In my previous post in this series I noted that the corona event has a lot of parallels with the world wars and in particular WW1. War and pandemic are two of the oldest stories known to man. Just like the plague story, the war story has a fixed structure that everybody knows at some level. War ends when one side wins and this is almost always done when the other side surrenders. However, even this requires agreement by the parties involved. In WW1, Germany surrendered and so the war ended in the ‘correct’ fashion. However, many of the troops on the German side believed that the surrender was an act of betrayal from their leaders. They wanted to keep fighting and it was that desire which in large part drove WW2. Arguably, WW1 didn’t really end until 1945 and so the Armistice of 1918 was a false ending.
If WW1 is an example at the nation state level of not ending the story properly, there’s a fascinating equivalent tale at the level of the individual from WW2. It’s the case of Hiroo Onada.
Onoda was a Japanese soldier sent to fight in the Philippines in 1944. He was a guerrilla fighter on the island of Lubang and spent most of his time in the jungle separated from direct chain of command. He was in a unit of about four soldiers whose job was to pick off civilians and generally demoralise the enemy in the usual guerrilla strategy. Because of his status as a guerrilla fighter in the jungle, when the war ended, Onoda received no formal communication from his superiors. He and his fellow soldiers continued to shoot and kill local civilians and then retreat back to the jungle where they survived largely on coconuts and bananas. The locals left notes for Onoda and his fellow soldiers to tell them the war was over but the soldiers didn’t believe the notes. Over time, the other soldiers died but Onoda kept on doing his job. Amazingly, he kept on doing his job for the next 29 years until a Japanese traveller heard of the crazy Japanese soldier in the jungle in Lubang and decided to visit to try and convince him the war was over. The traveller met with Onoda who said he would only give up if his commanding officer ordered him to do so. The Japanese traveller returned to Japan and tracked down the officer, Major Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller. Taniguchi went to the Philippines and met with Onoda who, eventually, accepted that the war was over and surrendered. The President of the Philippines pardoned Onada on the basis that he really did believe he was fighting a war and therefore his killing of local civilians was justified.
Onada’s story is incredible for many reasons but what is relevant to this series of posts is that it reveals the power of stories. Onoda was still living the war story 29 years after everybody else agreed that the story was over.
Sometimes, stories don’t end because of weird situations like with Onada. Sometimes they don’t end because they were never started properly in the first place or because circumstances don’t allow it. The Vietnam War is one war story that didn’t end properly but there’s another that I think is more relevant to the corona event and that’s the second Iraq War. Some might remember George W Bush appearing on the aircraft carrier with the big banner “Mission Accomplished” behind him. Although Bush would later deny it, that was an attempt to bring the war story to an end and claim victory in the usual fashion. But, of course, the war was not over. Most of the casualties in Iraq came after Bush made his premature declaration and US troops are still in Iraq to this day (under the guise of NATO). In the meantime, there was the whole business with ISIS. A similar story has played out with the war in Afghanistan. Even if President Biden follows through on Trump’s decision to remove all US troops, it certainly won’t be a standard end to a war story. It won’t be a ‘victory’. It won’t be “Mission Accomplished” because who even knows why the troops are there any more?
I would argue that both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were unwinnable wars because they were violations of the war story right from the start. This is most obvious in the case of Iraq where the US made a big song and dance about WMDs held by Saddam and used that as the pretext for war. Of course, there were no WMDs and so the story fell apart from there. War stories imply a way to ‘win’ but if you can’t win then you set up a dynamic where the story cannot end and that is exactly what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Can the corona event be brought to an end or will it drag on interminably like the Afghanistan and Iraq wars? In order to answer that, we need to revisit my analysis from part 10 of this series and see how the plague story itself has undergone change since WW2.
Once upon a time, the plague story ended all by itself. Without fancy scientific tests to know who was and wasn’t infected, the general public went via the old fashioned method of seeing who was sick. In the case of really bad plagues, this also involved dead bodies in the streets. The plague ended when the number of sick and dead went down. Once this started to happen, there was jubilation and partying often before the ‘real’ end of the plague. Daniel Defoe noted in Journal of the Plague Year that the celebrations began while quite a number of people were still dying. He also noted how quickly life returned to normal shortly thereafter. That’s what happens when a pandemic is allowed to run its course naturally.
In the new plague story as told by Hollywood, the plague story ends when the experts save the day. This is the story we have been telling ourselves since almost the start of the corona event and it’s crucial to note that the corona event is the first time in history where this version of the story has been the official public story of what is going on. Never before have we expected to be rescued by experts. We are now into the vaccine part of that story. In the movies, the experts come up with a cure, the public takes it and everybody lives happily ever after. That is what many people expect to happen now. That is how the plague story that is corona is supposed to end. The question is: will it?
There were some developments this week that cast doubt on the matter. In Australia, the Federal Health Minister ended up in hospital just two days after receiving the vaccine for what we were told was an ‘unrelated infection’. Meanwhile, several European countries halted the Astra Zeneca vaccine rollout on fears of blood clots. In the USA, the living ex-Presidents – with the notable exception of a certain man called Trump – were preparing to do a public service announcement encouraging people to get the vaccine (presumably because they expect take up rates to be a lot lower than they want). None of these things is a slam dunk event that will break the plague story. Rather, they are just little things that nibble away at the narrative. In the real world (but not in the movies), cures and vaccines have side effects and some people die. In the normal course of events, news of these events doesn’t reach the public but in the age of social media and with the most high profile vaccine program in history, they will. The same dynamic of instantaneous information sharing via the internet that led to the initial corona hysteria will also play out with the vaccine. It won’t reach the level of a hysteria itself because it will not have the support of the media and government, but it will lead some people to disbelieve the narrative and decide not to take the vaccine. How low will vaccination rates be? is going to be a big question going forward. The vaccine is supposed to end the story. But if not enough people take the vaccine, has the story really ended?
Then there is the awkward fact that case numbers are dropping like a rock globally but especially in the US. We look to be well on the other side of the curve now but the vaccine rollout is not far enough advanced to be able to take the credit for ending the pandemic. That’s even in rich Western countries. If the pandemic ends before other countries even start the vaccine rollout then the story will really break down.
At the beginning of the corona event we had a choice between the plague story and the flu story. The plague story won but the problem right from the start was that the story was invalid. It was invalid as a plague story in the same way the second Iraq War was invalid as a war story. Just like the US fabricated data about the WMDs, Western governments deliberately exaggerated the threat of corona. This was revealed most clearly in Germany where internal government documents were leaked showing communications where it was explicitly discussed about how the government must, for example, talk about hospitals being overwhelmed and people suffocating at home because suffocation is a primal fear etc etc. Here in Victoria, our Premier stated you could either have human rights or wind up on a ventilator. There are countless other examples. Of course, this is business as usual in politics where a decision is made and then propaganda is crafted to justify it. But propaganda is a story and you need to be able to get out of the story.
When you get into a story that doesn’t match reality, reality is not going to help you end the story. You can declare Mission Accomplished all you like but that won’t change facts on the ground. For that reason, the corona story is almost certainly not going to end ‘properly’. If that’s true, we can ask how will it end? I suspect we may see a variation of Mission Accomplished at some point. It would probably be the WHO making an announcement that the pandemic is over. But by then I doubt anybody will be listening. After all, the WHO came out last year and said lockdowns were not a good idea and then a bunch of western governments promptly went back into lockdown. Corona started as a quasi-global story led by the WHO but quickly devolved into a myriad of different stories as each nation went its own way. What the people in China or India will tell themselves about corona is going to be radically different to what western nations tell themselves. This fracturing of the story is itself a big problem. Perhaps we will see a situation where individual national leaders announce ‘victory’ when their vaccination program is finished. But, that’s unlikely to provide closure especially if various geopolitical cans of worms like vaccine passports get opened. All this assumes the vaccination program itself doesn’t cause a massive problem such as has been warned about in relation to risks like antibody dependent enhancement and ‘leaky’ vaccines. If any of those turn into reality the story will blow wide open.
In conclusion, I don’t see how corona can be ended in the form in which the public expects. The ending of the modern plague story is make believe and has no basis in historical reality. That was always the main problem with it. We overturned our society based on something without precedent. So, it’s not going to be a clean end; a ‘proper’ end. I predict that, much like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the corona story will drag on for a while then simply be abandoned. The only question now is how long that process will take. There was more than thirty years between the start of WW1 and the end of WW2. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are almost twenty years old. Let’s hope the corona event doesn’t take a similar amount of time before the story ends.
All posts in this series:-