly contagious virus exists. As the epidemic grows, a “hunt or search for an explanation” begins, which is where we find ourselves today. He explains that, at this point, societies in the throes of outbreaks “start blaming other populations” and governments.
The sociologist Gil Eyal complicates this explanation, pointing to a mistrust of experts that has developed in the course of the past several decades. “There is something irrational about trusting,” Eyal says, “but we’re not talking about the science the scientists conduct in the laboratory. . . . we’re talking about the uses of science for social, political, and other kinds of purposes.” During a pandemic, the public’s ability to trust institutions—and medical expertise—can be a matter of life and death. As Charles Duhigg has written, about the divergent responses of Seattle and New York to the coronavirus, “There are so many terrifying possibilities in a pandemic; information brings relief.” Compared with Washington State, New York moved more slowly to enact public-health policies, instead letting “politicians’ voices dominate”; as a result, New York had suffered a death rate nearly six times higher than Washington by the second week of April.
Max Brooks, the author of the apocalyptic horror novel “World War Z” (in which a viral outbreak in China leads to a global pandemic), hopes that the pandemic spurs the reversal of a trend that he describes as “engineering a society based on comfort at the expense of resilience.” He looks to recent history, when so many resources have been funnelled toward the development of entertaining consumer distractions. The philosopher Simon Critchley agrees. “It’s not necessarily good for the ambition of a society to just be about comfort and pleasure—there are higher virtues than that,” he says. Brooks argues that we need to be focussed more on building resilience, but Critchley says that what’s needed is an even more fundamental reimagining of society: “We’ve got used to the idea we can isolate ourselves,” he says. But, with the coronavirus crisis showing how interconnected health is in society, subject not only to contagions but to socially determined risks and privileges, “all of that has kind of melted away,” he says. Dr. Martin Blaser, the director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, at Rutgers University, explains that people will react differently to the new pressures and worries of the pandemic, saying, “When somebody is under stress, [it] emphasize[s] their underlying personality. If their underlying personality is anxious, they will be more anxious. If they are stoical, if they are courageous, maybe they’ll be more courageous.”
At the moment, health-care workers and those in other essential jobs have to exercise that courage daily, as they face the virus directly. “In the face of something threatening,” Critchley says, those front-line workers have “pushed themselves into those stressful, anxiety-inducing, unsafe situations, in a way that is courageous.” He adds that, of the many ways that the extended crisis is changing us, a renewed emphasis on community and bravery “could be our best.”
A Guide to the Coronavirus
- Twenty-four hours at the epicenter of the pandemic: nearly fifty New Yorker writers and photographers fanned out to document life in New York City on April 15th.
- Seattle leaders let scientists take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. New York leaders did not.
- Can survivors help cure the disease and rescue the economy?
- What the coronavirus has revealed about American medicine.
- Can we trace the spread of covid-19 and protect privacy at the same time?
- The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine is widely available.
- How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.
- The long crusade of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease expert pinned between Donald Trump and the American people.
- What to read, watch, cook, and listen to under quarantine.