In his book Epidemics and Society, published just last year, Yale historian Frank M Snowden argues that epidemics disclose a lot about the societies they strike.
“Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”
In the progress of Covid-19, we have seen Snowden’s observations borne out. The unevenness of the virus’s impact has underlined the unevenness of the global economy. While advanced capitalist economies mostly have the infrastructure and resources to at least try to slow the virus’s progress – with hospitals, drugs, and economic stimulus – others in the global south must take their chances.
At a more granular level, we can see that the virus has found opportunities in the differing characteristics of individual societies. The traits it has exploited may, in human terms, be admirable or abhorrent. But they are revealing.
Some Australian governments, and many of its people, are acting as if we have this pathogen licked. The belief that the virus is finished with us may yet become an attack surface of its own.
There’s still a lot to learn about this variant of the coronavirus but the best science available has laid out some clear markers. The outbreak began in Wuhan, China. It is overwhelmingly likely to have come from bats, and probably found a waystation in pangolins, before leaping to humans.
From late last year, coronavirus spread quickly in China for the same reasons that previous respiratory infections have. Many Chinese cities are densely inhabited. It may also be that a cover-up at a local or national level inhibited the initial response. Such things have happened before.
If the authoritarianism of the Chinese government played a part in concealing the virus’s initial spread, and even the fact of person-to-person transmission, it also has foreclosed on any possibility of a US-style mass protest against confinement.
Even though there are indications that in some states, at least, the US is obfuscating figures, it’s not yet able to reproduce a coercive Huubei-style lockdown.
Importantly, though, China and neighbours like South Korea and Vietnam have had recent experience with similar viral outbreaks. After Sars and Mers, from masks, to fever clinics, to social isolation, people in this region know the drill. They understand that epidemics can happen, and that they frequently demand personal sacrifices.
When it reached the United States, coronavirus revealed the country’s pronounced racial and economic inequalities. It has disproportionately affected the working class and the racial minorities that comprise it.
It is a terrible irony that in the world’s wealthiest economy the food supply has been stuttering
The meat packing plants, prisons and nursing homes it has torn through do not only demand close quarter work: in the US they are patchily unionised and frequently staffed with recent migrants who often have little or no access to healthcare.
It is a terrible irony that in the world’s wealthiest economy the food supply has been stuttering. (I live in the US. On my last visit to the supermarket I was restricted to two items of meat.) The food workers that white Americans generally have the luxury of ignoring are not protected from the ravages of this demonic pathogen.
The response in America is also being hindered by American polarisation and irrationalism: many of those protesting against coronavirus lockdowns have been present at Trump rallies throughout the president’s tenure.
Australia’s experience has also been shaped by some enduring national attributes.
One is the tendency to misrecognise miraculous good fortune as good management, and an associated weakness for self-congratulation.
After Australia’s belated start on measures like social distancing, many subsequent decisions were good. But Australia was fortunate in that, unlike the US and much of Europe and Asia, it did not have any undetected community transmissions in February or earlier.
In that month, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was still encouraging people to attend sporting events.
Had Australia had community transmissions in February or earlier, as did California, Lombardy, or Île-de-France, this would all look very different.
Australia is also laid out in a providential manner. It has just two population centres of a size and density comparable to badly affected metros like Seattle or Milan. It has none comparable to London, New York or Los Angeles. Its cities are separated from the smaller centres and each other by long stretches of empty space.
Australia’s epidemic may also have looked different if we did not have to ourselves an island at the bottom of the world, on the way to nowhere except New Zealand, which has been similarly fortunate in having no land borders.
A persistent Australian trait is to be absent-minded about its location in the world, or to imagine it is owed something by other nations
The government may finally have started listening to advice towards the end of Q1, but it cannot take credit for geography.
Perhaps this is not all blind luck. Australia, after all, has a health system that mostly functions and is in theory universally accessible.
Had there been sick people in January or February, there would have been no obstacle to them seeking care, and maybe the illness would have been detected.
However, many of the worst-affected countries in Europe – such as Italy and France – have health systems that on some measures best Australia’s. And recall that the public health system is one that the Liberal party temperamentally loathes. While it has become politically risky to launch frontal assaults on Medicare, the Liberal party has spent a quarter of a century eroding to the extent possible.
If Morrison has found it within himself to get us to this point, it’s no thanks to his party’s record on matters of public health.
Another persistent Australian trait is the tendency to be absent-minded about the country’s location in the world, or to imagine that we are owed something by other nations.
The US has been the guarantor of Australia’s security and that of the trade routes it depends on. To the extent that America will not be preoccupied with its own internal chaos, it will be moving to a more confrontational stance with China, Australia’s biggest trading partner.
Throughout this virus, many Australian eyes have fixed on America. I can understand why. The scale of the disaster in my country of residence compels attention; the Trump administration has screwed the pooch. The course of events has offered Australia its sweetest guilty pleasure: the assertion that as bad, as unequal, as racist as our society may be, at least we are not America.
But in our media, Australia’s closest neighbours, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, have been almost forgotten. They seem on the surface to be managing well, but there are questions about the extent of testing in both. Any threat to their stability is a threat to Australia’s. As our neighbours, they deserve our assistance. All of this has mostly been ignored.
In matters foreign and domestic, the biggest danger now is complacency.
Many of those urging us to open up all at once appear to believe that they are dealing with a known quantity with which they can conclude a deal.
But as the Chinese president Xi Jinping, memorably asserted: “This epidemic is a demon, and we cannot allow this demon to hide.” Covid-19 is as protean as it is malevolent; each day seems to bring news of it taking on a new shape.
In Britain, children have been affected by a strange rash which may be related to the pandemic. In the US, children have come down with a Kawasaki-like syndrome which may also be associated with Covid-19. The virus has been found lingering on cardboard and other hard surfaces for days. It has been detected in the semen of men who have appeared to recover from it. The death toll is likely to be in the millions; there is emerging evidence that many whose lives are spared suffer lasting pulmonary and neurological damage.
We simply do not know what it might do, what its final shape may be, or whether there will ever be a vaccine.
If you take all of this seriously – and accept that the disease has precisely benefited from a liberalised regime of global trade that Australia has optimised its policy settings to exploit – the idea that we can ever go back to business as usual seems fanciful.
If you don’t take it seriously, these problems disappear. This is what many conservative commentators have opted for.
But this virus does not make deals. It is changing the world. It will change Australia, too. There is no reason to think that those changes will be comfortable. And we have no idea what it may do next.
Australians need to keep their heads on straight. We are not yet safe. Australia’s luck may not hold out.
Jason Wilson is a columnist for Guardian Australia