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To paraphrase a quote usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool a virus.
As historian Yuval Noah Harari brilliantly explains in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, it's our uniquely human capacity to believe in shared fictions such as the value of money or the necessity for daily prayers that sets humans apart, allows millions of strangers to cooperate, but that also divides us into adversarial and sometimes murderous tribes.
Symbol-using, verbal animals, we are able to convince ourselves of all kinds of ideas, from bible stories to trickle-down economics, and act by the millions or hundreds of millions as if they were real, sometimes defending them with our lives (or all too frequently the lives of others).
It's belief in a shared narrative that lets you go to an ATM anywhere in the world and retrieve a handful of paper for which a merchant will hand you actual food or clothing. But that same propensity to accept and believe in pervasive, communal myths also means you may not be able to share a Thanksgiving meal with friends or relatives on the other side of a political or ideological fence.
We swim in a sea of memes, concepts, ideas and narratives, and we're usually as unaware of it as fish are of the ocean.
In stark contrast, the coronavirus is completely immune to the web of narratives that we weave within and around and ourselves. It has no ears so it doesn't hear that it will surely be defeated next week, month or year. It has no eyes so it isn't deflected or deterred by what we see on our screens or read on the signs so proudly displayed at political rallies. It can't be seduced, bribed, bullied, browbeaten, bargained with or bought off.
All the virus has is a genetic code that equips it to infect one person, multiply, turn that victim into a vector, sicken or kill, and spread. To the coronavirus we are not republicans or democrats, beggars or billionaires, sentient, sophisticated, symbol-using beings; we're just meat. That's the truth, and, as Ghandi said, "... truth overrides all our plans."
As President Trump so succinctly pointed out, the coronavirus is what it is. Precisely because of that it has the potential to serve as a costly and painful yet vital teacher to us. The virus can be the "whack on the side of the head" that awakens us to reality, to the ground truth behind the crazy-making swarm of buzzwords, memes, slogans and competing narratives that befuddle us.
I doubt that Trump, even after suffering from COVID-19, will get the message. More than anyone else I know of, he seems to believe that he can impose his will on reality. He's spent his life mastering an armamentarium of manipulations that have worked to get him what he wants and where he wants to be. My guess is that he has travelled too far down the ever-narrowing tunnel of narcissism to turn back. After his bout with COVID-19, my guess is that he will brag about his superior genes and tell us how his resilience and toughness let him beat the virus.
However, that doesn't mean that the rest of us can't benefit from the unfiltered reality that the virus makes us face. Beyond taking the by-now-well-known steps to protect ourselves and others from the virus, it can and should prod us to question our assumptions and preconceptions, to scrutinize our own narratives, to search for and be open to facts, to remember that there's an actual reality that we can strive to know and have to respect.
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