Cavafy wrote a poem over a century ago with a title from which my heading is taken.
It’s about general fear of oncoming catastrophe. It’s good, and it’s popular, because it contains some lessons. Sometimes, maybe even often, the poet writes, there’s little use postponing important things simply because they seem trivial in the face of destruction.
The senators ought to go on legislating, and the emperor sitting in his throne. There is little point in waiting, because often, the awaited barbarians do not come.
This is a fair antidote to absurdity. The solution, of a kind, that destruction may provide – it disappears when that destruction fails to appear.
Without the barbarians, the grand men, and the prophets, are left looking foolish. There are more and better things to be done than to wait.
(‘How serious people’s faces have become.’)
Disease is a relatively effective analogue to an onrush of barbarians.
Foreign to us, operating according to rules which are inhuman, bringing violence and fear in their wake, and spawning it ahead of their march: the fear of disease correlates closely to political conservatism – for individuals, or whole societies.
The senators hoping to dazzle the barbarians with their wealth, or to overawe them with their lineage, use conservative-seeming means in a bid to halt contagion.
In ancient days, they manned the walls; analogously, we may close our borders against infection.
This parallel is all well and good, but it is also naturally flat. The spread of disease frightens us not because it is foreign, but because it reminds us that mortality is not only inevitable; it also holds all the cards. We fear new disease because it reminds us that medical science, though it has made great advances, remains in its infancy.
We cannot sustain the body indefinitely against external or internal assault. It takes time and painful experimentation to counter new microbial threats. Thousands will die or begin to die between the emergence of a new strain and the recognition that it is truly serious.
Let’s not allow the metaphor to run away from us.
The great men in Cavafy’s poem are fools because they overestimate the threat. They conjure an end and set their faces and prepare to meet it. When there is no event, they are left without.
This does not map at all well onto present events.
Although the progress of COVID-19 has been assisted by slow recognition of its capacity to kill and to spread – and helped kindly by repressive governments unwilling to inform or aid their citizens, despite their mounting concern, until the virus’ trail became impossible to deny – humanity has not stood awaiting an event which has failed to transpire.
By contrast, all the planning in the world appears not to have helped. Those in power have been caught at an inopportune moment.
Anyone watching the British House of Commons debate COVID-19 last week would think many of its number were already at the city gates, ‘wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas’, so little was said and done. Perhaps they were in the field, or at the walls. But instead, it was as if the battle was postponed: ‘the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, / everyone going home lost in thought’.
Attendance was low and opposition minimal as the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, at length reiterated the government’s position on the virus.
Containment was stage one, he said. And he was confident it could be kept. But if not, there were other measures to deploy. And anyway, isn’t the health service the best in the world? And aren’t the people in it doing a marvellous job?
No one that I saw, in the debate that followed, offered much by way of contradiction. It was almost difficult, watching them all, to disagree.
The American president, against the timbre of his Center for Disease Control, says roughly the same things. Containment is still possible; we have the best people; there is every reason to hope that the virus will not come.
He has vociferous domestic opposition, which will inveterately damn his handling of the virus, and therefore claim by default that things are worse than he says. They might be right by pure chance. What luck they have.
In recent conversations not among politicians, but among the public, as the scale and spread of the threat has grown clearer, there has appeared no hint of Cavafy’s point.
People are worried; though people are always worried. People wonder if it might be an idea to close the borders; though a number seem always in favour of that. And they are edgy, and a little nervous, about the capacity of healthcare systems even in rich countries to protect them from this particular threat.
They would rather react hard and actively than content themselves with shutting the containment door after the bolting of the horse.
The gulf between popular fear and smooth political confidence has a few causes. Disinformation is one of those things to which well-briefed politicians less regularly fall foul. But disinformation is poison only so far as it contradicts the evidence before our eyes. (It, and panic, and the prejudice politicians are taking extra care to decry, are likely second order problems compared to the pandemic.)
Some suggest that politicians sound so satisfied with how things are going because they are acting as emissaries from power. It is not that they think themselves immortal, but instead because their offices are immortal; they are talking ex officio, and consider their states and their positions to be sheltered from harm.
Call it a bad winter and consign it to history. The nation and its system will endure.
A number of people have worried privately to me that, for those in power, even an 80 per cent infection rate (the British authorities’ worst case scenario) will mean little more than a new administrative burden for those in power.
This seems too far to go with idle talk.
Perhaps things can be contained, and will be happily resolved in a week or so, with even the poorer countries reporting the delightful curing of their final case – all before we know it.
It’s certainly possible. But if the bureaucracies in first world countries looked a little more alive, and the politicians a little more alive to the reality that containment will fail, future historians will probably not picture them all standing at the city gates – wearing their glittering armour – with an unduly stern look on their face, awaiting the barbarians.
Often the barbarians do not come, and it is the fault of no one man. But sometimes they do, and it is occasionally worth being assembled in the forum to intercept their arrival.
This essay was originally published on Medium.