The great 20th-century pandemics, comparable in so many ways to their 21st-century heir, accounted for myriad private tragedies. Yet, unlike this novel coronavirus, their public, political significance was negligible. They were treated as public-health challenges, problems for clinicians, virologists and epidemiologists. And there were arguments at the time that more should have been done to mitigate their harm. But there was no sense of a world ending. No talk of a new normal. No attempt, that is, to reorganise the entirety of societal life around the threat they posed.
But that is what is happening now. To varying degrees, political elites, screamed on by the media, have responded to the threat posed by this virus as if it is world-ending. As if it demands the complete reorganisation of social and economic life around the supreme principle of safety. As if there is no way back. They treat it not as a nasty virus that poses a significant but manageable health risk to certain sections of the populace. No, they treat it as a god-like judgement on the old structures of social life, now deemed, in the jargon of the day, unsafe and unsustainable.
This is what is unprecedented. Not the novel virus itself. But the panicked, fear-laden and, in some quarters, gleefully apocalyptic response.