Plague & Paranoia, Pt. III
Perhaps the most frightening information about the novel COVID-19 virus, is the announcement, by the medical establishment, of asymptomatic infection: i.e., of the ability of the virus to infect a host, or be carried by one, without inducing any sign of its presence. In light of this discovery, the scientific community has recommended the public, to observe extreme caution, even in the presence of the apparently healthy, lest an infection pass unseen from one person to another. In this recommendation, the scientific community has doubtless reduced the frequency of infection by a visible percent, and can be said therefore to have retarded the progress of the pandemic, and saved lives.
Never the less, this warning of asymptomatic infection; — it may bear repetition, not the asymptomatic infection, but the warning itself; — has done, and stands to do almost as much damage to the health of society, as it prevents, to the health of the individual, inasmuch as the means of distinction between the healthy and the sick are thereby abolished, and with them, the criteria by which the individual might regulate its own activities. With the loss of this distinction, the public are the more inclined to panic and error, inasmuch as the situation, as presented to them, supplies no grounds for rational action, and so, no rational action to take.
Under such conditions, it is far from incredible, that the mood of the public approaches something akin to mass hysteria and its attendant violences, and the behavior of the masses themselves, little better than absurd. In the present state of affairs, the situation has already deteriorated as far, or farther: even as, 19 years ago, the fear of hostile ‘sleeper’ agents condemned innocent people to be slandered, arrested, beaten, or killed, merely for accidentally appearing to look askance at a passer-by, so, now, the fear of an asymptomatic pandemic vector condemns others, equally innocent, to be slandered, beaten, or killed, merely for breathing heavily in the presence of a fellow-citizen. The undesirability of this sort of reaction, goes almost without saying.
In the effort, then, which is truly admirable, to persuade the public of the magnitude of their peril, through an entire disclosure of the relevant data, the scientific community, through no fault of its own, has fallen into the opposite error; for the public, knowing their own helplessness, and by reason of that knowledge, are proportionately likelier to behave unwisely.
In very clear and simple terms, we may thus summarize the consequence of this state of affairs: the public, informed that it cannot distinguish the infected from the healthy, by any sign available to the unaided senses, is instinctively moved to regard all encounters as potential vectors of the disease, and therefore inclined to universal distrust. In such a state of heightened fear, any harmless gesture or inconsequential action, let alone any overture of friendship, or solicitation of assistance, is taken as a threat, and answered accordingly.
The explanation of this behavior is relatively simple: after nearly a generation of having taught ourselves to consider all but the least problems as unactionable, we, the American populace, find ourselves confronted by the first truly unactionable problems of the century, and we are surprised by our own helplessness in the face thereof. Having said that, this secondary infection, as we may somewhat whimsically entitle it, of misplaced caution, is not unactionable itself, but may be mitigated in part with a daily self-assurance, first, that the larger problem is indeed unactionable, except by specialists, and secondly, that to acknowledge the existence of asymptomatic infection, does not necessarily qualify every person without symptoms, as a vector of the disease.
It is obvious to even the least examination, that such assurances alone do not reduce the secondary (psychological) infection, except over a long time; but, as with the primary (physical) infection, present methods must suffice, until a better is devised.