The Contagion of Everyday Life How human beings live, signify, falter, and die by the incidence of infection.

(Image Credit: James Cridland, Flickr)

All over the world, those who survived the great coronavirus plague of 2020 slowed down. After sheltering at home, unrushed, they no longer pressured each other for immediate responses. More of them hiked and camped, because nature felt safe, the skies free. The outdoors had a permanence now denied to all the fragile little pursuits that had seemed so urgent.

In high-tech countries, objects once irritating because they overreacted—like the dispensers that shot out paper towels every time you passed—became lifesavers. Idealists who had cursed the internet for isolating people scooted close to their screens to connect. The addictive rush of virtual reality thinned, though, now that it was the only option; videoconferencing lost its cachet when sixty-something women started downloading Zoom for their book clubs.

Fear spread even faster than the COVID-19 virus, and scammers used that fear to profit. Heroes risked their lives to counter it; cowards used it to spread word of conspiracies; those without inner resources used its skewed logic to tamp down the chaos in their minds. Or just bought more toilet paper.

Friends and families took comfort from each other, learning to avoid fights and sulks by tuning in to one another’s moods, needs, temperaments. It turned out that modern life did not, after all, require being constantly busy. People learned to cook again—really cook, not just watch the shows and photograph the food. They did more DIY and repair and shopped less, finally immune to the imperative of acquisition.

Dogs fared the best, calm and happy because their people were home where they should have been all along and far less preoccupied, now that they had stopped watching the stock market freefall. Affluenza vanished. Wisdom, laughter, and comfort spread as efficiently as the virus, and the awkwardness of social distancing proved just how social a species we were. No one taunted “OK Boomer” anymore; ageism went away as the grief flowed in. The losses were too obvious to diminish.

When the world stopped spinning, it felt like a chance for a reset, and a moral imperative spread: Fix this.

Gun sales shot up (ammo.com saw a seventy percent increase in sales) in fear of a crime wave. The precariat was now impossible to ignore: Low-wage jobs were lost overnight, and kids went hungry because that free school lunch had been their only meal. When the world stopped spinning, it felt like a chance for a reset, and a moral imperative spread: Fix this.

A pandemic is never only about biological contagion. Much of what we feel, think, and do—far more than I want to admit—is the product of what we perceive or unconsciously mimic in the world around us. Laughter is contagious, and yawns—even chimpanzees find yawns contagious. I realize only now, in the enforced quiet, how I absorbed the pace and values of the society around me. My mind was quiet, if concerned, as I watched the infectiousness of fear, panic, and hysteria; of rationalization or mystification; of courage. Ideas and beliefs, good information and bad information, enthusiasm and advice and funny memes spread as fast as the virus.

All of that is contagion.

 

The terror itself

Back when all we knew of AIDS was that it traveled through blood, a friend, recently diagnosed, called me at two in the morning. Just home from an Irish pub and a wee bit giddy, I sobered up fast and rushed to his apartment. Hemorrhaging after sinus surgery, he was holding a bowl of sloshing bright red blood under his nose.

“Do you…have gloves?” I asked, my voice shaking.

He shook his head, sending more blood spurting.

And I fainted.

It was not my finest moment. He later teased that until that moment, he had thought “turning green” was a figure of speech. The next day, his partner, who had been on call, told me, with an odd look on his face, that they did indeed have gloves.

It took me a long time to sort out the mix of fury and understanding that night left with me. Stephen was young, brilliant, dying, and angry. He loathed being a pariah whose existence required precautions. Maybe he forgot they had gloves, or maybe a sadistic little piece of him wanted not to be alone in his fate. I do not mean that he wanted to infect me, only that his first priority was not to prevent it, a distinction that stayed too subtle for me to grasp for quite some time.

Contagion is reckless. And dramatic. And driven by instincts far removed from civilization.

The more I learn, the more infection begins to feel inevitable. I let myself slip, just for a minute, into fatalism, because the suspense of trying to avoid the virus is almost as terrifying as a diagnosis would be.

In Lawrence Wright’s new novel, The End of October, a pandemic breaks out during hajj, and Mecca must be sealed off. “I worried that these scenes would come off as unrealistic,” he admitted in The New York Times, “until China put 11 million people in Wuhan on lockdown.” Peter May’s novel Lockdown, rejected by publishers as unrealistic, was rediscovered and pronounced brilliant.

The more I learn, the more infection begins to feel inevitable. I let myself slip, just for a minute, into fatalism, because the suspense of trying to avoid the virus is almost as terrifying as a diagnosis would be.

In 1720, the residents of Marseilles, France, built a stone wall, roughening their hands and straining their backs as they shoved each rock into place to make a bulwark against contagion. Instead of warding off the illness, the wall trapped them inside with the infected fleas and rats.

I cannot read that without a shudder. A pandemic’s terror is itself contagious. This, after all, is a serial mass killer that chooses its victims suddenly and at random, moves unpredictably, taunts those who try to stop it, and is impossible to detect without special tests because it is eight hundred times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

The culprit is both beautiful and sinister. The illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a craggy little gray ball, its surface as rough and crenulated as a planet. Or is it a peach pit? The image is so surreal, it is impossible to judge scale. Stuck in those crevices are what look like paper flowers: little round orange and yellow marigolds and larger, triangular bouquets of bright red poppies. Another illustration of COVID-19 shows greenish-yellow balls with short, flat-topped spikes, not as pointy as the ball chained to a medieval mace but just as ominous. Other images show orange globules entwined with tentacles the color of sand; floating strings of yellow globules around a grayish pod; a halved sphere like a yellow-rinded pomegranate, floating inside a lacy green circlet; a tangle of yellow, blue, and purple pipe-cleaner sticks bent every which way.

Yet the real point is that we cannot see it. It exists in what epidemiologist Gary Slutkin calls “the invisible,” the realm where both infectious diseases and social contagion can spread undetected. COVID-19’s superpower is its speed: Because it is self-replicating and grows by doubling, its progression is exponential. Used to thinking along a straight line, we are jolted by dread when we see that sharp diagonal rise.

The word “parasite” means “to dine at another’s table.” This is why viruses, far more ancient than we are, are not considered life forms; they live only through us. I close my eyes, remembering a patch of skin on the underside of my thumb that went unscrubbed, and imagine that the coronavirus has already stuck its spiky crown into some soft, wet bit of flesh. It is setting to work.

In 1720, the residents of Marseilles, France, built a stone wall, roughening their hands and straining their backs as they shoved each rock into place to make a bulwark against contagion. Instead of warding off the illness, the wall trapped them inside with the infected fleas and rats.

The insidiousness is another unwanted surprise. Britain’s Common Cold Unit once came up with a gizmo that leaked a thin fluid just the way a runny nose would. They attached it to a volunteer’s nose, then threw a mock cocktail party. After a few hours of chitchat and glass-clinking, they turned on the ultraviolet lights, and the fluid’s dye glowed—everywhere.

Yet even though I grasped the rules of social distancing fairly quickly, the infectious potential of objects—groceries, the mail—proves harder to reckon with. Do I spray Chlorox on the utility bill? Coming home from the store feels like sinking back into our own safe little microbiome cloud. Showers are heaven, the feeling of cleanliness a daily baptism.

Viruses that infect humans are only a fraction of all viruses—ocean viruses alone, laid end to end, would stretch for ten million light years. Yet lower respiratory infections are the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. And while there are only about 260 viruses known in humans, somewhere between 631,000 and 827,000 unknown viruses might be zoonotic, able to pop out of host animal populations and infect us.

“Whatever future threats we’re going to face already exist; they are currently circulating in wildlife,” says Dennis Carroll, the former director of the United States Agency for International Development’s emerging threats division. He developed a program to identify these zoonotic viruses. The Trump administration shut it down.

Carroll now heads the Global Virome Project, a nonprofit cooperative. “Spillover events” are increasing, he says (they are more than twice as frequent as they were forty years ago), and any one of these outbreaks, insufficiently heeded, could spell global disaster. Why are viruses so easily jumping from other animals to humans? Because our population is increasing so rapidly and concentrating so densely, and agriculture is claiming wild habitat, and climate change, increased travel, and global trade all help these unfamiliar viruses spread. This is yet another sort of contagion: the imperative to procreate and to crowd into cities and to transform the land to meet our needs. As we conquer, we forget to fear what is invisible and unknown.

“Think of it,” Carroll suggests, “as viral dark matter.”

 

The transference of emotion

At first I am breezy about precautions, happy for a chance to cozy up at home. Then I talk to a friend, a nurse in a neonatal ICU who knows a doctor who has a colleague in Seattle who says the hospitals are overrun and all of a sudden, that easy, I am verklempt.

All emotions are contagious, but fear takes the lead, flying from one person to the next like a thirsty mosquito. When I post an all-too-vivid, worst-case-scenario New York Magazine piece that makes it clear just how easily coronavirus can spread, people snarl back on social media, furious at the scare tactics. When I post photos of our new puppy, they thank me for the vicarious joy.

If a friend is happy, it makes us happier; this is not a blithe, sappy aphorism but the conclusion of multiple sociological studies. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist on the faculty of Yale University, has shown a friend’s happiness traveling across even three degrees of separation—and a friend’s sadness doubling our own. Negative emotions are more powerful than joy; they weigh “heavier,” in study after study. The most hardworking, cheerful person in the world will not counterbalance a bitter, grousing colleague. As New Yorker writer Hua Hsu put it, “Disaffection and disillusionment are contagions we can spread ourselves.”

Whether we intend to be or not, we are sensitive to one another’s moods. In conversation with another person, our voices soon fall into the same pitch and volume; our speech rate averages out; our gestures and body positions become more consonant. We even match facial expressions, mimicking like the monkeys we mock at the zoo. This is how we infect one another with our emotions. The little amygdala in our brain makes transmission possible, re-creating the other person’s biological and emotional state inside us.

Mirror neurons also tune us in to one another—and they are not easily fooled. They do not respond to pantomime or meaningless action. But when another human being (or any other primate) takes a clear, goal-directed action, our mirror neurons fire in response, mirroring that action—and helping us understand it from within.

Scientists are divided about the link between mirror neurons and empathy, but there is no doubting empathy’s existence. I find myself grinning like a fool when someone I love is pleased, frowning along with someone who is upset. Empathy is a Vulcan mind meld, allowing us to sync up so we can participate intimately in one another’s emotional lives.

Contagion is even more powerful in a massive gathering. The French anthropologist Gustave Le Bon wrote that a person “immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself…in a special state.” We slide into the mood of those around us, sometimes at the expense of reason.

In a group, we catch moods just as easily. An individual might “get people pumped up” or apologize for “bringing everybody down.”  Groups that are especially open, like those big churches with high-energy happy music, are not simply preaching; they are infusing acceptance, warmth, and exuberant joy. The old notion of “transference” did not die with Freud; in many a workplace, people take on, or unconsciously assign, familial roles, whether the stern father, the mother with unpredictable affections, the rebellious teenager, the resented favored child, or the enfant terrible.

Contagion is even more powerful in a massive gathering. The French anthropologist Gustave Le Bon wrote that a person “immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself…in a special state.” We slide into the mood of those around us, sometimes at the expense of reason. Ever go to a rave? Inhibition readily gives way to impulse. This is how we were made.

And this is why hysteria can spiral.

The nineteenth-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot described hysteria as a social contagion, pointing out that it could spread by mere suggestion and noting “the effectiveness of fear as its unwavering catalyst.” The simple fact of an epidemic is often enough to fuel the contagion, as happened during the Salem witch trials, during an Alsatian dancing plague in the Middle Ages, at a French convent where the nuns began miaowing….

Sorrow, too, is contagious, as is violence. Struggling to fathom a rash of teen suicides in Silicon Valley, Lee Daniel Kravetz learns about a series of subway suicides in Austria, among them people who reportedly had never considered harming themselves. When Vienna’s media curbed its coverage, he writes in Strange Contagion, the copycat incidence dropped by 80 percent.

By contrast, girls in a Tanzanian boarding school in the 1960s started laughing and could not stop. The school was finally closed in alarm, but the epidemic spread. “How we respond and care for each other matters,” says Christakis. “Hysteria in particular spreads by the way we witness authority figures responding to it.”

Happily, laughter is also contagious under calmer circumstances. I am still chuckling over Jessie Gaynor’s literary rewrites for social distancing. (“Face-time me, Ishmael.”) And I fell a little bit in love with the security guard at the Cowboy Museum who was abruptly put in charge of social media and tweeted “Hashtag John Wayne” at his grandson’s urging, then, informed of his mistake, tweeted “#hashtag John Wayne.” Left to tell jokes in an echoey white studio, late-night TV hosts will never again doubt the role of their studio audience, the infectiousness of that laughter. A friend who is a creative director emailed after trying a video meeting: One of his two small boys was in the background “drawing a stick figure with a penis” while the other “got a hand full of play slime stuck in his hair—and that,” he was typing madly, “is just the yip of the iceberg.”

 

The resort to the irrational

In King Lear, Gloucester says “t’is the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” We are desperate to impose logic on chaos, even if our logic makes no sense. And the stronger our need for structure, the wilder a logic we invent.

This is why a rational explanation of facts seldom works as a counterforce. You can speak sensibly to the populace for days on end, but what will make them sit up like prairie dogs is the announcement that Tom Hanks has COVID-19. He is a celebrity, and we look to celebrities for—honestly, I have never understood why we look to them; I cannot finish the sentence. But we do.

Plus, we love Tom Hanks. And emotion makes new knowledge stick. Because my literature professor’s voice trembled with reverence when he read us his favorite poem, his passion lit smaller fires of interest in each of us. This is why online courses often fall flat; unless they are taught by someone with the resonance of Idris Elba or the expressive control of Meryl Streep, they cannot generate enough emotion to close the distance and glue the facts in place.

In the past, emotional chaos spun us toward the supernatural. The Milanese intelligentsia blamed the 1630 plague on comets and enchangers. In 1522 in Rome, a cross was said to protect the faithful from the plague.

On March 15, 2020, Pope Francis walked through emptied streets to the church of San Marcello on the Corso to pray before that cross.

Did he really think it would “work”? Is my question a child’s understanding of an adult’s symbolic action or a skeptic’s view of a mysterious faith? It was certainly a calmer and more dignified act than the panicked spread of pages from poor Dean Koontz’s 1981 thriller. His Wuhan-400 virus was developed as a weapon and bore little resemblance to the coronavirus, save geography. But screen captures of a few pages were combined with a page from psychic Sylvia Browne’s End of Days, in which she wrote, “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments.”

Browne died in 2013, so could have had no idea (one presumes) that her book would shoot to number two on Amazon’s nonfiction chart, and people would pay hundreds of dollars for a copy. Hers was an easy prediction—lower respiratory viruses always attack the lungs, that’s what “respiratory” means, and they often go into pneumonia, and new viruses tend to resist old treatments. Yet I reread it, because I am not immune to hope, and there is irrational comfort in her certainty that the virus would vanish as quickly as it came, returning only ten years later.

Plagues “seem to have a quality of destiny,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez told The New York Times in 1988, after writing Love in the Time of Cholera. If this one is destiny, is it, what, a Darwinian culling of the overpopulated, aging herd? Some sort of punishment for our cocksure ignorance of the world’s interconnectedness? Climate change as a breeding ground for germs? A wake-up call for lives out of whack? The inauguration of a new world order, a more cautious way of living? A reminder to fund basic science and public health? A reminder that many of us have had it too easy for too long, and others were suffering already?

The Betrothed is a nineteenth-century Italian novel about a young couple so deeply in love that they are journeying toward each other through plague-ridden Milan in 1630. It describes the hysterical to rush to judgment (and torture, and execution) when the Milanese feared someone was an Anointer, spreading the plague by smearing doors with disease-ridden ointment. Ten years ago, writing about the cholera epidemic in Haiti, I saw the same panic blossom as the plastic-wrapped bodies piled up nameless. One morning, news came that several vodou practitioners had been hacked to pieces with machetes because it was believed that they had placed a curse, causing cholera in order to kill their enemies.

Plagues “seem to have a quality of destiny,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez told The New York Times in 1988, after writing Love in the Time of Cholera. If this one is destiny, is it, what, a Darwinian culling of the overpopulated, aging herd? Some sort of punishment for our cocksure ignorance of the world’s interconnectedness?

“At least we are not hunting for Jews or witches,” remarks my historian husband as we watch yet another newscast about coronavirus. “We are just looking for the government to provide the test kits. This is about trust in science, not fear of the supernatural.”

“We did blame the bats and the Chinese,” I point out. I am especially worried for the bats; their reputation was shaky to start. The point is not that animals or other countries are the enemy, but that we are now inextricably connected. And despite the ridiculous market for gels and powders, garlic cures and a “miracle mineral solution” that amounts to drinking bleach; what is most supernatural is our blind faith that science—its funding long gutted, the global health security unit of the National Security Council shut down because, in the words of the president, “you can never really think this is going to happen”—will nonetheless rescue us, swiftly and definitively.

Any rescue will be accompanied by a list of casualties. But science is the rationalist’s magic. Pandemics that were once known by color and metaphor, like the Black Death of the 1300s, and then by place—the Plague of Milan; the Spanish Flu—are now more likely to be known by their scientific names, SARS or H1N1 or COVID-19.  We have moved from zero knowledge of how things work to a belief that science can do anything.

Yet the rest of us ignore the facts, and the plagues’ frequency increases.

 

The contagion of ideas

“Not fear and courage only are contagious,” noted a writer in The New York Times on September 13, 1895. “Ideas, are, too, on condition that they are repeated often enough.” Titled “The Contagion of Ideas,” the article held that “affirmation, pure and simple, without reasoning and without proof, is one of the surest means of planting an idea in the popular mind. The more concise it is, the more free from every appearance of proofs and demonstration, the more authority it has.” (A truism often affirmed by today’s politics, media, and marketing strategies.) With enough repetition, the writer continued, “what is called the current of opinion is formed,” and soon the idea has “a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.”

Repetition is one of several methods of idea transmission. Culture itself is what you might call a reservoir, with its spreadable bits, which Richard Dawkins taught us to call memes, gathering momentum as they take on a life of their own. In Virus of the Mind, Richard Brodie, the man who wrote Microsoft Word, noted that mind viruses included everything from fashion trends and slang to gang violence and cults. “Your thoughts are not always your own,” he warned.

Brodie laid the foundation for viral ideas: They tap into either our need to belong, liking and affirming and cooperating and embracing tradition, or our desire to set ourselves apart, playing show-and-tell with what is novel so our friends and followers see how current and clever we are. Since that 1996 bestseller, marketers and social psychologists have published one recipe after another for making an idea stick and spread.

Repetition is one of several methods of idea transmission. Culture itself is what you might call a reservoir, with its spreadable bits, which Richard Dawkins taught us to call memes, gathering momentum as they take on a life of their own.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point called contagiousness “an unexpected property of all kinds of things.” An epidemic of ideas “tips” because of a few influential, well networked infectious agents—we only have the famous six degrees of separation because those super-connectors live among us, lengthening our reach. Or, the epidemic tips because the idea is so “sticky,” magnetic and memorable. Or, it tips because of context: “Human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem,” Gladwell remarks, an observation a pandemic renders moot.

In Contagious: When Things Catch On, Jonah Berger adds that even though billions of pieces of content are shared at lightning speed every month, the real way we spread ideas is word of mouth—and only seven percent of word of mouth is online. Because the book came out seven years ago, I email him to see if that stat has exploded. Nope, he replies. “All the numbers I’ve seen suggest it is still in that ballpark. May be as high as ten percent, but still quite low. We spend more time online than ever, but we still spend even more time offline.”

That changes, of course, when we shelter at home. But the overall point is that what we hear and see from others propels ideas or desires we might not otherwise hold. Berger disagrees with Gladwell’s emphasis on “influencers,” maintaining that the message matters far more than the messenger. Contagious word-of-mouth is like a joke so funny, your prim aunt could tell it and crack up the room.

So what makes a message contagious? Social currency (how cool or new it is). Triggers (prompts, like the evening news, that cause you to think about it). Emotion. Public demonstration—you can see it in action, on masked faces or empty shelves. Practical value. A story, a broader narrative in which the message fits neatly (the end of the world, say, or just a pause to rethink).

With sufficient urgency and emotional charge, any idea can travel. The tampered-candy scare that destroyed Halloween so thoroughly that it has been reduced to trick-or-trunks in church parking lots and adults having stolen all the spooky fun? Urban myth. Sociologists pored through incident reports and found zero—zero—examples of harmful tampering. But the notion that razor blades and poisons lurked in those hollow plastic pumpkins of goodies was simple, unexpected, concrete, easy to spread, and intensely emotional, tapping into parents’ deepest fears.

Social psychologists have also researched the use of primes—words, sounds, objects, or stereotypes that prepare us, unconsciously, to accept a new idea or goal. Early research found that describing a task as either “reckless” or “adventurous,” for example, would shape the response. Any culture, by definition, is chock full of such primes, and they influence the spread of ideas. So do innovators and early adopters, media, celebs, experts. And so do the rest of us.

Social psychologists have also researched the use of primes—words, sounds, objects, or stereotypes that prepare us, unconsciously, to accept a new idea or goal. … But there is also something called “complex contagion,” which measures all the variables (credibility, legitimacy, desire) that have to be in place before someone makes a major change in behavior or adopts an entirely new technology.

At the moment, the ideas going viral are various responses to coronavirus. Some are deeply spiritual; some are stories of courage or heroism; some are artful; some are funny. Social media amplifies their reach, because technology, with its vast networks and lightning speed, was custom-made for contagion. Of course we call invasions of our systems “viruses.” They, too, need their host in order to survive and replicate. They, too, spread with exponential speed.

But there is also something called “complex contagion,” which measures all the variables (credibility, legitimacy, desire) that have to be in place before someone makes a major change in behavior or adopts an entirely new technology.

What are the mechanisms that alter beliefs and behavior? Facts, fear, aspirations, influences, self-image. China’s early response to COVID-19 was blamed, its later actions praised, but both were shaped by a tightly controlled, authoritarian society. The U.S. watched, determined to be more transparent and more free, then saw that diagonal line and changed gears, issuing police orders and clamping down (or trying to) on what the social media giants pronounced an infodemic, a blithe mix of truth and lies and scams and potions that swirled even in the White House. Soon we, too, were enforcing isolation and wrapping crime-scene tape around playground swings.

All pandemics carry a double message: Keep your distance and help one another. “It sounds oxymoronic, but it’s not,” remarks Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. “People have to learn to hold those two things together,” shoring up community.

During the Spanish flu, she adds, we blamed the Germans, of course, because we were at war with them. “There were rumors that the flu came on a submarine, or in Bayer aspirin.” Today, we blame China, or believe and forward bad information, or let conspiracy theories scoop us aloft.

“We need to learn again how to discern who is trustworthy and who is not,” Bristow tells me, “and I think in 2020 that’s harder for a lot of people to discern.” At the apex of the Information Age, we have ceased to trust the sources of that information.

 

Moral contagion

In his 1852 classic, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay recounts how poisoning became a fad: “Persons who would have revolted at the idea of stabbing a man to the heart drugged his pottage without scruple. Ladies of gentle birth and manners caught the contagion of murder, until poisoning, under their auspices, became quite fashionable.”

We can be thankful that moral contagion works in the opposite direction, too. After years as an epidemiologist, Slutkin used his experience to fight gang violence back home. He set up tight local networks of “interrupters”: social workers, former gang members, and community leaders. The instant a revenge killing was threatened or a drive-by shot was fired, interrupters fan out, connecting with the victim’s friends and family, cooling tensions with conversation, even removing people from their neighborhood to keep them safe.

A cultural historian of medicine, Dr. Rebecca Messbarger was teaching a course on contagion at Washington University when the pandemic broke out. The week before classes went online, she brought in an infectious disease expert to lecture on this fast-unfolding example, fielding questions from students who already had families in other countries touched by the disease.

Such interventions take courage—the most inspiring contagion of all. When President Ronald Reagan was stubbornly ignoring AIDS—before his sick pal Rock Hudson called from France and forced a reckoning—U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was being tutored in the disease’s implications by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, who is playing the same vital role today with coronavirus.

Art, too, wields powerful influence, and it did not take long for the poets to emerge. On March 11, Lynn Ungar, a minister, dog trainer, and barely known poet, set out to answer the question, “How do we physically distance ourselves without emotional distancing?”

 

What if you thought of it/ as the Jews consider the Sabbath–/the most sacred of times?” she suggested. “Cease from travel./ Cease from buying and selling./ Give up, just for now,/ on trying to make the world/ different than it is./ Sing. Pray. Touch only those/ to whom you commit your life.” Her poem ended, “Know that our lives/ are in one another’s hands.”

 

It went viral.

Words and images, well chosen, are as stealthy as any parasite, crawling inside us and living as long as memory allows. A cultural historian of medicine, Dr. Rebecca Messbarger was teaching a course on contagion at Washington University when the pandemic broke out. The week before classes went online, she brought in an infectious disease expert to lecture on this fast-unfolding example, fielding questions from students who already had families in other countries touched by the disease. When I spoke with her a few days later, she was deluged with emails from colleagues and relatives in Italy, among them a historian of medicine and a national police officer.

“If you shut us all in a room, I think we could tell stories like Boccaccio’s Decameron,” she remarked. “Science is one thing, but our human experience is more powerful. The commiseration, the storytelling, is part of that experience, to mitigate our fear.”

Our experience of the world depends on what flows through the networks in which we live, says Christakis: “The reason, I think, that this is the case is that human beings assemble themselves and form a kind of superorganism.”

Messbarger’s co-teacher, artist and distinguished professor Patricia Olynyk, gives me examples of artists’ responses to various pandemics, including a “Plague Dress” made by Anna Dumitriu. Styled for 1665, the time of the Great Plague of London, it is sewn from raw silk and hand-dyed with walnut husks (walnuts were touted as a cure for the plague). Seventeenth-century embroideries adorn the dress, and Dumitriu impregnated them with the DNA of plague bacteria, extracted from dead organisms. (How on earth? She had an in, Olynyk explains, as artist-in-residence at the National Collection of Type Cultures, the oldest collection of pathogenic bacteria in the world.)

What would an artist conceptualize for coronavirus, I wonder. Rafts of plastic-wrapped toilet paper rolls bobbing six feet apart in a storm-tossed sea? Fashion statements are only waist-up for Skype and Zoom calls. But images have a way of burning into the brain. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe writes that “the scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.” The quote reminds Olynyk of Kaposi’s sarcoma, an early, stigmatizing sign of AIDS. “The power of the visual can’t be overemphasized,” she notes, “particularly in times of contagion.”

And then I think of the visuals from Italy, the wrapped corpses wheeled out on multi-tiered carts, and how I ran to wash my hands.

Our experience of the world depends on what flows through the networks in which we live, says Christakis: “The reason, I think, that this is the case is that human beings assemble themselves and form a kind of superorganism.”

This need not be as sinister as it sounds. We are more Borg than individual, connected inextricably to one another in our various little worlds, but we are not passive or devoid of individual identity. Rather, we wield constant mutual influence. Never have I been so sure that we are social creatures. Others are now technically the enemy, yet I soak up commiseration, savor friends’ voices, wave eagerly at the people locked into passing cars in our small town. “You can’t stop living,” some shrugged, early on, as though “living” simply meant leaving the house. But maybe living means being together, in the mix, in the world, not hidden away and safe. Living and staying alive are in tension right now.

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