They can also kill civilisations, and only the naïve think that ours is somehow immune.
All civilisations are held together by visible or invisible ties, and these can in extreme circumstances be stretched to and beyond breaking point.
The vertical ties are those between the people and authorities, however these are defined. Recognised and accepted authority can be vested in institutions or individuals, and their nature changes from one civilisation to the next.
One characteristic of our age is the weakening of all authority (other than that projected by celebrity), be it political, intellectual, cultural, social or especially religious. This is a function of democracy’s ineluctable expansion beyond the purely political sphere.
“Democracy,” wrote Aristotle, “makes people believe that, because they are equal in some respects, they are equal absolutely.” And the perception of absolute equality makes any authority suspect at best and impossible at worst.
Even political authority loses some of its legitimising aspects, those that don’t rely on coercion. But at least it’s grudgingly accepted – unlike just about any other.
However, come a murderous pandemic, political legitimisation may totter. For governments are on a hiding to nothing: damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
If the current pandemic subsides quickly, the government will be blamed for the economic devastation caused by its draconian measures. If people continue to die in large numbers, the government will be blamed for its measures not being draconian enough. One way or the other, it’ll be blamed.
Since our modern civilisation defines itself mainly in political terms, as a champion of liberal democracy above all else, it’ll be dealt a blow. How severe, we don’t know. But it’s conceivable that the blow may be powerful enough to deliver a knockout.
If you don’t believe a pandemic can destroy a civilisation, or at least greatly contribute to its destruction, let history be your guide. For the great civilisation of medieval Christendom never recovered from the Black Death, the murderous pandemic that struck Europe in 1348-1349.
If parliament is the nerve centre of today’s West, in those days that role was played by the Church, and its authority was at its height in the late Middle Ages. That, however, changed overnight because the Black Death advanced the incipient humanist cause no end.
Epidemiologists still argue about the exact nature of that disease (bubonic plague and haemorrhagic fever are mentioned most often), but there is no arguing about its far-reaching effects. More than a third of Europe’s population perished, which tragedy went beyond the simple death statistics.
For one thing the Church could no longer administer the burial rites, one of the key sacraments, to all the deceased. With millions of deaths on their hands, and with many priests themselves catching the lethal infection from the dead and the dying, the church simply couldn’t cope.
Yet the bereaved families didn’t care about its problems – sacraments were a serious matter to them, and the thought of their relations being denied salvation was unbearable. Thus, through no fault of its own, the Church laid itself open to the charges of indifference and lack of sympathy.
Also, when everyone had to suspect that everyone else might be a likely carrier of deadly contagion, the social cohesion of society was bound to be undermined. Treating every stranger as a potential killer could hardly have promoted cordial community relations.
People tended to keep themselves to themselves (‘self-isolate’ in today’s parlance), which was illustrated by Boccaccio’s Decameron, whose ten protagonists spin their ribald and anticlerical yarns in isolation from the outside world. It’s conceivable that the atomising nature of modern society can be traced back to that time.
Theodicy, the defence of God, was put under a strain. People were asking all the usual facile questions, later reiterated by Hume: If God is merciful and good, then how did he allow such a catastrophe? If that was beyond his control, then how omnipotent is he? And if he didn’t know what was going on, is he really omniscient?
The Church didn’t always field such queries with sufficiently persuasive power, and the embers of humanism began to glow redder. The world that emerged after the watershed of the Black Death wasn’t the same as it had been before the calamity.
A realist can confidently predict that, regardless of how long coronavirus runs and how many lives it claims, it’ll change our world too. And a pessimist may doubt the change will be for the better.
For, as I never tire of saying, the pandemic is a test, and we are failing. The unconscionably selfish, savage behaviour of our nation of hoarders is a visible sign of invisible fault lines.
These are like the symptoms of tuberculosis in the pre-antibiotic age: when they show, it’s too late to do anything about the disease. And the fault lines are indeed beginning to show: tectonic shifts are producing jagged cracks.
However, writes my Italian reader, things are better in his country: “The behaviour here (in Rome ) has been quite exceptional given the circumstances. Supermarkets are rarely short of anything… and Italian comportment – civility and courtesy has been the norm here, as it is always, but especially since the lockdown last week – should serve as a model for everyone else.”
So perhaps there’s hope for our civilisation yet, in some pockets at least. One can only wish that Britain were one of them.