The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis

In my previous post on the political theology of our world-historical plague, I wrote about the way the novel coronavirus of 2019 had called into question the legitimacy of our political order and our entire social bond. In this post, I’d like to talk more about the theological side of the issue, which I think has been crowded out by the political perspective — most exaggeratedly among those who see a grim eugenic conspiracy in our leaders’ alternately inept and malicious handling of this terrible situation.

There is obviously a lot of blame to go around in the pandemic response. The Trump administration’s actions were irresponsible and often simply incomprehensible. Other “smarter” Republicans stoked vile conspiracies in ways that made an effective response impossible, above all in the inconceivable decision to turn vaccination into a polarized political issue. The Biden administration has cleared the low bar set by Trump and the Republicans, but they have clearly been too beholden to big business and too eager to declare victory and move on. No political leader has come out of the pandemic looking good, at least in the US (which is the limit of my detailed knowledge). All of them could have done better. More people died than had to die, and our leaders bear that responsibility.

But it’s not anyone’s fault that the novel coronavirus jumped species in late 2019 — not Trump’s, not Biden’s, not Lori Lightfoot’s, not Chairman Xi’s. It simply happened. And even in the most optimistic scenario where every political leader and every individual did the right thing, someone was going to die because of that. There is no plausible scenario where nobody had to die because… some random-ass virus hit on a mutation that allowed it to migrate from bats to humans.

When you look at it that way, it’s hard to attach much meaning to it. Through the forces of random mutation and natural selection, people have died and will continue to die — for no moral or otherwise meaningful reason. It’s understandable that people don’t want to focus on that side of it, and it’s totally justified to hold our leaders accountable for their many manifest failings. Nor does it seem worth much time to think about something we can’t change.

And yet — I do think there is something slightly pathological going on here. We as a society are absolutely addicted to assessing moral blame. We want the pandemic to be a morality play, but it isn’t, or at least not entirely. People made mistakes or even outright malicious choices that they are morally accountable for, to be sure. But at bottom no one is to blame for the sudden appearance of the novel coronavirus. It is simply something terrible that happened to us — to all of us, humanity as a whole. And there is no room to acknowledge and grieve that, because we are so busy assessing blame — not just to our leaders, but to each other and even to ourselves.

I know that when I saw that positive test, my first feeling was guilt. I had failed to protect myself, I had endangered those around me, I had even endangered My Esteemed Partner, the person I love most in the world. I felt profoundly guilty. And I think that’s kind of fucked up, because at the end of the day, I just got sick. I tried as hard as I could find it in me to try to avoid that disease, and ultimately I failed — like around 70% of Americans have failed. I’m sure we could assess various moral failings that played into the fact that I got it, stupid or petty risks I took when I should have known better, etc., etc. But in the last analysis, I felt guilty for getting sick and that seems wrong.

The pandemic response is a political crisis, absolutely. Basically no one rose to the occasion, and we are all rightly angry about that. But it is also an existential crisis. It is something terrible that happened to us because we are finite beings caught in the web of nature. We were victimized by a fluke mistranscription of some DNA, and then — arguably because we didn’t know quite how to respond to that fluke — we were further victimized by the blind mechanism of natural selection to the point where there seems to be no reasonable hope of eliminating the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus of 2019. As a result, more people are going to die, pointlessly, than would have died otherwise.

That sucks, and part of why it sucks is that it means nothing. We don’t get any bonus moral points for suffering through it. We are not learning any valuable lesson. There is no greater good that is being served. It just sucks, in the way that being a meat-based life-form is always going to suck. And I think it would be healthier if we made room to be mad about that, to grieve that, to mourn that, to scream into the void about that. We have a lot to be mad at each other about, but we should allow ourselves the luxury of being mad at God as well, because one thing the novel coronavirus of 2019 teaches us is that the world is poorly made — and surely we did nothing to deserve that.

2 thoughts on “The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis

  1. The coronavirus “just happening” is not totally correct. Scientists and scholars have long been raising the alarm about “zoonotic spillover,” most notably Mike Davis in his book “The Monster Enters.” Andreas Malm’s “Coronoa, Climate, Chronic Emergency” has a very good chapter on how capitalism drives humans into contact with wild animals that drastically increase the chances of cross-species jumps:
    “That strange new diseases should emerge from the wild is, in a manner of speaking, logical: beyond human dominion is where unknown pathogens reside. But that realm could be left in some peace. If it weren’t for the economy operated by humans constantly assailing the wild, encroaching upon it, tearing into it, chopping it up, destroying it with a zeal bordering on lust for extermination, these things wouldn’t happen. The pathogens would not come leaping towards us. They would be secure among their natural hosts. But when those hosts are cornered, stressed, expelled and killed, they have two options: go extinct or jump.”

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