In post 7 in this series I showed that words are important and that, especially when dealing with the difference between scientific and folk language, they can make all the difference between a correct understanding and an incorrect one. In this post, I want to talk about how our stories affect our understanding of events.
This is what I was hinting at in the last post around the difference between the germ theory and the terrain theory. Those function as explanations in a scientific sense, but they are also stories whose different structures lead to different understandings of what is going on. Stories, and language in general, have these underlying structures that determine functional roles. That is why sometimes you know what somebody is going to say before they’ve even said it. You have intuited the structure of the sentence or story and this structure limits the possible options available. With enough knowledge of your conversation partner and their worldview or habits of speech it is not that hard to guess what they are going to say.
An example of how story structure can guide understanding can be seen from how segments of the Christian community have had a discussion of whether the corona event represents the “end times” plague that is predicted in the Bible. That might sound ridiculous to us who don’t share the underlying assumptions of that community. Nevertheless, for them it is a real issue and the reason it is an issue is because, within their interpretation of the Bible, there is a part about an end times plague. There is a gap in the story waiting to be filled.
This filling in the gaps is not limited to stories. It goes to very fundamental levels of human perception. For example, in the visual field, the amount the eye is actually ‘seeing’ at any one time is very small. The brain fills in the rest. Same with audio perception where bass frequencies can be completely removed from a signal but the listener can still intuit the bass from the overall audio pattern. The job of philosophy and science is to make you be explicit about your thinking so that you don’t automatically fill in the gaps but inevitably even science and philosophy get stuck in patterns and structures that solidify over time.
As a story writer myself (one my novels should be showing on the right on your screen right now if you want to have a look at my work) I am well acquainted with the structure of stories within the western tradition. Coming up with a story that isn’t cliched is a difficult task and one that is failed by many writers. We’ve all had the dreary experience of knowing in advance what is coming in a movie or book. The job of a good storyteller is to hide the underlying structure from the listener or reader so that they don’t know what’s coming.
In real life, the stories that guide our understanding of the world are mostly subconscious and this leads to a great deal of useless disagreement between people who think they are arguing about the details of such and such a thing when in reality they are both using different stories to explain what is going on. Most of us would be familiar with the experience of having a romantic relationship or close friendship break up and how we marvel at the fact that we could have been so blind about the other person. We assumed we were sharing the same story about what was happening but it turned out that was not the case. We were bickering over details without getting to the root of the problem. The same is true of the corona event. Much of the disagreement over details just hides a deeper underlying disagreement about what sort of story we are in. That story is the story of plague.
The plague story is quite literally one of the oldest known to man. Plague stories are also as good as universal and so will cut across cultures to a large extent. That is why the corona event could truly be a global story because citizens all around the world can understand such a story. A comparative analysis of the differences between such stories across cultures would be a fascinating read. But for our purposes here, I’m just going to take a few well-known plague stories from western culture and tease out the underlying structure. We’ll then use that same structure to analyse the corona event.
Let’s begin with the story I mentioned in the last post: Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Note, that although I present the story elements in a fairly linear fashion that corresponds to the way the story was told, the order is not exact. This shouldn’t really matter for our purposes. Here are the main elements of the story:-
|Role in the story||Journal of the Plague Year|
|The forewarning or pretense of trouble||Rumours of plague in Holland|
|The purported origin of the disease||Italy, The Levant, Cyprus, Turkey (nobody really knew)|
|The disease arrives nearby||Long Acre|
|Ignoring the potential risk||The rumours spread but are not taken too seriously. People went about their lives|
|Numbers start to go up||Bills of mortality from each parish show increased deaths some of which are put down to plague. This was a hot topic of conversation among the public|
|Authorities take some measures but downplay the overall threat||Shutting down of public performances, various other small measures|
|Some people flee||A lot of people flee. Mostly the rich. Defoe can’t decide whether to get out or stay to defend his business. His brother leaves|
|Predictions of complete ruin||Defoe goes into some detail about astrologers and shamans and priests telling the public the end is nigh|
|Distrust of government/statistics||Rumours that the bills of mortality were being doctored and the number of deaths miscounted|
|The government finally takes stronger measures||Officials to visit houses to inspect the sick, watchmen put on duty, various other measures announced|
|Sick people quarantined||In their homes|
|The disease spreads and people become desperate||Many stories of people escaping their houses, bribing guards, threatening them with violence etc.|
|Government ups the ante in response||It’s not clear whether London on the whole was closed, but each borough in London had closed its gates to travel and it seems the residents of each borough were policing their own borders|
|People breaking the rules are denounced||Defoe refers to this offhand although he has compassion for those trying to flee|
|Everyday life is changed||Defoe tells the story of him visiting one of the mass burial pits out of curiosity. Various other stories of people dying en masse and the effects on civilians|
|People endure passively (or not)?||Not in this case. It seems people tried anything and government was mostly powerless to stop them|
|Medical/Expert response||Quacks selling fake cures|
|The Plague ends||The plague retreats and people are jubilant. Even though the risk is not completely gone nobody cares any more and parties and celebration ensue. People who left come back to London.|
This story seem to me to capture the basic elements in the plague story and this is probably very close to the most basic story of pandemic throughout history and across cultures. We will see how the other stories start with this template and add elements. Let’s move to the next which is Albert Camus’ The Plague, published in 1947. This story is close enough to modern times to be a kind of bridge between the old world and ours but still belonging more to the old. Let’s have a look:-
|Role in the story||The Plague|
|The forewarning or pretense of trouble||Rats dying in the streets en masse|
|The purported origin of the disease||Not really discussed except in the surprise that bubonic plague should appear in the modern world|
|The disease arrives nearby||The porter in Dr Rieux’s apartment block dies. Several other people die with similar symptoms|
|Ignoring the potential risk||Rumours of an epidemic spread among the people. Dr Rieux plays them down as it’s too early to know. Life goes on as normal|
|Numbers start to go up||Hospital beds are full. Death statistics start to be compiled by town clerk. They are increasing|
|Authorities take some measures but downplay the overall threat||Dr Rieux goes to the authorities but they are wary of panicking the public. Announcements with some basic advice are made|
|What to call the disease?||They talk of calling it ‘plague’ but that is considered a big move that will startle the public. Other ideas are mentioned and eventually no specific disease is named in public at this time|
|Some people flee||A criminal in the story sets up a people smuggling business once the town gates are closed|
|Predictions of complete ruin||Doctor Rieux predicts up to half the town could die. A priest starts to tell the people they are getting what they deserve. Local printing firms start printing prophecies which are eagerly consumed by the public|
|Distrust of government/statistics||Not that evident. The town is locked down and the disease hits before any real discussion|
|The government cracks down||Town is closed off by official order (this happens relatively early in this story)|
|Sick people quarantined||Within the town, sick people are isolated in camps|
|The sickness grows and people become desperate||People shot trying to escape town. Violence and looting. People smugglers do good business|
|Government ups the ante in response||A curfew is imposed and martial law declared|
|People breaking the rules are denounced||The people smuggler is eventually captured|
|Everyday life is changed||Funerals rushed. Normal life overturned|
|People endure passively||The feelings of separation and despondency are a big theme|
|Medical/Expert response||A serum is produced but it doesn’t work. Some PPE is brought in for the medics|
|The Plague ends||The plague retreats and people are jubilant. The town is reopened|
There are two primary differences between Camus and Defoe that I think are worth highlighting. Whereas, Defoe is telling the story from the point of view of a citizen, Camus is telling it from the point of view of a doctor and it is this which gives us a slightly different insight because we see the politics of the plague directly. We see that local authorities don’t want to startle people and create public panic. This is key in the debate about what to call the disease as everybody knows that calling it plague will set off associations of great danger. The doctor wants to call it plague because he wants to err on the side of caution and take extreme measures. The authorities decide against it initially in the hope that some small measures will help. As nobody really knows how bad things will get, this seems prudent. Eventually, they are overruled by the central government who orders the town to be closed off and at that point the public is in no doubt about the severity of the situation.
In this story we also see the first strands of modern medicine at play in the development of a serum. However, this serum doesn’t prove effective and this theme doesn’t play much of a role in the story.
Camus presents what I would call a humanist version of medicine. The powerlessness of the doctors is foregrounded and specifically their powerlessness to ease suffering and prevent death. The doctor becomes simply a witness to death and suffering and such stories are therefore really about the human condition in a broader sense. The doctor is not a hero in the sense that he can save his patients.
As we are about to see, that changes in the modern stories around plague as told in Hollywood movies. Let’s look first at the movie – Outbreak. This is not really a plague story but a ‘save the world from the plague’ story so not all the structural elements are met but it’s worth looking at as it features a virologist as hero.
|Role in the story||Outbreak|
|The forewarning or pretense of trouble||A virus is discovered in the Congo thirty years ago. The US army tries to cover it up by destroying the camp where it is found|
|The purported origin of the disease||Monkey|
|The disease arrives nearby||People die in Boston. A CDC official investigates|
|Ignoring the potential risk||A brigadier earlier dismisses the risk of the virus spreading|
|Numbers start to go up||A number of people in a movie theatre in California are infected|
|Authorities take some measures but downplay the overall threat|
|Some people flee|
|Predictions of complete ruin|
|Distrust of government/statistics|
|The government cracks down||The army quarantines the town in California and imposes martial law|
|Sick people quarantined||The whole town is quarantined|
|The sickness grows and people become desperate|
|People breaking the rules are denounced|
|Government ups the ante in response||The army is planning to bomb the town and kill all the citizens!|
|Everyday life is changed|
|People endure passively|
|Medical/Expert response||The virologist comes up with a cure but is arrested by a corrupt army officer who wants the disease as a bio-weapon|
|The Plague ends||The virologist stops the army from bombing the town, has the corrupt army officer arrested and saves the day with the cure|
In this story the public is entirely backgrounded and the main battle is between the virologist and a crooked army officer. This is not a humanist story but an action hero story where the virologist is fighting against corrupt power in the form of the army. The virus itself is a source of power in that it can be used as a weapon which, of course, was one of the alternative origin stories of the corona event (the virus escaped from the lab in Wuhan).
Now we move to the 2011 movie – Contagion. Full disclosure, I have not seen the movie. I tried to watch it but turned it off after ten minutes. It is clearly a piece of propaganda and I don’t like to be so blatantly manipulated while watching a movie. I try to avoid conspiracy theories but it’s very difficult in this case given that the movie was funded by billionaire Jeff Skoll who has been doing pandemic prevention even longer than Bill Gates. Anyway, I have pieced this together from the plot summary on Wikipedia. Let’s have a look:
|The forewarning or pretense of trouble||After a Hong Kong business trip, an American woman travelling back to Minneapolis gets sick. We also see people getting sick in Hong Kong, London and other places. Somehow, the WHO already knows the cases are linked right from the start|
|The purported origin of the disease||Bat via pig|
|The disease arrives nearby||Protagonist’s wife and son die in Minneapolis|
|Ignoring the potential risk||The protagonist demands to know how his wife died. The doctor says it could be any number of things and they’ll never know|
|Numbers start to go up||We see other deaths not just in the US but around the world|
|Authorities take some measures but downplay the overall threat||A CDC officer struggles to get resources from Minneapolis authorities|
|Some people flee||A CDC official advises his wife to leave a city that is about to be quarantined|
|Predictions of complete ruin||Scientists predict global infection with a 25% mortality rate|
|Distrust of government/statistics||Conspiracy theorist blogger|
|The government cracks down||Cities quarantined|
|Sick people quarantined||Entire cities are quarantined|
|The sickness grows and people become desperate||Looting and violence|
|People breaking the rules are denounced||The conspiracy theorist blogger is arrested|
|Everyday life is changed||Yes|
|People endure passively||Sort of. Violence and looting too.|
|Medical/Expert response||Various experts involved in the story. The WHO and CDC coordinate the response of epidemiologists, virologists etc. A CDC scientist creates the vaccine.|
|The Plague ends||Based apparently on a single test, a vaccine is shown to “work” and rolled into mass production by the CDC. (This is no doubt a tip of the hat to the story of Louis Pasteur saving the boy from rabies which was also just a single test)|
Contagion follows on from Outbreak in foregrounding the role of the experts as heroes. In fact, it goes a step further and explicitly draws the everyday citizen as not having enough understanding of the science to know what is going on. A number of elements in the story are so spookily like what has happened with the corona event that you can easily see why conspiracy theorists have had a field day with it eg. the bat origin element. And, of course, the conspiracy theorist character in the story is also a peddler of a ‘fake’ cure (hydroxychloroquine anyone?).
The reader should note that I am just a blogger and so must be a conspiracy theorist. May I also take this opportunity to announce Dr Simon’s Patented Cough Syrup which makes corona go away for just $19.95. Buy now!
In any case, we can see that Contagion is a true plague story in the structural sense.
Ok. Let’s now take a look at the corona event as plague story.
|The forewarning or pretense of trouble||News stories from Wuhan|
|The purported origin of the disease||People eating bats, seafood market with exotic animals|
|The disease arrives nearby||Local infection statistics based on PCR tests run by public health bureaucrats around the world. As a result you knew exactly when the first ‘case’ came to your country/city/town.|
|Ignoring the potential risk||The relative lack of interest in the West about what was going on in China. Very little actual news in January and early-mid February|
|Numbers start to go up||I think it’s fair to say the most detailed numbers ever shown to the public in history (but note that ‘detailed’ is not the same as ‘informative’)|
|Authorities take some measures but downplay the overall threat||The period in late Feb-early March where politicians were trying to talk the public out of a lockdown. Borders with China and other countries were closed|
|Some people flee||This happened in Wuhan most obviously. Also, stories from Italy and other western European countries where workers from Eastern Europe went home before the borders were closed. Stories of rich people going to their holiday homes circulated in many different places including here in Melbourne|
|Predictions of complete ruin||Neil Ferguson’s doomsday model, references to the Spanish flu of 1918|
|Distrust of government/statistics||Has been ongoing throughout. Depending on which side you’re on, the numbers have either been over-inflated or under-reported|
|The government cracks down||Lockdowns implemented in almost all countries in the West. China locked down Wuhan earlier. Other governments elsewhere took various measures|
|Sick People quarantined||This varied from country to country but most places saw general quarantine of the sick and the healthy|
|The sickness grows and people become desperate||Again, depends on where you are. Outside of the hotspots, it seemed nothing much was happening. Whatever sickness there was took place in hospital and was not visible to the general public except through news reports. To the extent that desperation was felt it would have been on a person-by-person basis. There was no general desperation. No violence and looting or social breakdown, even in the hotspots|
|People breaking the rules are denounced||Social media and normal media has been full of such denunciation since day one|
|Government ups the ante in response||Again, this will vary from place to place. It’s certainly been true here in Melbourne where we are now likely to have the longest and hardest lockdown of any city in the world (although not because the public is out of control)|
|Everyday life is changed||To state the bleeding obvious. Interestingly, we heard stories of mass burial pits in China and Iran and, of course, the New York pits where the homeless are buried which hark back to Defoe’s story|
|People endure passively||Yes. There was nowhere to flee to in this case|
|Medical/Expert response||Makeshift hospitals constructed, big deal about PPE gear, stories of intubation gone wrong, stories of overflowing hospitals of various degrees of veracity, quarantine measures, various cures and treatments suggested, epidemiological models, endless streams of articles in scientific journals, experts appearing in media, blogs, podcasts, public health bureaucrats giving daily briefings, the ongoing story of a search for vaccine etc etc etc|
|The Plague ends||??|
Remember here that the scientific accuracy of any of the elements of the story is not relevant. All that is relevant is whether the story seems to be a plague story in the public discourse. The battle for control of the story happened in late February and early March. It was centered around the debate over whether corona was ‘just the flu’ or not. I still recall President Trump, for example, tweeting that it was just the flu and there was no cause for alarm. There was similar pushback from other politicians in Western countries. Ultimately, they lost that battle. By then, the ICTV had named a ‘new’ virus and the WHO had named a ‘new’ disease. The media used these new names so by definition it wasn’t the flu, it was ‘covid-19’. The media was also full of the infection statistics. Neil Ferguson’s doomsday model was doing the rounds. In short, too many elements of the plague story had been fulfilled and even the canniest politician would have known that the battle was over. Ironically, government trying to play down the plague is actually a key element of the plague story so even the pushback from government was evidence that we were in a plague story! In any case, once governments went to lockdown the matter was resolved beyond doubt.
Once we were officially in a plague story, people would use the structure of that story to interpret events. This doesn’t need to be done consciously and in fact would mostly be done subconsciously. It doesn’t matter whether you believe the story is ‘true’ in itself or you think it’s wise to take the plague story path because it’s better to be safe than sorry. Once the plague story is activated, it has the structural elements outlined above and people expect those to be fulfilled. Quarantines needed to happen. People breaking the rules needed to be denounced. The experts need to come to the rescue. All these things became necessary because they are implied by the structure of the story. It is for this reason that we must now have a vaccine because that is a very important part of the modern plague story. Currently, we have a vaccine-shaped hole that must be filled. To leave that hole empty would be like writing a sentence without
If, like me, you’ve had some very unusual conversations with people over the corona event, it’s almost certainly because you disagree over the application of the plague story. Arguing over details is not going to change minds at this point because what’s up for grabs is not this or that opinion but an entire explanatory framework. For those of us that think this is an incorrect application of the plague story, the measures taken seem radically and dangerously authoritarian. However, authoritarian actions are normal during a plague story and that is why people who are viewing events through that story don’t have a problem with such actions.
We can also now see which elements of the corona event separate it from other plague stories.
Firstly, it is the first truly global plague story to play out in real time (in real life, not in the movies). That was only possible by way of the internet and organisations like the WHO who were coordinating the matter. It was therefore also the first time we had simultaneous, coordinated quarantines around the world (mostly among Western countries). Given the global nature of the media nowadays, the MSM could fill in elements of the plague story that were missing from certain locations. Here in Melbourne in March and April there was really nothing happening so we were shown scenes from Italy and New York. Even in July, the 6 o’clock news on one of the major stations got busted using footage from Italy in March and pretending it current news from a local hospital.
Secondly, government and public health bureaucrats and also the media and most of the public have been using ‘infections’ as a proxy for actual illness even though statistics of actual illness show that 99% of people ‘infected’ are either asymptomatic or only mildly ill.
It is this element of the story that is truly novel and also absolutely crucial for how the rest of the corona event plays out. Even in the movie Contagion, it was disease that was foregrounded and, in fact, a big deal was made about showing death in the most grizzly fashion possible. With the corona event, the disease is backgrounded and all we hear about is the infection statistics even though the PCR test itself does not even prove an active infection. In Victoria, the Chief Health Officer has been misleading the public about issues such as false positives with the tests.
This has given conspiracy theorists fodder for their explanations. My take is that the PCR test machine was rolled out by the WHO over the last couple of decades and nobody really paid any attention to it. As the corona event ramped up, that machine went into action and nobody could stop it. The politicians could have pointed out that the tests were dodgy but that would raise the question why anybody allowed the machine to be built in the first place. Plus, as signatories to the WHO, each country was legally required to follow the process. Now that literally billions of dollars have been spent on those tests, there is no way that politicians can allow the truth about the tests to come out.
But the main problem with concentrating on infections instead of disease is that we cannot get out of the plague story that we are in. Infections will never get to zero due to false positives. The only way to ‘end the plague’ is to stop testing or have the public lose interest in the test results. Another way to look at it is to say that the plague can be extended indefinitely until a vaccine is produced (which is very convenient for the financial interests behind vaccine production).
How are we going to get out of the plague story that is the corona event? This mostly rests on the vaccine question. Politicians need the vaccine to exit the story ‘properly’. However, both the US and Europe may get to herd immunity before that happens. The question then is will the public lose interest in the infection statistics before the vaccine can be distributed? Here in Australia and New Zealand, the problem is very different. We can no longer get to herd immunity for political reasons. We are therefore reliant on the vaccine as the only way out.
Every good story needs an end. What will the end be for the corona event?
All posts in this series:-