The Confusion Compounds the Contagion: 10 Lessons about our World from Covid-19

Sunday, May 3, 2020 | Kassel, Germany

We're all in Plato's cave these days. (Image from Olafur Eliasson's "Your Uncertain Shadow" installation)
Among the many shocks that the Covid-19 coronavirus has thrust upon our world in the past months, perhaps none is more disorienting than this: At the height of the information age, we are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for certainty, any certainty at all.

Until quite recently at least, you could ask any reasonable person when our species' technological, economic, scientific, and philosophical prowess and sophistication were greatest and reliably expect them to answer, "Right now, of course." To be honest, we looked down with pity upon our ancestors of a century ago, then still in the dark about so much, bludgeoning each other through World Wars, and suffering blindly through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. They were so disorganized, so undisciplined, so divided, so... primitive that they couldn't even properly count the dead from that catastrophe. (Estimates range from 17 to 100 million, the numerical equivalent of "who the hell knows.")

Plus ├ža change. Today, of course, we have a global internet, well established global health institutions, brilliant scientists worldwide, e-mail and translation software that allow them to communicate seamlessly. Surely we should be faring much better than our forebears. Yet months after the coronavirus's arrival, humanity wastes energy on nationalistic squabbling, suffers needless delays and deaths thanks to incompetent leaders, drowns truth in disinformation and conspiracy theories, and still knows shockingly little about the virus. How does it kill? Who does it kill? At what rate? How does it spread? Is it seasonal? How many has it infected? How many has it killed? Without answers to these most basic questions, measures to contain the virus's spread are just guesswork.

Maybe our predecessors back in 1918 weren't so ignorant after all. Maybe they were thinking what so many of us are today: It is the confusion—the astoundingly simple questions that remain unanswered, day after day, gnawing at us all and leaving our worst imaginations to run wild—that may be hardest to explain to future generations.