“When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.” Confucius
Though it’s subtle, there is a difference between a thing and the idea of that thing. A cow is a four-legged bovine beast that moos and produces milk. A cow is also a signifier for the idea of that beast. Two concepts so related you might mistake them as the same. But they are not the same. They are Platonically inextricable yet separate. They are the thing, and the idea of that thing.
In 2020, the entire world met the virus called SARS-CoV-2, a new coronavirus. SARS-CoV-2 causes a disease called COVID-19. The virus and disease are related but they are not the same.
The disease is a feeling and a virus is the idea that gives rise to it. To stop the former, we must focus on the latter.
Finger and moon. A pernicious strand of RNA in a protein sac. That’s the virus. A cell infected and a malfunctioning body. That’s the disease.
To make this even more fun, a virus is simultaneously a thing and an idea. A smattering of molecules that occupy the abstract realm between the world of the living and the not-living. These two worlds have evolved side-by-side in a sometimes commensal relationship. Some 8% of the human genome is virus DNA, but most of it has no function.
A virus is impotent until it finds itself in the presence of a living cell. And when it springs to action, a virus reproduces in order to find other cells to infect. Despite its non-living status, a virus is tenacious about its survival.
Viruses aren’t the only cause of disease. Like the sting of a blow dart adminstered by one’s great-great-grandfather, hereditary DNA can make you as sick as the invasive variety.
Not to mention bacterial infections. Bacteria are multicellular critters that strive, and live, and die like us. They’re not all bad. Tally the cells in the human closest to you, and the bacteria cells will handily outnumber the human ones. Many live in our stomach’s sewers keeping our digestive metropolis in check. They turn milk into cheese, grapes into wine, and an ordinary cucumber into a thing of beauty.
But bacteria can hurt us too. Humans deal with harmful bacteria in much the same way a farmer handles pests: with poison. We douse them with antibiotics until they shrivel and die. It’s a clumsy fight that sometimes requires the use of probiotics; oversteering for collateral damage.
But viruses aren’t alive. How do you fight an enemy you can’t kill?
“Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only disease you can get yelled at for having. ‘Damnit, Otto, you’re an alcoholic. Damnit, Otto, you have lupus.’ One of those two doesn’t sound right.” Mitch Hedberg
Alongside SARS-CoV-2, another thing (or perhaps, an idea of that thing) has recently ravaged this planet. A kind of vincible ignorance has shifted human minds into the abstract space between reality and non-reality. This virus is a set of ideas. Its disease is only beginning to be understood.
On January 6, 2021 a mob of protestors stormed the United States Capitol in hopes of overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election. Many of the participants were motivated by a belief in an idea called Q.
Ideas aren’t lifeforms, but spread with the same enthusiasm. The most tenacious ideas multiply and mutate in the minds of human hosts. Like viruses, ideas can cause pain. Some are causing death.
I believe it’s a mistake to think of what’s happening as a bacterial scourge. Tempting though it may be. “What if we cleanse the airwaves? Can we sandblast our social media?” Neither will free us of the germs of wrong-thinking. Sunlight can’t disinfect minds already clouded and you can’t spray the brainwashed with bleach. We are dealing with a virus we don’t yet understand.
I believe it’s a mistake to see this as a unique symptom of American stupidity. Tempting though it may be. While Q may have started in America, it’s gaining popularity in the UK, Germany, and Japan. Fear, hatred, narcissism, and paranoia are borderless precepts available in every language. These concepts aren’t mere filth caked onto careless minds. They are the sound of minds not cared for. They are the language of anxiety, depression, and pain.
I believe it’s a mistake to condemn minds full of ignorance as evil or to dismiss them as unintelligent or to abandon them as irredeemable. Tempting though it may be. It should be universally troubling that the most informed population in history is debating the efficacy of vaccines, the veracity of reality, or the shape of the Earth. It is a problem we all share, regardless of your antibody count.
If you are educated, able, and wealthy, you may be lucky enough to avoid infection from this specific virus. As with the coronavirus, privilege is a sturdy shield against lots of infections. But it’s not impermeable. And like Otto’s wife could assure you: you don’t need to be infected by a disease to be affected by it. This virus affects us all.
I don’t think finding a vaccine will be fun or easy. Along the way we will encounter the worst of human inclinations: treachery, delusion, racism, nativism, and violence. But ugly as these diseases may be, they are not the same as the virus. To stop the former, we must focus on the latter.
It’s been a minute since I’ve said anything resembling “I’m optimistic about the future,” and I won’t attempt anything that ludicrous here. I am nevertheless, hopeful.
If you are lucky enough to be alive today, know that we are the recipients of a free and ongoing crash course in virology, history, and humanity. I’m right there with you. But we have not earned our certificate yet.