The Apocalypse of COVID-19 by Dean Dettloff
“Goddammit! It’s not the apocalypse, people!” said a man lazily hunched over a cart, gently swerving and sauntering down the canned food aisle. Shoppers hustled around him in a bizarre pace of a subdued, polite anxiety, racing to get to an item while trying not to seem paranoid. As I scanned the picked-over shelves myself, the statement caught me off guard.
The trouble with this denial, it suddenly hit me, is that the coronavirus really is an apocalypse. Though we often associate “apocalypse” with the end times, etymologically “apocalypse” literally means “uncover.” Hence the last book of the Christian Bible is alternatively titled the “Apocalypse of John” or “Revelation.” As a global phenomenon, the coronavirus has become a revelation of our connected lives, our fragile bodies, our healthcare systems, and our economies, uncovering what is often hidden in day to day experience. And as the coronavirus continues to reveal just how unstable the systems that undergird our lives really are, I wonder if it might also become apocalyptic in that more colloquial sense, something like the end of the world—at least, the end of the world as we have made it.
Whenever there are significant media events or global catastrophes, I turn to the work of French Catholic theorist Paul Virilio, a thinker who describes himself as a “revelationary.” Since the coronavirus has stirred up a lot of public anxieties, I dug into an interview with Virilio published with the title The Administration of Fear. Throughout the conversation, Virilio explains that in the 20th century, fear was something that emerged from seismic events, like famine or world wars. In the 21st century, Virilio observes that fear has become more and more ubiquitous, like the air we breathe. As he puts it: “Fear is a world, panic as a ‘whole.’” While political authorities have tried to manage that fear, a series of destructive events have caused the levee to break, and on a biblical scale.
“The major biblical myths were realized and concentrated in the first decade of the 21st century,” says Virilio. “Babel, with the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center; the Flood with the combination of the tsunami in December 2004 and Katrina in 2005; and then the Exodus today with the probable submersion of coastal regions caused by the rising seas of global warming.”
To these, with the spread of the coronavirus, we can add the realization of the biblical Plagues. What Virilio wants to underline here is that our experience of these events is truly mythical. These are events of biblical proportion. They are larger than life, somehow unable to be fully comprehended, eruptions of chaos into the order of normality. And because these events are so big, the fear they instill is even harder to navigate. They reveal that the institutions that are supposed to help us, that are supposed to belong to us, are dangerously inadequate in moments of crisis. In that revelation, they can also give us the impression that the world we have made is coming undone because, perhaps in no small way, it is.
What are we to do in a situation of uncertainty? Some, like the man I saw in the grocery store, have responded by denying the gravity of the situation altogether, maybe as a way of dealing with their own fears or out of an unfortunate ignorance about the realities we face. An apocalypse is frightening. Yet it is also an opportunity, not in any way that negates the real tragedies that happen as a result of it, but as a revelation that allows us to reflect on what we often take for granted.
We are learning that despite the heroic efforts of healthcare workers, things like privatized healthcare systems are woefully deficient when it comes to managing a crisis of this magnitude. We are learning that low-wage workers, often derided as “unskilled” or lazy, are on the front lines of a pandemic but are not compensated with sick leave or childcare, let alone enough pay to ride out a crisis that demands isolation. We are learning that our elected officials, right and left, are willing to consider things like Medicare For All or financial assistance in the middle of a crisis, but not before or after. And we are also learning that people have a tremendous capacity for thinking through solidarity in a time of separation. We are receiving revelations, in other words, that lay bare the inequalities and injustices of our so-called “normal” society, as well as the ways we might organize in spite of them. But it is up to us to recognize these revelations, to face them head-on without living in denial.
In the Bible, when apocalypses happen, they are always frightening. At the same time, they signal the beginning of something new. The scattering at Babel is an attempt to not just humble humanity, but to put them back on the course of spreading out into the world. The Flood is an attempt to open a new path in a world God sees as unsalvageable. The Exodus, an incredible catastrophe for the Egyptians, is a liberation from oppression. All of these are what theologian Nicholas Ansell describes as judgment-unto-salvation, catastrophic, but clearing a space to consider what we might do differently when the dust settles, for, indeed, the old order was never sustainable.
There is, of course, an important difference here. None of this is to suggest that, with the coronavirus, we are all receiving a divine judgment and those who suffer from it deserve to suffer. This makes our situation all the more difficult. There is no guarantee that this pandemic, this apocalypse, will end by setting us on a new path. It could very well cause us to create an even more closed and unjust society.
For that reason, however, it is imperative that those of us who want to build a better world look for opportunities to respond to our fears with solidarity, creative hospitality, and love. By doing that, we will not redeem the tragedies of this apocalypse, but we might emerge from it with a new sense of what we need to preserve, build, and fight for. That, I take it, is the lesson of the biblical catastrophes—not that God has it out for us, or is waiting to send us new horrors, but that it is up to us to ensure that something new comes out of the destabilizing of the old.
The stakes are high. Fear is a world. But that’s exactly why we should say, affirming a mixture of anxiety and possibility: Goddammit, it’s the apocalypse, people!
Dean Dettloff is section editor for Geez’s “Civil Disobedience” column, a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, and co-host of The Magnificast, a podcast about Christianity and leftist politics.
Image credit: Hobvias Sudoneighm, CC, “city of champions,” April 16, 2006, Flickr.