The Coronavirus Will Probably Teach Us Nothing About Germs

Humans will be humans, pandemic or not

When life gets me down, I often remind myself of these pragmatic lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (featured in Life of Brian) by legendary Monty Python member Eric Idle:

Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughing as you go
Just remember, the last laugh is on you.

The message is sensible and has been repeated by humanity time and again, in countless poems, doctrines and proverbs: Life sucks, so you better grab at any goodness you can get.

As I type out this article, it would be fair to say that the world and its inhabitants are seriously struggling, and that, yes, life sucks. It would also be fair to say that many people, in an attempt to cope, are reaching for what Idle suggests in this song: They see the coronavirus, the quarantine and the deaths, and they say, well, hopefully we find some positives in all of this. Hopefully we realize that essential employees deserve higher pay, that the planet needs to be respected, that our health-care and social systems are flawed, and finally, that we should all be doing a better job of washing our hands and covering our coughs, and that germs are no joke.

I hold out hope, too. Just the other day, I spoke with psychologist Melissa Burkley, author of The Social Thinker blog, about the possible social outcomes of extended quarantine, and while she suggested that people would likely return to their normal, highly social selves once permitted, she added, “What’s more likely is that we’ll walk away from this with some new, more hygienic habits that will hopefully stay with us far longer than this pandemic.” 

Likewise, psychologist, hypnotherapist and phobia specialist Adam Cox projected that a substantial portion of the population will be forever shadowed by a fear of germs once the coronavirus outbreak has passed, an experience that would obviously encourage improved hygiene.

Even if people unconsciously spend more time washing their hands and staying home from work when this is all done and gone, surely a lot of lives will be spared in the future. And if that were to happen, it could come to be considered one of the supposed “bright sides” of this whole coronavirus crisis.

But unfortunately, learning from the past is asking a lot of humans. I asked microbiologist and “Germ Guy” Jason Tetro if he thinks the public will become more wary of germs after all of this, and he responded, “As much as I’d like to say yes, the answer is probably no. Why? SARS, pandemic influenza, Ebola — all of these had us going for hand sanitizers and even those masks. Did that last, though? No.”

If we go back even further, 1,500 years ago, the Plague of Justinian wiped out an estimated 30 to 50 million people — about half of all humanity at the time — and is often cited for catapulting society forward into the Middle Ages. However, a 2019 analysis argues that society learned virtually nothing from that plague, concluding, “We contend that this is sufficient evidence to reject the current scientific and humanistic consensus of the [Justinian plague] as a major driver of demographic change in the 6th century Mediterranean region.” Or as Tetro puts more plainly, “That particular bug, the plague, couldn’t change society, even though it was thought to be a serious problem at the time.”

Now, comparing pandemics and our past reactions to them, while maybe telling, is no magical lens into the future. And again, fingers crossed that we do learn some lessons from the coronavirus, or that we at least make use of the increase in hand sanitizer dispensers being installed in some public places. But as Tetro explains, “We tend to have short memories, and as a result, I don’t expect people to change their ways once this is all over, even if the coronavirus becomes cyclical and seasonal like the pandemic flu.” 

Furthermore, while there are a lot of people out there who could improve upon their hygiene, realistically, we can only achieve a certain level of cleanliness, and expecting people to give up any more than a few extra minutes of each day to keep clean is, sadly, a long shot.

On the bright side, if we do learn nothing and keep up our unhealthy habits, I know just the verse to play as the world burns:

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin
Give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow.

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