Monday, 6 April 2020

Superstition, Science, Religion and Virus

I notice that the reaction to Covid-19 (Novel Coronavirus) is becoming increasingly like what we recommended back in 2009 when Swine Flu was the major new virus on the block. Though I can't help but wonder whether, if Swine Flu had been just a little more like it was headlined as, the world's reaction to Covid-19 might have been more timely.

Having messed around with drug design for a year during my MA, I have long had a fear and respect for the way in which new viruses can arise and spread. And particularly because, back in the 80s, the flu outbreak that took my attention was the 1918-19 so-called "Spanish Flu" pandemic. Now, I'm no expert, and everything after this comes from my reading - which is all available online.

But there are some terrible parallels. Firstly the racism that comes with it. The 18-19 pandemic was blamed on the Spanish, or on the Germans deliberately spreading it (in fact, there's a reasonable chance it originated in the United States). Now it's the Chinese.

Then there are the people that try to continue with Business as Normal. In the current instance, think Tim Martin, Gammon-in-Chief and Founder of Wetherspoons, insisting that nobody has shown you can catch Covid-19 in a pub. And forgetting temporarily that one of his key demographics - unfit elderly smokers - are exactly those people who need protecting from this. In the midst of the first waves of Spanish Flu, the Americans were still packing soldiers onto boats and sending them to Europe. They held a major parade in Philadelphia to raise money for the war effort.

Then there's the "religion makes you safe" belief. Against all logic and scientific advice, some still try to meet. From the American churches who think it's their right to get together, to Orthodox Jews needing to have meetings broken up in Israel. And the same 100 years ago. At the height of the Spanish Flu outbreak, Billy Sunday preached that they could pray the pandemic down. While people were collapsing with the disease at his revival meetings. He later realised you couldn't.

There's an irony - the reason this virus does what it does, is because the world obeys the rules of Physics. The same forces and laws that mean you can cook your tea, fuss a dog or give some money to a charity to dig a well, inexorably mean that a virus can do its virusy thing. The irony for me is that I believe that God made a "good" world. Maybe "good" is as much about it keeping the rules as everything in the garden being rosy. But that same goodness, consistency, logic - means that scientists can eventually develop drugs, tests and vaccines. Maybe we're being reminded in all this that science isn't always an instant fix. We are so used to faster computers, more channels on the telly, cheaper flights - this one is going to be for the long haul. There are - as yet - no silver bullets. But biology and chemistry will still tell us where to look.

But when the science apparently fails, that's when people fall back on the "odd origins" theories. Influenza is so called because its arising was so unpredictable and mysterious, it was attributed to the influence of the stars. It was a popular hypothesis back when I was failing to design a decent drug,  that influenza gets dropped into the Earth's atmosphere by comets. The 2009 Swine Flu outbreak, and the current pandemic, have both been blamed on deliberate manufacture. While the outbreak of blaming 5G masts for the disease plumbs all the depths of superstition to which people go when religion has been left behind but science has apparently no answers. Because to think that this disease is just one of those things that happens in a world where things happen, goes against all the self-reliance and conviction of human invincibility and progress that many of us have absorbed so instinctively. But that's actually the case. Every now and then a virus does something which Donald Trump may think is "clever", but is of course just a function of the speed of viral reproduction and virus's relative genetic fluidity. And then we have something our bodies either don't recognise, or not as much as we do with the seasonal viruses. And then it explodes.  It ain't a mystery. But it looks like it.

You could argue that the 5G mast business proves that the human condition, in a world after so many have lost religion, has gone backwards or at least has just reworked the same old hopelessness in the face of disaster with a scientific rather than religious one. The Black Death may have been blamed on sin, the Jews or the Turks. But as far as I'm aware nobody burned a printing press on the grounds that the new technology was spreading plague.  And yes, now someone will provide a link to prove me wrong.

Then there is the simple message that social distancing saves lives. It works because it's based on simple statistics. If a diseased person going about their normal lives on average infects 3 people - then reducing social interaction by two-thirds puts the epidemic onto a steady state. Reduce it by three-quarters and it starts to die out. It's no good you figuring that you personally can't be at risk, or can't be spreading - if everyone thinks that, nothing reduces. You are a small statistic. But if we're all added up, the brute force of the numbers does its job. It worked in 1918, and it works today. It doesn't require super science or clever models. It just needs everyone to know their job and do it. And that job, for most of us, is to sit on the couch. Because we need to take our socialisation down even further, to allow those that are key workers to get out and do their jobs.

And as ever there's the sheer bravery of people in medicine, logistics, policing, retail, the military, undertaking. Some things don't change. And some people we need even at the time of shutting everyone else down.

In the past, you'd include clergy for the bravery medal as well. Albeit in times of plague or flu, they would have been causing more trouble than they were addressing. But clergy - at least, the ones I know - are doing their work quietly, sensibly, distanced, through phone contact and networks and the host of Zoomed, Facebooked and YouTubed acts of worship. I'll link to the page of All Saints with Holy Trinity Loughborough, for an example of the simple act of Morning Office done well. And also because I always like to pronounce the town "Luger-Beruga". And maybe there's bravery in clergy knowing that it's their physical absence, not their presence, that's required.  And maybe in the UK one unexpected benefit of this sadness and disruption, will be the re-establishment of daily prayer. I would say "corporate" daily prayer, but that body will be scattered like the grains of wheat in the fields, coming together in Sprit, in truth but via phone lines and broadband.

There's a feeling this Holy Week, as the great cities of the world fall nearly silent, and key workers go to work unsurrounded by the normal bustle, that is fitted to those dramatic readings we use from Lamentation at this time.
 How deserted lies the city,
    once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
    who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
    has now become a slave.
Bitterly she weeps at night,
    tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
    there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
    they have become her enemies.
But the Exile ended. The captives returned. And Jerusalem once again thrived.  Another lesson from 1918-19 - eventually it went away. The world emerged into the Roaring 20s. And lessons were learned. It's just a shame we have to learn them over and over again.

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  1. RannedomThoughts06/04/2020, 16:21

    I thought BoJo was Gammon-in-Chief??

  2. ArchDruid, have you ever seen the movie Awakenings? It's about the aftermath of the Spanish Flu and, although somewhat romanticized, is based on a true story. Well worth a watch.

  3. "But as far as I'm aware nobody burned a printing press on the grounds that the new technology was spreading plague. And yes, now someone will provide a link to prove me wrong."

    Not at the time, no, but since then people have treated books as carriers of a different kind of plague, that of a dissenting opinion, and burned them (if possible along with their authors).


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