Such is the speed of the Coronavirus, it is difficult to write on exactly what is happening, precisely because the numbers of infected and dead keep rising, and attempts to quell and contain the virus are too rapidly shifting to keep track of, to pin down. At the time of writing, The New York Times reported the current death toll from the illness to be 490. Over 24,000 people have been infected by the Coronavirus, and there appears to be no real sign of it slowing down. Entire areas are on lockdown, as Chinese officials attempt to avoid issues on an even greater scale. Hong Kong took the step of having any visitor from mainland China quarantined for 14 days. As per the Times, the outbreak is now more deadly than the SARS scare of the early 21st century. Where this goes, nobody knows. That’s why you may see the odd surgical mask as you walk around cities like Toronto, or New York. As reported cases show up in country after country, the fear of the virus and the obsession with its spread continues unabated.
To be sure, the fear of outbreak is a somewhat constant in the cycle of our culture. Recent incarnations such as SARS and the Ebola scare that began in 2014 held similar fascination and concern for people around the world. Scenarios of pandemics revealed with errors flowing from the source, further and further away, spanning across the globe. Each time this happens, there’s of course the reminder that unlike those which were headed off, this in fact may be different. Each time this happens, we take stock at how quickly the world now moves, the increased difficulty of controlling such a thing, as millions of people are pinged around the world on planes everyday. Conspiracy theories of population control and misinformation fill up message boards and twitter feeds. Yet, although the fascination and fright toward the Coronavirus is similar to the others in so many ways, I think it is revelatory of a new stage of fear and spectacle. More and more, disaster really does feel in reach. This is because it seems like we deal with it more all the time.
We have spent a lot of time, for example, with the fear of rising sea levels, and the Atlantic Ocean flooding Fifth Avenue, and the Eastern Seaboard being wiped out by climate change. In the popular imagination for quite a long time, climate disasters have leapt more commonly into reality in recent times. Watching the brush fires in Australia or the staggering images from wildfires in California are the perfect illustration of how our fear is being redefined, it is being supplemented by the Real. Everywhere, it feels like the things that were meant to remain impossible, meant to fascinate but then fall short, are coming to pass. Whether it’s a climate catastrophe, or an authoritarian takeover of the most powerful nation in the world, or election apps failing at the first hurdle. Whether it’s an inferno, or Trump, or Shadow, Inc., or Jeffery Epstein, fear of what may come is being more and more replaced by fear of what really is.
Perhaps this drives much of the new fascination towards the Coronavirus. That such a thing could spread seems somehow less far–fetched than it did, even five, ten, twenty years ago. This is an unsurprising response to a potential crisis for a population that spends much of its day scrolling through crises of all sorts on their newsfeeds. It’s almost as if to say, of course this virus will spread, why wouldn’t it happen?
Lost in much of the sensational coverage of a thing like the Coronavirus is the very real human suffering unfolding, particularly in China’s Hubei province and its capital Wuhan. Those sick number in the tens of thousands, and by many accounts, resources are dwindling. There is fear that test kits are running out, so people are struggling even for a diagnosis. Makeshift ‘hospitals’ have been opened to house the sick. There are suggestions that the death toll is in fact much higher than reported, as there has not been close to enough room to hospitalize all those effected so far. This can be one of the strange pitfalls of the way a virus outbreak is covered. As much of the attention about the thing itself is about where it may go, how far it will spread, how many may be impacted. This can often overshadow that which really is happening. But, we have never really shown the ability to treat these moments any other way. The spread of a virus has always been the subject of fascination, fear, mania. In a time where those things feel more justified than in memory, it’s obvious to see why these sensations take hold. V