We humans are conditioned to regard ourselves as social animals, moral animals, economic animals. It’s along these lines that we create both conflicts and civilization.
We are less accustomed to seeing ourselves simply as animals. And yet during this pandemic, we’re far from the dignified planetary overlords we usually pretend to be, brilliant sapiens made of arguments, memes and poetry. Instead we’re primates composed of brute stuff such as tissue, blood, water and bones, and, at our most elementary, cells.
And we’re terrified. This is with good reason: We are at the mercy of immeasurable swarms of microbes that can invade our bodies and stop our breath.
The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated our grinding social divisions — including class, race and creed — and yet even our most serious disputes don’t compare with the emergency hour-by-hour showdown between our fragile bodies and the lethal new coronavirus. That battle snaps our eyes open at 4 a.m., chests heaving with panic, or are those sensations caused by the disease itself?
What does it mean for humans to be drafted into a cellular world war? At least for now, we have to set aside our carefully cultivated vision of ourselves as autonomous individuals, tribal loyalists and creatures whose history bends either toward tyranny or toward justice. For a time — no one knows exactly how long — we have to operate as a species bent on survival.
This is not a new challenge. As the science journalist Laurie Garrett put it in “The Coming Plague,” her 1995 book about emerging diseases: “Humanity’s ancient enemies are microbes.” That’s why, long before we established much in the way of ideologies, we cleaned our habitat, picked nits from our hair and washed our bodies. Without knowing what a bacterium was, we still aimed to wash them away.
But, in the struggle of humans vs. microbes, we also learned to leverage what the historian Yuval Noah Harari believes is the signature adaptation of humans: to cooperate flexibly, and in large numbers.
This time out, we are making more robust use of this adaptation — demonstrating more flexibility and more cooperation, on a far, far grander scale — than at any other time in human history.
As individuals, most of us imagine we have a unique relationship to the collective — rebel, manager, helper, leader, revolutionary — but as the disease has relentlessly stalked us, those identities have largely dissolved. In America alone, as of Tuesday, stay-at-home orders now bind 316 million people in more than 42 states.
And while stories of noncompliance make good copy — churches holding services to give the finger to public health regs are especially weird — the truly staggering development of the last month is that hundreds of millions of Americans have willingly forfeited their individual desires and needs in a mass effort to protect the species.
The radical changes in our animal behavior can now be seen from space. Human marvels, from the Santa Monica Pier to the Roman Coliseum, are deserted; once our pride, now these gathering places make us sitting ducks for the virus. We’re in retreat from civilization, and even the massive global set of exchanges and conflicts known as the economy.
There’s an even bigger surprise here.
In the United States, we’re managing to behave with surpassing hive-mind intelligence in spite of being deceived by President Trump’s reckless and counteradaptive leadership. To tally up the ways his inaction and disinformation has made the pandemic worse is a temptation that’s hard to resist. But it’s also worth observing that average Americans have somehow adjusted by learning to ignore or defy Trump’s howling madness when survival is at stake. On an animal level, we humans may recognize that Trump-style denial and delay only serves our enemies, the microbes.
But even as we take collective action, we can’t help spinning stories of heroes and villains. The valor of healthcare workers on the frontlines. The villainy of cultists who continue to congregate, believing that their god protects only them. These melodramas might seem like a distraction from the microbe war. Far from it. Harari sees our stories as integral to the battle. They’re part of the signal we send each other, the way vulnerable humans, against all expectations, are able to organize ourselves en masse to survive.
So #StayAtHome to spite the deniers, to get some rest, to protect the elderly or to do your civic duty — tell yourself whatever story inspires you, choose whatever angels and demons motivate you. Think like a human, but act like a single-minded microbe.
Steer clear of the enemy. Scrub off the bugs. Don’t infect your fellows. Help others. Your species needs you.