When the trajectory changes again. And again.

In preparing for the next stage of the pandemic, there is a risk that we project what we wish to see for our futures, what we hope and desire, into a physical world that doesn’t care.

It’s not that it doesn’t want to care: it can’t.

The coronavirus pandemic doesn’t have feelings or desires, hates or likes, it just is

To understand why we must not fall into the trap of just thinking we can get on with life, I’m going to first deconstruct what we mean by a virus. Then, I’ll talk about what can happen when our best plans look like they will not work out, and the knee-jerk reactions we must avoid.

Over the last 100 years, our ideas about viruses have changed. First, they were poisons – the word “virus” has its roots in the Latin term for “poison.” Then, we thought of them as living things, and then as biological chemicals. Today, we think of viruses as being in a gray area between living and nonliving: they can’t replicate on their own but can do so in living cells and can also affect the behavior of their hosts profoundly. 

Although not alive themselves, we can usefully think of viruses as a kind of parasite, essentially leeching all biomolecular aspects of life. But from what we have seen, viruses seem to exist for one purpose and one purpose alone: to make copies of themselves – many, many, many copies – and to spread far and wide.

There doesn’t appear to be any purpose, or any kind of conscious malevolent intent in this. Multiplying and spreading is just what viruses do.

Most known viruses are persistent and relatively harmless, not lethal killers. They take up lodging in cells, where they may remain dormant for long periods or take advantage of the cells’ replication apparatus to reproduce at a slow and steady rate, rather than fast. These viruses have developed many ingenious ways to avoid discovery by the host immune system — essentially the genes found in different viruses can alter or control every step in the immune process to mask their detection and to enable them to make more copies of themselves.

When we come across viruses that have, by chance, adapted to take advantage of the opportunities to multiply that a human body can provide them – we can run into trouble. It’s not in a virus’s interest to kill its host too quickly before it has multiplied and spread, but sometimes it can work out that way. Different variants may emerge, and some of these will be more successful at multiplying, and some will be better at spreading. And variants may emerge which can do both while keeping their host bodies alive.

None of this is conscious

None of this is a ‘decision’ by the virus.

It is completely opportunistic.

It is a rapid adaptation to fulfill a single goal: make more copies and spread them wide to make even more copies.

Now, let’s come back to how we humans are meeting this challenge of blocking opportunities for this COVID-19 coronavirus to multiply and spread. Its activities in the human body cause it to multiply and spread, but is also a long-term threat to health, and possibly death.

Through a rapid and remarkable process of developing vaccines that limit the ability of the virus to produce significant harm to its human hosts, we have changed the potential path of impact on our lives.

But the threat isn’t completely removed, though it is significantly altered.

Some people are perceiving the fact that we have not obliterated the threat of the coronavirus as failure.

This is a trap

Actually, there are many traps here to watch out for. I’ll talk about two of them here.

The first is that we are in danger of projecting our wishes for a successful outcome onto a situation which just doesn’t care. Because of our very human and understandable needs to connect with what we recognise to be a normal life again, we assume that our best efforts will change the odds in our favour. And, in all likelihood, they probably will. But most likely not in the time frame or the manner in which we hope it will.

This pandemic is not a 90-minute Hollywood movie. It is not an Instagram Reel. It is not a 750-word opinion reckon in a newspaper. This pandemic and our efforts to control the spread and damage that the virus is wreaking on human lives and livelihoods are messy.

We can fall into the trap that all our efforts will result in smooth, meaningful, positive progress in a time-frame that we have set. The problem is that we don’t get to set the timelines, and we are purposefully making ourselves blind to less positive outcomes. We don’t want to see the mess, or the ragged edges. We want a clean break.

There is a place for hope – a really important place for hope. And eventually things will work out, I’m sure of it. Even I need to hold on to that. But a defensive pessimistic stance tells us that the road will be bumpy and we need to plan for the worst and hope for the best, and all that comes in between. It will be messy – there’s no avoiding it.

This leads to the second trap of all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking. Whatever the problem may be, because a tactic isn’t working as we hoped it would, doesn’t mean that we throw up our hands and declare that nothing is working and that we must jettison everything and move to a completely different way of approaching a problem. That may or may not be true. But what it actually requires is a nuanced approach to examine what tactics in the toolbox work – or do not work – through judicious and wise selection and safe experimentation with different approaches.

Perhaps it requires a different strategy as the virus and human needs evolve through this time during the pandemic. Perhaps not.

But as the virus changes, so must our behaviour

As much as we wish and hope that our strategy and tactics make a difference to how the virus multiplies and spreads, we must not behave as if this has already come true. This is nothing less than magical thinking. Defensive pessimism remains grounded in reality – what is actually happening and the complexity involved in that, not the nice clean break with the past which we dearly hoped it would be by now.

It is what it is. And we have to deal with life on that basis. Hang in there. 


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