Why can’t we just blame the virus?

The Black Plague was due to human arrogance, the Spanish Flu a consequence of destructive warfare, HIV a punishment for sexual vice and now COVID-19 is here teach us a lesson about environmental destruction … or the tyranny of China … or some other peddled significance.

A distinctly human fault, we tend to respond to illness not merely with fear or disgust, but with a meaningful story. In times of crises, viruses have a habit of ascending their humble place as bits of genetic material to become harbingers of social malaise.

When leprosy was endemic in England, medieval physicians theorised that the illness was at least partially caused by moral failings. Too many carnal pleasures corrupting the body, providing a lesson in chaste virtue.

Rat catchers in Sydney during the Black Plague in 1900. Picture: Supplied
Rat catchers in Sydney during the Black Plague in 1900. Picture: Supplied

When it was found the condition was caused by a bacterium (Mycobacterium leprae) in the 19th century, health authorities struggled to overturn centuries of religious and social stigma designed to create meaning from the disease.

Moral fairytales were also painfully evident during the AIDS crisis, as literary theorist Leo Bersani wrote in the wonderfully titled essay 'Is the Rectum a Grave?:

The public discourse about homosexuals since the AIDS crisis began has a

startling resemblance to the representation of female prostitutes in the nineteenth century "as contaminated vessels, conveyancing 'female' venereal diseases to 'innocent' men".

As COVID-19 demonstrates, a disease needn't be sexually transmitted to provoke a flurry of discussion.

Eco-optimists are tweeting that "nature is healing" as if a temporary halt in industrial excess will remedy the Anthropocene.

Nationalists want the "Chinese virus" to be traced back to some dodgy Wuhan Lab, proving once and for all the inherent villainousness of communism and immigration.

Animal rights activists tell us this is a lesson on the cruelty of wet markets.

For religious zealots, it's divine reckoning for something, probably exquisitely pleasurable.

A cafe with AIDS education posters promoting safe sex. Picture: Chris Pavlich / News Corp Australia
A cafe with AIDS education posters promoting safe sex. Picture: Chris Pavlich / News Corp Australia

Depending on your politics, the blame for global spread is either on government insufficiency or 'neoliberal' excess. "We live in a society" - you now hear (unironically), as if attempting to conjure something in us all.

On the nuttier side, conspiracies abound blaming illness and death not on human vulnerability to infection but outright government assassination via obscure technologies. We live in desperate times when tales of lizards in suits have an appeal.

Humans cling to stories to make sense of chaos. Without them, all we have is the realisation of our less than impressive place in the world. Intrusive images of patients gasping for air as sticky fluid fills their lungs.


In the words of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker: "man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level."

Disease is painfully pointless.

At the end of the day, we are little creatures, plagued by knowledge of our own vulnerability and inevitable demise.

Yet there is something to be said about drinking it all in despite the unpleasantness. Resisting the mental gymnastics to make this pandemic "worth it" and depriving the merchants of meaning of an audience, at least this time around.

Jarryd Bartle is a policy consultant and RendezView.com.au columnist

Originally published as Why can't we just blame the virus?