Why we’re (unconsciously) grateful for the virus

John Daniels on coronavirus and a sense of common purpose:

So tell me: am I the only one missing Thursday evenings? How we used to all turn out – released briefly from house-arrest – to clap the NHS? It reminded us what day it was for starters (which was handy). But it also gave us a sense of solidarity with our neighbours, didn’t it? It brought us together, for goodness’ sake!

Now I realise that we’re meant to to be living in a secular society these days, but for me this seemed one of the most meaningful rituals I’ve been involved with for a long time. All stepping out of our bunkers at a pre-determined time each week to engage in the same symbolic (if wholly non-functional) activity gave us a sense of ‘being in this together’, didn’t it?

Since the Thursday evening clap finished, and since lockdown has been eased, somehow things feel different. The niggles, the tensions which were so characteristic of life before March (anyone remember Brexit? You soon will.) were suspended by a mixture of fear and common identity – for a while. But those tensions seem to be reappearing again – you didn’t have to be sunbathing at Bournemouth today to notice that.

Years ago a French philosopher called René Girard wrote some very insightful things about how human societies work. Tensions inevitably arise over the course of time, he said, and these will inevitably threaten societal cohesion. So what tends to happen is that, quite spontaneously and unconsciously, scapegoats get identified – individuals or groups who are saddled with responsibility for what’s amiss, and so end up getting eliminated (one way or another) in the belief that this will rid us of our malaise, whatever it was.

Problem is, said Girard, the scapegoat is just that – an innocent victim who has little or nothing to do with the deep-down cause of what ails us. So, after an interlude of apparent relief (‘thank goodness we got rid of them!’) the niggles start to recur. And, before you know it, we’re looking for another scapegoat to evict and so make us feel – fleetingly – better.

Most weird of all though, says Girard, societies often eventually come to venerate the scapegoat as some kind of saviour figure. People, eh?!

Don’t get me wrong – Covid-19 is definitely a bad guy. I don’t question that it was implicated in the premature deaths of thousands (even if very many of those were ‘premature’ by a matter of months only). And, as a virus, it isn’t a person, so scapegoating it isn’t as bad as branding an eccentric old lady a witch or labeling a whole race as Christ-killers. But still, I’m left feeling uneasy.

Why? Because the post-lockdown flare-ups, such as divisions over the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, suggest that there are far more worrying, deep-seated problems doing the rounds in our communities.

Perversely, you could say that SARS-CoV-2came along at just the right time. And now that it’s gone (for the time being) all the chronic divisions are crawling out again, merely reinvigorated by their temporary suppression.

Thomas Piketty and Branco Milanović are just two of those who’ve drawn our attention to how the economic developments of recent decades have increasingly resulted in a two-speed society: a minority who are doing OK thanks (despite lockdown) and those whose expectations,over many years, have been dashed (and for whom lockdown has just made a bad situation a whole lot worse).

Of course, I’m not seriously suggesting that anyone would own-up to celebrating the virus. But, for a fleeting moment, it did give us a sense of common identity and purpose, intensified as that was by the imposition of a virtual State of Emergency. And certainly no-one wants a ‘second wave’ (even if continuing flare-ups are all but inevitable).

Without a common enemy though, what else is left to hold us together? According to Girard, that’s just where one particular scapegoat, Jesus of Nazareth, comes in…


John Daniels is an Anglican priest and theological educator with a background in earth sciences, currently working for the Diocese of Hereford.

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