Anthropocene. Post-truth. These words define our current era—paradoxically, its limitations, as well as its potential for infinite change. Movements for positive change, such as those that take a second look at history and ask who, exactly, the victors were that defined their eras, appear to have become hijacked by every manner of transient zealot who confuses uncertainty with its exact opposite.
It seems to me that we, as a society, would greatly benefit from affirming and, increasingly, re-affirming things we know to be true. No need to be a snob—we all know that the sun will eventually burn out; for our purposes, however, and limited lifespans, we can re-assure ourselves that, come tomorrow, the sun will rise. We can provide a day to the person who still has their doubts. But after that we need them to get with the program.
With COVID and the seemingly sudden distrust of vaccines generally, and the COVID vaccine specifically, I find myself wondering if we’ve also suddenly produced a great mass of competent virologists, professional microbiologists, and adept pharmacists. This couldn’t be, I think, because at the same time that we’ve come to distrust basic hygiene, we’ve also come to distrust higher education. By we, I am of course speaking of conservatives, though I make room for any denomination who subscribes to similar ideas, even if those are the only ideas they hold in common. A Democrat voter, for example, who is religious would stand in kinship with a conservative who also believes that either the vaccine contains the mark of the Devil, or that it contains tissue from murdered fetuses. They’d be BFFs.
COVID itself seems to be trying to accomplish what I’m advocating for here, that is, re-affirming what we know to be true. COVID should remind us of death. It does me. More so than another mass shooting, another red tide, another statistic about starving children, COVID exudes an omnipresent influence that takes you closer to the line that separates first breath from the big sleep.
Benjamin Franklin’s adage about nothing being certain except death and taxes bears revising. It fits right into the human-centered idea that defines the Anthropocene, but it clashes with what we’ve come to learn since then. Before taxes, there was death. Death and taxes currently inhabit the same existential plane, but only death is destined to remain with a constancy that is, all things considered, comforting. The despot, for example, will eventually die, as will all successors, be they good or bad.
The current puzzle in my head is how much death counts as one, good, solid, reliable, dependable, reminder. We’ve passed the 600,000 mark of COVID deaths in the U.S. alone, and that number shows no signs of slowing down. Factor in new strains, vaccine-resistant strains, or dormant mutagens that promise concerning variations, and it would appear time for the CDC to issue new estimates on the projected death count. Perhaps one already exists. I don’t much care to know the number.
What I do care about is my, admittedly, grim proposal. COVID reminds those in the immediate vicinity of the infirm patient what dying looks like, if not death itself. We already broadcast the anti-vaxxers who die of COVID—why not take the logical step of amplifying what is already being implicitly said: Their illness and death was virtually, entirely preventable. Pair this statement with visual imagery, real footage, showing the ugly reality, the certainty with which microbes invade your body. This wouldn’t be a scare campaign, but rather a real world demonstration of how the human body may react to contracting a very real virus.
I realize such a campaign would run afoul of privacy norms, if not some constitutional provision(s). Norms can be broken, however, and constitutional provisions can be re-interpreted, just as feelings toward vaccines and college can be re-molded. In the post-truth era, when one side suddenly decides it doesn’t know anything anymore and doesn’t believe anything anymore, it’s up to the others to remind them what should never be forgotten or ignored.
Death, bodily death, decay—these are real. I hope we can at least agree on that. If a rolling ticker counter of death is inadequate to get the point across that death never stops working, then perhaps Death itself needs the spotlight. Death can look haggard, with a ghastly pallor, all manner of beeps around it, with protruding tubes; emitting a thick, sticky smell; and a taste dry and sour. And of course, a wailing scream. Sounds like slow laughter.