One of my favorite movies is Jaws. The movie centers around a Northeastern island town that relies heavily upon the tourism industry. A larger than normal great white shark starts attacking people off its beaches, and the initial response of the mayor and town government is to ignore it or blame the attacks on a boating accident.
Of course, such sharks that become habitual human hunters really don’t exist in nature. Usually the shark that eats someone moves on and may never encounter a person again. They are simply predators making a go of it in a sea in which prey avails itself at irregular intervals.
However, the story of Jaws was cribbed from a Henrik Ibsen play called An Enemy of the People. That play tells the story of a resort town that relies upon natural mineral spas for its tourism town. A doctor discovers the mineral water is contaminated by bacteria, but the leaders of the town and the local newspaper do all they can to prevent the story from being known. The town does not want this story being known, because it will cost them their tourism industry.
I have thought a lot about leaders who sacrifice people for economics. I’ve seen it with my own eyes as this COVID-19 disaster unfolds in the United States. You may accuse me of letting my political biases from coming to the fore, and I suppose you are right.
I have tried to avoid political discussions in this era of depressing developments– at least on this space. But this time, I have decided to let some of my reticence slip.
The era in which I have come of age is the age of the precariat. The precariat is that sector of society which does not have much and is always on the edge of potential disaster.
Healthcare prices continue to soar, and suddenly, we are thrown into a situation where a contagious virus spreads through the population and the only way to combat is to force the bulk of the population to stay home. Staying home means no paychecks and massive layoffs. Health insurance that is tied to employment is lost.
And the virus continues to spread. People die and will continue to die. We are left precarious. The future is uncertain.
No one has any idea how to fix anything. The ruling ideas of the past 40 years don’t make any sense. Indeed, they have no solution at all.
Americans have this idea of invincibility. We have insulated ourselves from the greatest risks of our many wars. Only the relatively few combat soldiers know any real risk from battle death or injury.
We have lots of great technology, and we believe that our economy is the best in the world. We think of ourselves as durable against it all.
But we are being felled by a mere micro-organism. It is even more mindless than a shark. It merely replicates within our cells and passes on to the next victim.
All of that advancement, all of that intellect and culture, all laid bare by the most random of things.
Wildlife always live with the specter of epidemics. Canine distemper will flow through gray fox population. In 2016, canine distemper wreaked havoc among the Yellowstone wolves, and I can remember years when epizootic hemorrhagic disease knocked out the white-tail population.
But humans live with the fiction that we are not part of nature. We have vaccines and antibiotics. We have sanitation. We don’t suffer the plagues like we used to.
But this time, a plague has come upon us. It should knock us off our pedestal a bit. As much as we like to think that we are not part of nature, sometimes nature comes for us. It comes to us with no malice, no concept of revenge. It comes for us the way that it comes for that adorable gray fox kit when distemper hits it.
Our intellect should call us to question the ruling ideas. Already, that questioning is going on. But that questioning must not just be centered in the concept of how our economic and healthcare systems have left us so exposed.
The truth is we are always exposed. We are always at risk. We are ultimately mortal. We are not terrestrial gods.
We are the smartest animal. But we are still animals. The processes of nature still come for us. Though we can deflect and insulate against these forces, sometimes, we just can’t stop it.
So it has come. It is the Time of the Plague. And we must think and consider as we fall into such humility.
We should accept this humility for now. We must reconsider and retool– for that is what the future ultimately holds.