Why Coronavirus Goes Viral
With all the diseases, natural tragedies, homicides, wars and malnutrition in the world why does a coronavirus (COVID-19) get famous?
Statistically you’re more likely to die from driving a car than from infection by the coronavirus. And yet we don’t think twice about getting into a car to drive. You have the likelihood, over one year, of a 1 in 8000 chance of fatality in a car crash (Insurance Information Institute ), and what could the odds of contracting the coronavirus be compared to that? 1 in a million, if not in the tens of millions when considering the population of the United States at 329 million and a flu which may, at best, kill 10,000. And more likely in the hundreds.
But you could be among the hundreds. And that’s where fear becomes irrational, and not because fatalities occur only with some people older than 65 (an estimated 3.4% of all infected as of March 3, 2020; source: World Health Organization). Yet how many of us wake up in the morning and wonder about “statistical likelihood” over a cup of coffee? We’re not computers. Humans pay more attention to outliers—things that are markedly different than the norm—than what occurs on average.
Outliers define the Nightly News
It’s precisely that—outliers—that make the news captivating. Humans are evolutionarily programmed to be on the alert for outliers. It was for survival. If out hunting, you’re not looking at the roses and the beautiful landscape; you’re looking, instead, for something moving in the bush. You’re looking for something markedly different. And when you see it, the body goes into fight or flight mode. It’s triggered in ways that create a hormonal response. It focuses your attention and a steady drip of the hormone cortisol.
And that is what the nightly news provides: a trigger for the fight or flight hormones, among them, cortisol. Otherwise, why would we watch discontinuous and ever-changing short bursts of events without any context? People from earlier eras would think we were all suffering from ADD. They would wonder why we’d want to see a house on fire without being able to do something about it instead of sitting there eating popcorn while watching a virtual house burn with the expected tearful neighbor crying into a microphone.
It does beg the question about why one particular outlier gets more traction than another, especially when presented with so many every day. All of the tragedies we see every day matter, but why does one create new habits (like stop touching your face to prevent infection from the coronavirus) and others don’t (like stop driving your fossil-fueled car to reduce your carbon footprint)?
Book of Revelation
Outliers that take on mythic proportions are the ones that get traction. Take the book of Revelation in the Bible. It’s a portion of the Bible that is regarded as apocalyptic literature, taken from a dream had by a man named John while living alone on an island. This book of the Bible talks about end times, the four horsemen who bring death and destruction, the beast who misleads even the elect, the 144 thousand who get saved from abysmal horrors on Earth, and Jesus coming back to make everything right.
It is, without question, a 180 degree turn from what the other books in the Bible talked about. It’s an outlier. It defies both the preaching and miracles of a Jew named Jesus, and the writings of his followers who made a theology from the belief that Jesus is the son of God. While Jesus (a manifestation of God) is peace-loving, gentle, kind, ever-forgiving of others, clearly a pacifist, clearly stating that God does not bring havoc down on people because they have sinned; in Revelation God is vengeful, spiteful, condemning, destructive, and definitely not a pacifist. It’s as though the dreamer John went down a list of what Jesus preached and published a story in which he could cross off everything Jesus said.
Hmm. A pacifist? Let’s have war. Check.
Hmm. Forgive your enemies? Let’s destroy them. Check.
It’s almost as if the writings of Mahatma Ghandi were put in a book to then be followed by a recounted dream in which every last Muslim is killed by a vengeful Hindu deity.
The Power of Myth
Yet the outlier story in Revelation has something going for it: it has all the power of Myth. It’s like a super-hero story in which one man saves not just another man, but the whole world! And it’s a popular part of the Bible. Whole denominations like Jehova Witnesses identify with literal interpretations of Revelation. Mainstream churches use Revelation as pure symbolism with interpretations that conform to Jesus’ teachings. In either case, Revelation gets traction.
Revelation is about the whole world and what happens to it. It’s about locusts with human faces that come to ravage people, massive deaths from famine, death by the sword, and just plain old death all by itself. And no one can defend themselves unless they’ve lived morally. The good guys. And everyone’s destroyed who didn’t. The bad guys. And one comes to save, and it’s not Jesus on a donkey, but Jesus on a cloud.
Not a whole lot different than the coronavirus: Which affects the whole world. Which is a pestilence that causes death. Which we can’t defend ourselves against with weapons. Which will only affect us if we don’t act according to modern “moral” dictums: follow what medical professionals tell you: things we should do, or we’re at best ignorant, and at worst, conspiracy theorists.
With the coronavirus, we can create in our collective imagination good guys who follow precautions, and bad guys who don’t follow precautions; or more horrific bad guys who may have allowed the virus to spread. Good guys, bad guys. And the savior, the superhero, will be the Jesus on a cloud who is now the scientist that finally comes up with a treatment, or the leaders of nations who have done the most admirable job of closing down the economic engine for something of mythic proportions.
The Value of Myths When We Can Do Something About It
To be fair, humans need these myths. That’s why they go viral. More importantly, we need some way of responding to outliers when fight or flight kicks in. With the coronavirus we are doing something, all of us, including leaders of different stripes. The good among us are following precautions, the leaders are ensuring that we are safe. It brings us together in a common fight.
And that is why climate change, something that could take on mythic proportions, continues to sputter. Too many feel they can’t do anything about it. We’ve been led to believe the responsibility is with governments and energy plants when, statistically, almost one-half of carbon emissions come from fossil-fueled vehicles (Environmental Protection Agency). Each one of us could do something about that, starting with leaf blowers.
But that would make all of us bad guys. So while it’s mythic because it affects the whole world, and while we have corporate bad guys who frack, deep down we all understand our individual contributions, and so the myth is muddied. It loses the crystal-clear clarity of the coronavirus.
The only truth we can rely on will not be statistics, or even science, but myth. That drives humans in droves. And the nightly news will run with the mythical for all its worth. And we’ll not just see noteworthy news crowded out by coronavirus in the next so many weeks, but this whole virus thing will happen again with a different viral particle in the future. You can count on it.
Next time let’s hope that something is done before a virus reaches mythic proportions. Let’s start by eliminating conditions where new strains of viral particles more effectively replicate, starting with factory farms (Compassion in World Farming). In all likelihood this coronavirus will have come from animals crowded together, rather than from humans who happened to have lived in a crowded city in China.
Unfortunately, factory farms don’t have a clear bad guy (who hates farmers?), no clear good guy (who wants to support vegans except vegans?) and no mythical savior (who’s going to kill the hamburger?).
So expect no action before the viral locusts come the next time. You need a good myth. One that’s epic.
Jerry Sedgewick is a left brain/right brain creative, scientist and religious. Among other things he has contributed a patent and assisted in the design of a proteomics device which won the coveted international Red Dot award (Isoplexis IsoLight), created a documentary addressing the consequences of homelessness (Guttered), and has written about life and living as a follower of Jesus (Prevailon.com). Jerry lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.