This Is Us

Confessions of a Reformed Coronavirus Skeptic

Humans like easy answers — even if those answers contradict the facts

A fluorescent image of SARS-COV-2 particles.
A fluorescent image of SARS-COV-2 particles.
Photo: Flavio Coelho/Getty Images

I’ve been pretty hard on climate change deniers over the past several years, ever since I woke up to the real danger it poses to our way of life and maybe our very existence. Since then, I have come to believe that a collapse of industrial civilization — whether prolonged or sudden — is inevitable.

And yet, I have to admit that, just a few months ago, I was a denier. I didn’t deny the reality of climate change. I denied the reality of the coronavirus.

I had heard about the coronavirus, of course. But it was in China—far away from us. And then Italy, somewhat harder to dismiss. But it didn’t seem like anything I needed to worry about. Certainly not something that would alter my day-to-day existence.

A certain doctor, a fellow congregant at my Unitarian church, was very concerned about it. One Sunday, seemingly out of the blue, he refused to shake anyone’s hand and urged everyone else to do the same, casting around disapproving looks as most everyone carried on like normal, shaking hands, hugging, not social distancing. I thought he was being overly dramatic. I went out of my way to hug everyone that day.

Just to be sure, I did pull out my trusty smartphone and do some quick Googling. Not to worry, there wasn’t a single case in my state, Indiana. There were a few cases across the border in Chicago, but the number seemed trivial. I joked about the doctor’s hysteria (or so I thought then) with some friends.

My awakening to the reality of the coronavirus came in stages, not all at once. My kids’ school was canceled. Businesses started closing their doors. There were travel bans. Church services went online. I was forced to work remotely from home. My daughter’s graduation was canceled. Plans were circulated for virtual school in the fall. Some people I know were sick. Some people died, only two or three degrees of separation from me.

Every few days, as the restrictions grew more severe and the news more dire, my appreciation of the danger deepened. What started with begrudgingly acquiescing to elbow bumping grew into feeling ashamed for forgetting my mask when I went to the grocery store (and angry at others who refused to wear theirs). I had rolled my eyes at the run on toilet paper. But after a while, as the store shelves remained empty of seemingly random things, I started to wonder if it wasn’t reasonable to stock up on food and water and maybe even buy a gun. At first I embraced social distancing in order to protect other people, the old and immunocompromised. Only later did it dawn on me that I could die from this virus too. At 45 years old, I’m not that young, and while I’m statistically safer than others, people my age have died from Covid-19 complications.

It boggles my mind to realize that, just three months ago, I was unselfconsciously mocking someone because of their concern about the coronavirus. I was a denier. It’s a small comfort to know that most of America was in denial with me. The science was there. The warnings were there.

We accept facts when they confirm our pre-existing worldviews, and when they don’t, we go looking for other facts.

And I’m someone who is predisposed to believe this kind of thing. While not a scientist, I consider myself “pro-science.” In 2017, I marched in the Chicago March for Science. Even my church (Unitarian Universalist) is heavy on rationalism and largely empty of supernaturalism. What’s more, I’m a climate activist. I know about the connection between climate change and the spread of disease. So I should have known better. But I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it because I didn’t want to believe it.

A few days ago, I was talking to someone for work, and they started ranting about how the “whole coronavirus thing” is a conspiracy. How it’s blown out of proportion and isn’t any worse than the seasonal flu. I inwardly rolled my eyes. Later that day, I mocked him while talking to my wife.

But not so long ago, I was that guy. Sure, he’s got to have his fact-resistance turned up to a nine or ten to still be in denial at this point. But it would be hypocritical of me to get too self-congratulatory.

It’s one thing to believe that industrial civilization is on the decline. But it is another thing to recognize it happening in my own life. And it is another thing altogether to find the wisdom to live through it.

More and more, I am coming to believe that we are not nearly so rational as we like to think. We accept facts when they confirm our preexisting worldviews, and when they don’t, we go looking for other facts — which are plentiful nowadays. I am no less prone to it than anyone else.

Simple answers have to be earned by working through complexity.

And so, while I think I am right about the things I write on my website, Another End of the World is Possible, while I think my beliefs are supported by “the facts,” I am just as prone to self-deception as the next person.

We live by stories. Call them “worldviews” or “paradigms” or “myths,” but they’re basically stories. Stories we make up—by ourselves, but mostly together. At best, we’re only partially conscious of these stories as stories. These stories shape all our perceptions. Some of them are better representations of reality than others. Some of them are better guides to action than others. But all of them are constructions, limited by individual perspective, historical situation, and human fallibility.

Recently, Roy Scranton, author of We’re Doomed. Now What? and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, suggested that we should strive for complexity in our stories to better reflect reality, even while knowing that this is no guarantee. The idea reminds me of a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.:

For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.

When I first read this, I was struck by the idea of a simplicity that exists on the far side of complexity. It occurred to me that simple answers have to be earned — earned by working through complexity. Simple answers that precede such wrestling with complexity are not earned and therefore tend to be wrong, or at least misleading.

This has been true in my own life. I was raised in a religion (Mormonism) that denies complexities and paints the world in stark monochrome. I believed it was heroic to deny ambiguities and thus ignored life’s complexities. Life seemed much simpler then, but it was a simplicity I had not earned. And in the end, it turned out to be false—as fundamentalisms tend to be. I still long for simple answers, but I find that when I grasp for them too quickly, I am left holding the fool’s gold of a certainty cheaply bought.

Years after I left the Mormon church, I was visited by a friend from that church. I was impressed by his wisdom. It was a wisdom of simple truths, but a simplicity I suspect was earned by a life of struggle with complexities — which included being a Black man in an overwhelmingly White church with a history of racist policies. He spoke several times of love, how love is “the answer.”

I think there are simple answers out there, answers like “love.” I don’t think I have earned them yet, though. But I hope that, one day, I might win my way through the complexity to the simplicity that the wise know.

Originally published at Another End of the World is Possible

John Halstead is the author of the book *Another End of the World is Possible*. Find out more at AnotherEndoftheWorld.org.

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