Andrew Sullivan uses his memories of the AIDS epidemic to cast light on coronavirus and society.

How to Survive a Plague

It’s quite possible that by the end of all this, almost every American will know of someone who has died. A relative, a friend, an old high-school classmate … the names will pop up and migrate through Facebook as the weeks go by, and in a year’s time, Facebook will duly remind you of the grief or shock you experienced. The names of the sick will appear to be randomly selected — the ones you expected and the ones you really didn’t, the famous and the obscure, the vile and the virtuous. And you will feel the same pang of shock each time someone you know turns out to have fallen ill.

You’ll wake up each morning and check to see if you have a persistent cough, or a headache, or a tightness in the lungs. This is plague living: witnessing the sickness and death of others, knowing that you too could be next, even as you feel fine. The distancing things we reflexively do — “oh, well, he was a smoker”; “she was diabetic, you know”; “they were in Italy in February” — become a little bit harder as time goes by, and the numbers mount, and the randomness of it all sinks in. No, this is not under control. And no, we are not in control. Because we never are.

And this will change us. It must. All plagues change society and culture, reversing some trends while accelerating others, shifting consciousness far and wide, with consequences we won’t discover for years or decades. The one thing we know about epidemics is that at some point they will end. The one thing we don’t know is who we will be then.

I know that I was a different man at the end of the plague of AIDS than I was at the beginning,

Sullivan says: The epidemic could bring out the best in us, and we could create a more fair and humane society. Or it could bring out our worst, and make us more socially isolated, xenophobic, and authoritarian.

I suspect that those who think COVID-19 all but kills Donald Trump’s reelection prospects are being, as usual, too optimistic. National crises, even when handled at this level of incompetence and deceit, can, over time, galvanize public support for a national leader. As Trump instinctually finds a way to identify the virus as “foreign,” he will draw on these lizard-brain impulses, and in a time of fear, offer the balm of certainty to his cult and beyond. It’s the final bonding: blind support for the leader even at the risk of your own sickness and death. And in emergencies, quibbling, persistent political opposition is always on the defense, and often unpopular. It requires pointing out bad news in desperate times; and that, though essential, is rarely popular.

Watching Fox News operate in real time in ways Orwell described so brilliantly in Nineteen Eighty-Four — compare “We had always been at war with Eastasia” with “I’ve felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic” — you’d be a fool not to see the potential for the Republican right to use this plague for whatever end they want. If Trump moves to the left of the Democrats in handing out big non-means-tested cash payments, and provides a stimulus far bigger than Obama’s, no Republican will cavil. And since no sane person wants the war on COVID-19 to fail, we will have to wish that the president succeed. Pulling this off as an opposition party, while winning back the White House, will require a political deftness I don’t exactly see in abundance among today’s Democrats.

On the other hand, even further incompetence or failure on Trump’s part could finally, maybe, puncture the cult, and deliver the White House to Biden and the Congress to the Democrats. And the huge sums now being proposed by even the GOP to shore up the economy and the stock market at a time of massive debt, as well as the stark failures of our public-health planning, could make an activist government agenda much more politically palatable to Americans.

Mitch W @MitchW