Fear and uncertainty have dominated the media coverage of the Covid-19 epidemic.
The novel coronavirus is depicted not as a pedestrian pathogen certain to be beaten into submission by the miracles of modern science any day now, but as an invisible evil lurking everywhere, formidable enough to inspire a respectful terror even in the leading lights of the medical establishment.
And in case Americans had any doubt about how they were supposed to regard this new viral threat, the establishment talking heads many rely upon for the self-assured delivery of their news have swapped their usual swagger for apprehension. Amid this ‘confidence vacuum,’ the popular response to the pandemic has taken on a religious cast. Protective measures like masks have taken on a talismanic quality, hand-washing has been elevated to a ritual performance, and a cult built on naming and shaming ‘heretics’ has seized the minds of many – while their rights are quietly stripped away and a paternalistic police state substituted in their place.
Unable to see the microscopic “enemy” they are told threatens the lives of them and their family and deprived of a scientifically proven cure, individuals seeking deliverance from Covid-19 are left with only their faith that the protective measures prescribed by health experts –our scientific priest class– can keep it at bay. If it ended there, the Corona Cult would merely be a curiosity – humans have turned to religion in troubled times since before written history began. But its dark side has already reared its ugly head – those who buck the new orthodoxy are already being blamed for the plague.
We’ve been here before. In the Middle Ages, pious peasants were kept in line by priests who told them God was watching their every move. When a plague appeared, it was interpreted as divine punishment, the wrath of God visited upon a sinful population. Those who wished to stand out as especially devout whipped themselves in public, or wore painful garments called “hair shirts” – in both cases with the aim of ‘mortifying the flesh,’ literally ‘putting to death’ their sinful natures.
It’s no coincidence that self-flagellation reached its height of popularity during the Black Plague. It was assumed by its practitioners that if they underwent penance by inflicting pain on themselves, they would be spared the God-given pain of the plague. Those who publicly refused to participate in the religious rituals of the day were called out as infidels, heretics, witches or other servants of the devil. They might be chased out of town; many were tortured and even killed, often in shockingly gruesome ways, as the centuries progressed and the Inquisition rose to power. The pious were regularly told their misfortunes were due to the presence of a satanic influence among them, with complex problems declared to be solved by simply casting out the offending presence.
While western society may tell itself it has left those Dark Ages far behind, the lure of simplistic explanations is as potent as ever….