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On The Two Types Of Plagues, Viral And Ideological

The pandemic is prompting changes in politics, culture and personal conduct. Could these shifts be glimpses of a better, post-pandemic society?

Onboard a train near Buenos Aires on April 29
Onboard a train near Buenos Aires on April 29
Ernesto Fernández Núñez


BUENOS AIRES — In the Middle Ages, there were multitudes of explanations for the origins of plagues. Some attributed them to foul air emanating from the rot of organic material that could permeate the human body. Others believed they were caused by the alignment of planets or eclipses, seeing them as celestial phenomena coinciding with the wrath of God for humanity's sins.

But not all plagues are biological, as ideologies can also generate destructive pandemics. In The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel, a painting from 1562 of one of the great plagues of its age, the depictions seem to anticipate the gas chambers and violent supremacy of the Nazis six centuries later. That, too, was a plague.

In my simple understanding, there are two types of plagues: The viral and the ideological. Each can engender the other and provoke irreversible harm. Biological plagues can be controlled. They are fleeting but costly, and place men in a posture of courage and defiance as they defend life over all else.

But fundamentalist and extremist ideologies definitively remold and reset the personality, instilling in their disciples a death wish for themselves and others. I wonder, then, if this plague is not the biological response to the ideological plague that was turning the carnival of globalization into the crux of the universe. Is this epidemic not the answer to the insatiable, dehumanizing and asphyxiating model of power accumulation? Why so much of everything? Globalization was a wooden lollypop that is now breaking into pieces.

I see this virus as having come to counter a society of fragile ties, with its particular terms like liquid era, liquid love, liquid modernity, liquid values. These are euphemisms for the breakdown of identities, the replacement of peoples' cultures and the negation of their ancestral histories and millennial traditions.

Could this plague change what man cannot change?

Each plague closed historical cycles to usher in new eras. Speculatively perhaps, I believe this virus was conceived on Sept. 11, 2001, with the destruction of the Twin Towers. The event was misread, and the ensuing panic produced mistaken reactions. The touted solution was that misnomer, "globalization", or the process that had begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though, to be clear, real globalization began with the discovery of the Americas. But the word carried in it a new wall, which slowly and meticulously separates those who have water from those who are thirsty.

Could this plague change what man cannot change? When the world yearned for bridges, walls were built instead. The 9/11 attacks helped dismantle Europe's integration laws and programs for immigrants, all meant to bring a balanced cohabitation in this world. The result of scrapping this aid came quickly. The first plague turned the Mediterranean, Joan Manuel Serrat's cherished sea, into a "liquid graveyard" of unnamed corpses. The Americas suffered in turn, with extortionate devaluations as devastating as any plague, the destabilization of states, wider economic breaches and fratricidal wars ensuring that anyone born poor would stay poor.

If I may be bolder, did 9-11 not lead to Brexit, that euphemism for the Britons' bid to purge their land of migrants and refugees, and recover an Old England that could yet symbolize an imperial resurgence?

The panic of the big, corporate states dominating the world (if not our hearts and minds), has pushed the British people into a state of introspection. They are seeking out their origins and trying to love themselves, for a change — even if that love is fake. This kind of plague is reminiscent of the mythical Narcissus whose egotism led him to drown in a pond, so besotted was he with his own reflection.

Will the post-virus society be better than ours? It is time to reflect. The ties we thought were dispensable and useless are coming back like discarded old boots. We are starting to worry about others — new ties, new ways of working, and a love of little things are starting to form. This society might even see people weeping from sympathy.

"The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder — Source: Museo del Prado/Wikimedia Commons

The emerging picture is a curious one. Parents are working at home, people are applauding the police, society is respecting rules and giving approval to the real and genuine. There may be disorderly exceptions, but they serve to show the power of our conviction. The political discourse is becoming softer and more humane, and disentangling itself from miserable, electoral considerations. Power groups seem to be adjusting their shortsighted view of reality and revising their scant interpretations of events, and starting to think of the long term, which, of course, will depend on our collective actions.

We shall overcome this ordeal. Nothing is stronger than an idea when it gets going. In Argentina, we may feel the earth is opening beneath our feet, but the world is changing and we, too, must push for it to change. Even if the casualties in this war include a loved one, or ourselves.

*Ernesto Fernández Núñez​ is a psychoanalyst and writer, and vice-president of SADE, the Argentine Society of Writers.

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