As I noted in my book on the subject, one of the foundational elements of The Plague Story is that the plague must come from an exotic location far away. In the case of corona, the initial exotic location was Wuhan, China replete with wet markets, bat soup and, it later turned out, murky goings on in viral laboratories. When the delta variant hit the headlines about a year ago, its exotic origin was India. So, last week when a new variant came on to the scene, I noted with wry amusement that its purported origin was another exotic location, this time South Africa/Botswana. Is there any scientific reason why all these variants come from places far away from the West? For the original coronavirus, sophisticated stories were created to explain why the virus arose in China. Maybe it was weird culinary practices or the fact that people live in too close a proximity to wild animals (bats) or what have you. But now we have a virus that, according to the official story, has had two years to spread around the world and mutate. Why then do none of the evil new strains come from Tennessee or Birmingham or Munich? The purported origin of Omicron in Africa is all the more weird given that covid rates there are amazingly low, something that apparently has the “experts” exasperated. Of course, we know now that it has nothing to do with science and everything to do with The Plague Story. The plague comes from somewhere far away. That’s just part of the story. Meanwhile, we are told that variants that arise in the west are “symptomless” or mild. Very convenient, isn’t it? Both the South African and Botswanan authorities were quick to point out last week that they had no indication that Omicron caused more severe disease than other variants but that didn’t stop western governments imposing new travel restrictions just like they did with delta and with the original variant (For delta, the Australian government went to the extraordinary length of even banning Australian citizens who had been to India from returning home, a truly shameful act that won’t be forgotten by a lot of people). Of course, governments take action is another part of The Plague Story and so what has really happened in the last week is that we have begun a new round of The Plague Story. This is actually the third time through. First we had the original variant, then we had the delta plague story. Now we have the third one. Chapter 3: Omicron rises. As news of Omicron circulated, some people wondered whether we are “back to square one”. Indeed, we are. Back to the start of The Plague Story.
This new plague story does have some elements that are different from before. First is the speed with which have progressed through the early parts of the story. In this case it was mere days from the announcement of the variant to governments responding. That is not surprising as all the infrastructure is now in place to enforce new restrictions with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen. What is more interesting, though, is the status of the cure. Recall that the modern plague story ends by the experts providing a cure. For both the original variant and delta, the cure was yet to arrive. But for Omicron, we already have the supposed cure in the form of the gene therapy vaccines that have been rolled out globally. This led to the awkward fact that the only people travelling internationally now are the vaccinated and so, by definition, the only people who could be spreading the new variant are the vaccinated. So, the cure we were promised during the first two plague stories wasn’t really a cure after all. That didn’t stop politicians again promising a cure for this new version of the plague story. Our wonderful state Premier here in Victoria, with the rabid certainty that is his trademark, had no hesitation announcing that the booster would solve it. In Britain, Boris Johnson looked far less certain promising only that the booster might offer “some protection” but nevertheless announcing that the government would increase the rollout of the boosters. Meanwhile, Big Pharma was quick, a little too quick some might say, in announcing it could have a booster specifically designed for Omicron on market within months. Will this wash with the general public? Will the speed with which history repeated cause some people to reflect on why we are back in the same story again? Time will tell. What is noteworthy is the fact that we are back in the same story for the third time.
I have compared corona to WW1 in a previous post and this repetition of the same story, the rehashing the same failed policies that didn’t work before, is once again relevant. The same thing happened in the war too. In the war, it wasn’t new variants that provided the déjà vu but new battles; some great new plan to finally break through enemy lines and bring the war to an end. Just another push, boys. Just another truckload of dead bodies to return home or bury in the mud of the Somme or Ypres. The booster looks set to fill the identical role of the thing that is going to bring corona to an end but never really does. It’s tempting to think that the continued failure of such stories will be that which finally snaps people out of the malaise and brings them back to their senses but that didn’t happen in WW1. Partly that’s because to admit the failure of this particular plague story would invite us to reflect on whether the last versions of the plague story were also failures and you would end up back at the start having to admit the whole thing was a giant catastrophic error. That’s an outcome the politicians can never allow but it’s also true that individuals would not want to contemplate it. Part of the reason is because most people in hindsight would realise the original justification was absurd and this would call into question our entire belief that the world operates according to logic and reason. That is no trivial matter. It is the founding myth of the enlightenment. It’s one of the things our society cannot, as a matter of faith, contemplate.
One of my favourite jokes from the comedian Norm Macdonald, who passed away recently, was this one about how Germany twice went to war against “the world”. It’s funny because it sounds ridiculous in hindsight even though it’s true. What the jokes glosses over, of course, is the historical reality that Germany never intended to go to war against “the world”, that’s just the way it ended up. In fact, Germany got into WW1 explicitly trying not to fight against the whole world at once. Here’s an imaginary dialogue to capture the “reasoning”:-
“Dude, why are we invading France?”
“Because Austria attacked Serbia.”
“So, Russia is threatening war with Austria.”
“We need to avoid a two-front war.”
“But we don’t have to attack Russia if we choose not to.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll all be over before Xmas. Schlieffen has a plan.”
I’m sure future comedians will find corona to be a rich source of material. “Remember that time we tried to wipe out the flu? Boy, that was a disaster”. How we got to that absurd outcome is similar to the chain of events that started WW1. Here’s another imaginary dialogue:-
“Dude, why are we going into lockdown?”
“Because China went into lockdown?”
“So, they’ve set a precedent that we can copy.”
“Since when is China the expert on public health science?
“Dude, there’s some models that predict a huge number of deaths. We have to do something.”
“But the models don’t match the known data.”
“Don’t worry. It’s just two weeks to flatten the curve.”
It seems to me that an absurd and invalid use of an existing story/myth such as described in the fictional dialogues above is a feature, not a bug in archetypal takeover because it amounts to an assertion that is beyond logic and is therefore irrational. The ability of irrationality to drive events has been captured well by Nassim Taleb with his concept of the Minority Rule. The Minority Rule states that a minority can bend a majority to its will by being irrationally intolerant (it’s one of history’s perfect ironies that Taleb himself has been one of the most prominent irrational true believers throughout corona and was influential early on in providing the intellectual backing that got us into this mess). The intolerant minority, such as those insisting that anybody who disagrees with them wants grandma to die, can get their way to the extent that the majority are indifferent and consider it easier to go along with them. The example Taleb uses is kosher foods. The majority of the population have no objection to eating kosher. If you have even five percent of the population who will only eat kosher, it is easier to just make all food kosher rather than have a completely separate process that caters to five percent of the market. During corona, the acquiescence of the majority was secured early on by way of cash payments to offset any financial losses. That was fine as long you didn’t care about the state of the national budget and most people were happy to go along with it. That would have been enough to put the matter to bed if government had rolled out the vaccine, allowed whoever wanted it to take it and then brought the matter to an end. But the matter didn’t end and we swapped from the carrot to the stick. Governments are now attempting to win acquiescence through coercion. That is a very weak strategy. It works in the short term to get some unvaccinated to take the shot but governments are now talking of rolling out the coercion to those who don’t want the booster too. At that point we are longer operating according to the logic of the minority rule. Doing the same thing over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Thinking you can coerce whole populations into taking a booster shot indefinitely is a different kind of insanity, but is still insane.
What is guaranteed to start happening now is another mechanism with a successful history: civil disobedience. Some dissenters have been calling for civil disobedience from the start of corona and they are right to do so. But the civil disobedience that makes a difference won’t require any conscious intention to happen. It should happen automatically as a small but ever increasingly share of the population refuse the booster shot. From there we should see the resistance expand into other areas of life as people simply don’t observe whatever restrictions are in place. That has already started to happen where I am. The government still requires masks to be worn indoors but, at least at my local supermarket, half the people are not bothering any more. A similar thing happened earlier in the year on public transport. Civil disobedience is a viral phenomenon and once it takes hold the government will need to explicitly enforce any rules it wants observed. But government does not have the power to enforce the excessive, arbitrary and often contradictory plethora of rules that only a government bureaucracy could dream up. Ergo, the rules become redundant. What we may see is the government trying to win compliance by making an example of a small subset of the population by fining them or sending them to jail. Again, this may work in the short term but not the medium term. Something like that is exactly what happened at the end of WW1 in Germany during the Kiel mutiny. The naval command wanted to launch one final attack on Britain but the sailors were not having it. Some sailors were punished and this worked for a couple of weeks but set off a sequence of events that led to an outright mutiny. The mutiny then spread to the rest of the country and saw the Kaiser abdicate and the period of Weimar Germany begin. That was not a good thing in hindsight because Weimar Germany contributed greatly to the rise of Hitler. That seems to me to be where we are right now. If governments insist on trying to gain acquiescence through coercion, eventually something big will break. Ironically, it’s Germany, Austria and Italy who are pushing that failed strategy again. In the US, a form of civil disobedience has already taken hold and Biden’s mandates look dead in the water as a result. Those are the two options we seem to have from here. Civil disobedience or self-inflicted destruction. Europe looks set once again to destroy itself while the US might get away with it. Here in Australia there are some promising signs that we might follow the US. Let’s hope so because the other pathway leads nowhere good.