“As long as they have the disease, they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”
So says Leviticus 13:46, one of literally hundreds of biblical verses about disease, quarantine, skin rashes, seminal emissions, menstruation, and other markers of “impurity.”
And the Bible is not alone. In virtually every culture in the world, there are protocols for dealing with the sick and infirm—and most of them require that the diseased be placed far away from the healthy. To quarantine is human.
It’s not just about epidemiology either. Of course, in pre-scientific societies without the germ theory of disease, simply getting the sick person away makes a lot of sense. But it’s also a primal instinct. Disease is both terrifying and disgusting. It triggers an evolutionally wired aversion: Get that away from me.
Indeed, as sociologist Mary Douglas first proposed, distinctions between clean and unclean were not peripheral to the Israelite religion which gave birth to Christianity and Judaism. They were fundamental, and echo within the dietary laws (animals, too, are classed as clean and unclean), attitudes toward foreigners (unclean), and conceptions of God, who separates light from dark, land from earth, and who imposes order on chaos.
All this to say that, if you’re scared of the coronavirus, your fears are in part determined by hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution and culture.
The novel coronavirus, however, is particularly ill-suited to our instincts.
It’s too early to tell for sure, but the virus’s ability to survive for days outside a host suggests that it will be difficult to contain. It spreads quickly, many people show no symptoms, and it is spreading fast.
You probably will get it on your body, sooner or later. And so, as everyone ought to know by now, the most important thing you can do is prevent it from getting inside your body—wash your hands, don’t touch your face.
That’s not pleasant to contemplate. Coronavirus is on my hands? Just the idea gives rise to anxiety or worse. And of course, for the significant percentage of the population that is at serious risk, it’s legitimately terrifying.
Human beings have a bad record of acting on that sense of terror.
For gay men of my generation, AIDS is the most painful precedent. In a 1985 Los Angeles Times poll, 51 percent of respondents supported quarantining AIDS patients—and that was after it had already been established that AIDS (unlike COVID-19) requires the direct exchange of bodily fluids to be transmitted.
And remember, if you’re old enough, the hysteria that surrounded Magic Johnson’s disclosure that he was HIV-positive? Or the taunts of so-called Christians that God kills fags?
(Performance artist Diamanda Galás hauntingly linked AIDS hysteria to biblical taboos of impurity, in a work later banned by the Smithsonian for “offending Catholics.”)
There have already been echoes of that prejudice this year, as Asian people have been attacked, both verbally and physically, on the streets of Berlin, New York, and elsewhere. (In any case, within a few weeks, this kind of profiling will be obsolete.)
Will we turn against each other now, as we did then?
Once again, it’s too early to tell. For now, President Trump’s response has more resembled denial than hysteria. Perhaps for political reasons – if COVID-19 tanks the economy, he’s going to lose the election–or perhaps out of some altruistic desire to keep us from panic, Trump has minimized, rather than exaggerated, the severity of the threat.
Indeed, his clearest forebear is probably President Woodrow Wilson, who concealed evidence of the 1918-19 “Spanish Flu” epidemic to maintain morale for World War I, and who even minimized his own flu infection at the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Versailles. By the time the epidemic ended, the flu would kill more people than the war.
But if tens of thousands of older and weaker Americans die, Trump’s insouciance seems unlikely to endure. (Trump himself is a noted germophobe, who once called shaking hands “barbaric.”)
As COVID-19 is showing, the reality of human embodiment does not conform to our primal instincts. We may mock ancient biblical taboos of purity and impurity today, but deep down, we still feel them. On a profound and largely unconscious level, we desperately want to keep the plague off of our doorknobs, elevator buttons, and subway railings.
And when human beings can’t do that, we have a troubling record of lashing out.
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