The “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio, written during an outbreak of the plague in the Middle Ages, is the product of a quarantine. The famous book, almost 700 years old and several hundred pages long, presents a series of scandalous stories told by 10 young nobles who had fled to the countryside from the Black Death in Florence.
The stories are of love and betrayal, perfidy and greed, sin and atonement. They are about fundamental principles, about the kinds of things that we, as humans, are made of. Such things become particularly visible in times of crisis. Such as now.
COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, isn’t the plague, that much we have learned in the past months. But in the coming months, it will nevertheless trigger significant changes in our lives, perhaps dramatic ones. Wealthy countries in Europe will experience shortcomings in their health care systems, with frightening scenes in hospitals, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms to be expected. It is entirely possible that doctors, just like on the battlefields of yore, will be faced with decisions about who to treat and who not to treat; who gets oxygen and who does not.
Hundreds of thousands of people will come down with the virus in the coming months and a quick look at the statistics thus far reveals that tens of thousands will experience severe symptoms and thousands will die. The decisive question is whether that will all happen gradually over a longer period of time or extremely quickly. It is the difference between a crisis and a catastrophe.
To slow the spread of the virus, the world will also have to slow — and it will have to do so extremely quickly.
Changing Our Daily Routines
China has long since taken extensive measures to seal off large population centers and Italy has closed all non-essential shops and shut down entire regions. Air traffic between Europe and the U.S. has essentially come to a halt. In Europe, new measures are being announced by the hour, with conferences and concerts being cancelled, schools and day care centers closing their doors. The illness is forcing us all to change our daily routines.
On Thursday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron ordered that all universities, schools and kindergartens be closed starting Monday, a move that will directly affect millions of families. Many German states are doing the same on Friday. And yet, unfortunately, the catastrophic scenario remains the most likely outcome because ultimately, we human beings gravitate toward hope and frequently seek to avoid drastic action. In this respect, we can be our own worst enemies.
Ever since New Year’s, when the first small news items began emerging from Wuhan, it was essentially all about mathematics. And about the fact that people tend to either take regulations seriously or ignore them all together, depending on their mood.
That is completely forgivable on an individual level, but governments and states can no longer expect much understanding these days. Their failures in the face of the threat posed by the coronavirus have already become indefensible.
Who, if not our leaders, should have recognized the danger hidden from the very beginning in the reports from China? Who, if not the responsible agencies and institutions in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Iran, the U.S. and elsewhere should have undertaken everything humanly possible to limit the consequences of this pandemic to the degree possible? They failed to live up to their responsibility.
The debate as to whether football matches, festivals, trade fairs and conferences should be cancelled — in hindsight, these debates will appear ridiculous. Instead, there will be justified accusations of negligent time-wasting. On top of that will come the realization that on this occasion, the differences between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump were quite a bit smaller than usual. Neither of them took the danger seriously enough — and that even though it had long since become apparent that decisive action was necessary.
But decisive action in a bureaucratic world is a rare thing, at least in the one where we Germans live. The gridlock acted out on the big stage by the European Union in Brussels is echoed in the German three-penny opera of federalism. But this time, once it is all over, it will be time for a debate as to whether it is really necessary, in the middle of a health crisis, for the German health minister to first consult all 16 state health ministers before he makes an important decision.
We will have to discuss the question as to whether we really want to depend on a Carnival committee to decide if their large events will be cancelled or not. We will have to take a close look at why it was left up to German hockey league officials to (responsibly) cancel their season early and up to German football officials to (irresponsibly) only just now take measures to suspend matches. We will have to discuss whether there might be better, more centralized strategies for dealing with future crises.
If it is true that crisis reveals a person’s true nature, then the current one, at least in its early stages, has revealed just how unable we are to show solidarity, at all levels.
Reports that face masks and sanitizer was being stolen out of hospitals are shocking. Images of empty pasta shelves and shortages of toilet paper aren’t much better. The wholly insensitive and supercilious discussion about alleged mistakes made by China in its battle against the virus has been shameful.
And now that the virus has made its way from Wuhan to Germany, France, Italy, Austria — indeed everywhere — now that there is a concrete threat to the lives of a huge number of primarily elderly fellow humans, there are still people happily coughing through their daily lives. People with fevers are sitting down in waiting rooms as though they were completely alone in the world and had the right to ignorant recklessness.
Unfortunately, things aren’t much better on the international level. Europe’s nation states are in the process of missing yet another chance to fill the European Union with meaning and purpose. Instead of seeing the current situation as one where a coordinated response could be useful, instead of understanding that this virus isn’t interested in national borders, European countries are focusing almost entirely on national measures.
One can even hear a few populist voices here and there, looking for scapegoats and seeking to use the virus to boost xenophobia rather than looking for a global solution for what is a global problem. Once again, it appears to be every person for themselves. And nobody for the collective.
As such, the search for reassurance and orientation produces precious little. Every country, to be sure, has an expert like the Berlin virologist Christian Drosten, who dryly recites what is coming. But the helplessness of those in power is clear to all. Just like the EU, the United Nations is proving itself unable to form an intelligible crisis response, even though it should be right in the middle of the fight.
Approaching a Diffuse Threat
Individuals aren’t good at correctly identifying risk, a truth that applies to viruses just as it does to climate change. Everyone knows the rules for correct, sensible behavior, but they are obeyed far too rarely. Or, on the contrary, they are transformed into absolutes and ideologized. It is apparently quite challenging to find the right approach to a diffuse threat that is difficult to assess. Just like people drastically overestimate their chances of winning the lottery, many are still underestimating the destructive power of the coronavirus. That will have consequences. And it will change.
Many live in areas where public life will go completely into hibernation. Many will have to drastically change the ways they organized their day-to-day activities because daycare centers are closing, offices are shutting their doors and city centers are being declared no-go areas. The images from Italian cities may look like scenes from a dystopian science fiction film, but that is what our lives will be looking like for a time.
It has been the reality in Wuhan for the last several months, a place that we long thought was so far away. That was the first, decisive mistake. We must learn from it and from all of the other mistakes we have made — for the future.
Nobody yet knows how this story will end or when it will end. Boccaccio’s “Decameron” closes with the return of the 10 young men and women to Florence. They told their stories over a period of 10 days. This time around, most of us will have more time than that.