Sunday, March 22, 2020

Plague and the stories we tell

These days are strange territory. I keep looking for ways to understand it all. (Yes, to distract myself. I can't look straight at the news, but I can't look away either.)
I realized why it feels so strange. In this plague, if you catch it, other people die.
I'm middle-aged but healthy. COVID-19 probably won't kill me. It likely won't kill any of my friends. (My father lives in a different state. Let's not talk about your mother.) If we were all unaware, I'd be one of the people shopping as usual, gaming with my group, coughing a bit, and spreading the bug everywhere.
And we'd mostly be fine. Down with a nasty bug for a couple of weeks, but then fine. Except, also, millions of people would die. If everyone like me gets it, then everybody gets it, and 1% of everybody is a lot of people.
We don't have this story. We don't have a way to understand it. Or, we do, but it's called "mathematics" and people suck at it.
I grew up in the 80s. The science fiction of my time spoke of plague; the plague was AIDS. The moral of AIDS was simple. Do the wrong thing, and you die. Sin equals contamination equals death.
(Let me be clear: I'm not talking about AIDS or HIV in the real world. I'm talking about the stories we told each other about it. Even the queer authors, even the sympathetic stories. You might not have sinned, but you were still a person who Did It Wrong and there was no coming back.)
Of course the stories pulled in many directions. Greyscale; the Descolada; MutAIDS. In the computer age, the plague became an information virus: Vinge's Blight, Barnes's One True. Put a seductive smile on the infection and you get vampires and werewolves. But it is still a story about the unforgiveable act.
There were plague stories before AIDS. We remember the Plague, the Black Death, although we like to remember it safely in the past. (Its moral was even simpler: God is angry and everybody dies.) We have stories of measles, whooping cough, polio. You got them or you didn't, and then you got better or you died -- or you grew up sickly or paralyzed. Meningitis, rather than scarlet fever, probably struck Mary Ingalls blind, but it wasn't a punishment. Life was just like that.
Salk and Fleming changed life. Then AIDS changed it again, practically overnight. We grew up with the new plague and its inescapable moral. The treatments slowly caught up, but I think the language -- your choice, your consequence -- has remained pervasive.
But now the coronavirus. You get better (probably) and other people die.
(Even as I write this, the news shifts. The CDC says the young are at higher risk of hospitalization than we initially thought. Widespread testing in Iceland shows that half the infected never show symptoms at all. Even if you do the math, you're working off of fragmentary evidence.)
The sin is collective. The punishment is statistical. Your restaurant table (bar, game night, ...) is probably clean -- but the germ is on someone's table (doorknob, gas pump handle, ...). If everyone stays in, the risk is contained. If everybody goes out, the risk is 100%. The Prisoner's Dilemma and Kant's Categorical Imperative have ridden out of game theory papers and bestride the land on their pale horses.
We're trying to grapple with a world where the moral consequences are entirely collective. The language of AIDS -- that most personal of viruses -- is inadequate. "My ass, my decision, my risk" doesn't work any more. It's everyone's ass together. We're gonna need a bigger story.

If there is a bright spot -- a less-dark spot -- it is that we'll be able to compare stories. The virus is spreading across the world, but the distribution is so wildly uneven. The US has hot spots... some of which we know about. Others will become visible once serious testing gets underway. But it will be very clear which cities have their hospitals swamped and which don't (yet). We may even be able to tell stories about where an outbreak started. (Here in Boston, we say "Biogen conference" like Calvinists say "original sin". But it could have been PAX East, a day later and 100 times as many people...)
I have no pat ending to that thought. Watch the news, as best you can. Deny the liars and the self-deluders. Talk to people about what we're doing. Take walks -- being outdoors isn't inherently dangerous. Hug the people you live with.
Best wishes.


  1. Every now and then, someone like Andrew comes along and puts into words exactly what I have been feeling but unable to express. I am going to share this post with everyone I care about. Thank you, be well, and stay away (physically) for the time being--no matter what other stories people tell themselves.

  2. Great post. Particularly the line "If everyone stays in, the risk is contained. If everybody goes out, the risk is 100%" ... I am going to pinch this line and beat people over the head with it, be because it states very clearly the situation. 👍

  3. "Or, we do, but it's called "mathematics" and people suck at it."

    My mother was a statistician.

    The contrast between people with some understanding of the statistics and people who are fundamentally not understanding the statistics is the difference between life and death, and I don't know how to react to that -- but I feel like games are the correct narrative form to tell such a story in. Because it's possible to both implement probability, and expose it to the player.