The COVIdes of March

March 15, 2020

“Beware the Ides of March,” the Soothsayer warns Caesar. “You shall not stir out of your house today,” insists his wife, Calpurnia, on the morning in question, before delivering this remarkable catalogue of bad omens:

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.

Yet Caesar stubbornly ventures forth, awarding Calpurnia that dubious honour shared with Cassandra of Troy, and many other mythical and literary figures: the Ignored Prophet of Doom. They are often women, or other people whom society is already trained to disregard: the poor, the enfeebled, the mentally ill.

In more modern stories, they are scientists.

As I write this, my home (Nova Scotia) is the only province with zero confirmed cases of COVID-19, aka the coronavirus. But news about the pandemic has evolved so rapidly in the past week that it’s even money that, by the time I’m done this article, that may have changed. Either way, the cases already confirmed (and mounting) elsewhere in Canada and the world act as the clearest warning imaginable.

And for once, the politicians and policymakers are heeding the scientists, who in turn are paraphrasing Calpurnia: “Do not stir out of the house today.” Or tomorrow, or tomorrow, or tomorrow.

Why do we tend to ignore warnings, even when they come from expert sources? We have plenty of mental tricks. Julius Caesar uses two against his wife: first, he basically says “You can’t cheat fate,” and then he claims that caution equals cowardice: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” Ironically, when Caesar is murdered three scenes later, he gets stabbed multiple times… and later in the play, he appears as a ghost, in order to announce a second reappearance at Philippi. For an allegedly valiant man, he sure does seem to die a lot.

What about “You can’t cheat fate”? Shakespeare muses on this theme in many plays and poems—it might be his favourite conundrum. In his own life, Will survived several outbreaks of bubonic plague, an early modern pandemic that supposedly wipe out a third of Europe’s population. Was it his destiny to survive, to create a legacy of beauty for the world? Or was he just smart enough to stay indoors?

Shakespeare probably wrote his sonnets while his theatre was closed on account of the plague (this was by government fiat, much as we’re experiencing now with cancelations of any crowd-based activities). Similarly, we’re told that Sir Isaac Newton conceived his laws of physics whilst in quarantine. That feels like destiny in hindsight, but if you asked any of the contemporaries who died of plague, they might disagree. Life is more precious than physics or sonnets, they’d say.

These narratives are dangerous, because they rely upon survivorship bias: our tendency to draw false conclusions by ignoring less visible data. Yes, Shakespeare and Newton needed pandemics to draw out their genius, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have written even more brilliant things if they weren’t subject to plague conditions? More importantly, how many other scribes or scientists, inventors or revolutionaries, were denied the chance to shine because they did succumb to plague?

I don’t think of these questions as purely academic. They’re essential when making ethical choices that affect communities at large. Right now, on the Ides of March 2020, the ethical question for you might be, “Should I go to work today?” Like Julius, you can justify that choice a hundred different ways.

But it’s not just about you, Julie. Pandemics become faster and deadlier when we ignore the scientists and act like it’s business as usual. They strain our public health systems much worse, leading to suffering of all sorts, when we use survivorship bias to convince ourselves that we’re immune.

Because we’re all Shakespeares in our minds. But even Will couldn’t flourish without a cast of actors, and an audience. We are part of a collective. And right now, the collective is threatened—a graver threat than most of us have ever faced—and the act of heroism that is most required of us is this: Do not stir out of the house today.

CODA: That was a mostly calm and rational analysis, using literature and philosophy to justify tough personal choices. Those are pretty standard defense mechanisms for me. But I’ll wrap this up by saying that, beneath all the rhetoric, I’m terrified. I’m scared for my elderly parents and for my wife, whose existing conditions place her in a high-risk category. Even if we all survive, COVID-19 is going to change our lives in unpredictable ways, and that’s hard to face. For someone who rails daily against the status quo, I’m a coward when it comes change.

If I’m able to write again soon, it will probably be my thoughts about how pandemics affect climate action, or something equally intellectual. But underneath, I’m writing to reach out—to remind you that I’m here, and to remind myself that you’re listening. For the next who-knows-how-long, everything we do mustbe for each other. It’s how we’ll get through this.

Stay strong. Shine bright.

Scott

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