Like many others during the coronavirus pandemic, I have upped my consumption of podcasts. One problem, as most devoted listeners are aware, is that there are so many podcasts producing so much great content that you can’t always keep up. Thus, episode after episode line your podcast app, sometimes until they’re so outdated that they end up in the bin.
The other day I dug for something interesting in my pile of overlooked episodes and found one from a few months back. It was released on March 16 – a few days after the corona mania blew up in the West. Listening to the podcast hosts’ comments on how the virus had abruptly changed their lives, I noticed something strange.
They were talking about toilet paper. Remember that? That particular hysteria was a remarkably long time ago.
I had almost forgot how “TP” became a hip thing to worry about. Supermarket shelves were occasionally empty; your average consumer stockpiled strange combinations of goods; toilet paper producers ramped up production to satisfy this crazy demand.
All we could think of was how to get toilet paper, to lock our doors and not talk to anyone lest the virus emerge. To dismay at 10% daily moves in world stock markets. The panic was complete. The podcasters I listened to rightly ridiculed that behavior: surely, if this is an apocalyptic event, there are a myriad of things more important than toilet paper – like, you know, food and medicine. Or guns.
I remember being hypnotized by the news, spending hours and hours listening to epidemiological experts discussing the threat and how to protect yourself. To my lasting shame, I seriously contemplated rushing to an ATM; if this was going to be a full-blown financial panic, I’d rather have cash than claims on increasingly wobbly banks.
Turns out the banks were fine, and my panic – like everyone else’s – was overblown. It took me some hours walking through the woods to calm down and get some perspective. Life is still here; civilization mostly intact; capitalism still under attack. How silly of me to think that some of the most well-capitalized banks in the world would combust from a pandemic on par with the Swine Flu – the one nobody even remembers ten years on – and one much less fatal than road injuries or kidney disease.
If we avoided the hysteria that eagerly thought this pandemic was either the end of globalization or the end of the human race, we all thought this would be a temporary nuisance in our lives. In a few weeks or many we’d all go back to our usual routines, bickering over our usual problems.
Instead, the virus is deceptively permanent and I don’t mean biologically. We haven’t really moved on from corona – it just lingers in our minds, sowing fear and discomfort all around us. It hides, unspoken, in all our conversations.
Early on, I watched a talk show featuring two Swedish celebrities, discussing the many changes their household of five had experienced so far during the pandemic – working from home, teenagers studying online, coffee breaks juggled in between Zoom meetings and lecture sessions. That was a full 3 months ago – and we’re still in that exact predicament. Less panic, perhaps, as we noticed that the extra hospitals and extreme measures for the most part weren’t needed.
Even the hopelessly slow bureaucrats of the European Union got around to realize that health services didn’t collapse under the weight of the pandemic. More importantly, other things matter too besides death rates among the elderly. Between late May and mid-June, most European countries again opened their borders for outsiders – more so and with more vigor the more that country’s economy relied on tourism.
News media, blissfully ignorant of epidemiological statistics, didn’t move on to the next juicy topic in everlasting news cycles. With a short break following George Floyd and BLM riots, they kept rehashing the same pandemic story in different versions.
Regular folks didn’t quite move on either. Instead, people treat the virus like the magic populace of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world treat the evil wizard Lord Voldemort: by refusing to invoke his name. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named caused unspeakable dread in Harry’s world, like the virus has caused panic in ours. So we don’t mention it. We say cumbersome things like “in these new times” or “have you celebrated the holiday differently this year,” with the subtle emphasis indicating that we’re really asking about the pandemic. Families, writes the New York Times, are “adapting to their new reality.”
When we meet friends – by which I mean Zooming or Skyping or FaceTiming, or sitting an awkward distance apart – we no longer ask how they’re doing, but how they’re “holding up” as if we’re all in a perennial state of mourning. We inquire about their work with “You’re working from home…?” but we’re really asking how your professional life has been impacted by the pandemic. At a cousin’s graduation party recently (held outside, of course, with lots of space and ample supplies of hand sanitizers), a distant family member was missing. He had had some complications with a back surgery and “didn’t wanna risk it.” He wasn’t afraid of injuring his back, it turned out, but of the virus. A reasonable decision if you just had an invasive surgery, but nobody wanted to say that.
We all know what we’re really asking, but we’re afraid to openly acknowledge it. It’s like we’re ashamed of our fear for a relatively mild coughing disease and so we act as if the virus has less power over us if we avoid speaking its name. We’re not taking precautions for new virus outbreaks, but “preparing for a possible Fall Wave.”
Quaint, if the euphemisms weren’t so cringe-worthy and absurd.
Other areas of our social relations are impacted too. We don’t hug anymore, a blessing in disguise for us intimacy-scared Northern Europeans. As we don’t shake hands either, we seem to just stand there observing one another from a safe distance. The elbow bump is both weird and uncomfortable, but neither party acknowledges the oddness of the behavior. Don’t mention the virus.
In one of the most iconic scenes from the 1975 British comedy show Fawlty Towers, John Cleese’s character receives German guests – and goes out of his way not to bring up the war. Which he, of course, is constitutionally incapable of doing, producing all kinds of amusing absurdities and Hitler impersonations, all while ordering his co-workers not to mention the war.
That’s what our post-corona lives have become, a scene in Fawlty Towers – except that it’s not funny.
Whatever you do, don’t mention the virus.