The Second Sleep by Robert Harris is a novel that seems to be set in the Middle Ages but turns out to be several hundred years into the future. It’s a world in which our civilisation of infinite knowledge has collapsed and humans are living in a new dark age in which learning is tightly controlled by the church, for fear of humanity again bringing about disaster.
What caused the decline isn’t clear to the latter-day humans. But there are indications (emphasis is mine):
“We know that almost every person, including children, was issued with a device that enabled them to see and hear one another, however far apart in the world they might be; that these devices were small enough to be carried in the palm of one’s hand; that they gave instant access to all the knowledge and music and opinions and writings in the world; and that in due course they displaced human memory and reasoning and even normal social intercourse – an enfeebling and narcotic power that some say drove their possessors mad, to the extent that their introduction marked the beginning of the end of advanced civilisation.”
And a historical document from before the collapse shows that some experts were anticipating the disaster:
We have broadly identified six possible catastrophic scenarios that fundamentally threaten the existence of our advanced science-based way of life:
A nuclear exchange
A super-volcano eruption, leading to rapidly accelerated climate change
An asteroid strike, also causing accelerated climate change
A general failure of computer technology due either to cyber warfare, an uncontrollable virus, or solar activity
A pandemic resistant to antibiotics
With the arrival of the COVID-19 epidemic, Robert Harris’s fictional scenario seems more pertinent than when it was published last Autumn, at the end of a year marked by increasing existential anxiety about climate change. The coronavirus is a reminder that the factors beyond our control that could overturn our way of life are more numerous than we care to imagine. As the technology commentator, John Naughton, puts it:
“If humanity survives for another century or more, one of the things that will puzzle future historians is how we failed to notice that we were building an entire civilisation on top of logistical systems of unbelievable complexity and vulnerability.”
We failed to notice, I suspect, because we were lulled into a false sense of security by the unprecedented material and political progress enjoyed by the generations born since the Second World War. Perhaps this is what Robert Harris is getting at when he refers in the quote at the top of this post to human memory and reasoning being displaced. We reside in a soporific “knowing” that things will turn out ok, without grasping the incredible technical and organisational ingenuity that is needed for this to be the case. For all the fashionable disparaging of experts, our civilisation relies on them.
One of the aspects that is perhaps most unsettling about the coronavirus is that it upends this assumption of security. We have no antidote. As the esteemed microbiologist, Peter Piot, tells The Times:
“We have no vaccine. All we have is medieval ways of containment: isolation, quarantine, contact tracing. But it’s really important not to give up and say, ‘Let everybody get infected and get it over with.’ That would lead to massive demand on the NHS. And let’s not forget that older people and people with chronic conditions are quite vulnerable — we need to protect them.”
In the past week, the number of cases in the UK has risen each day by between 14 and 67 per cent, and on average by 35 per cent per day. At these rates of increase, it is clear that the virus is at large in the community and the number of new cases will rise rapidly. How far it spreads will depend on how effectively the public can be mobilised to impede the epidemic. While there’s evidence that many people are stocking up in case of self-isolation or disruption to supplies, most people I encounter seem to doubt that this is a serious event, decline offers of sanitiser and insist on shaking hands or even hugging.
Perhaps this is a function of the Government’s desire not to cause unnecessary panic. But it might also be a reflection of a misplaced trust in the continuity of our way of life. Or a lack of understanding of the shared social responsibility to take preventative measures, even among those – especially the young and healthy – who might feel themselves to face little personal risk. Or perhaps it is denial born of a fear of acknowledging how things could really unfold.
In a measured but sobering interview with Channel 4 News, Dr Richard Hatchett, the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, described COVID-19 as the most frightening disease he’s dealt with in 20 years of preparing for epidemics – because of the way it combines a highly infectious character with a relatively high degree of lethality. While he expects it to become an endemic virus that will be with us for many years, or in perpetuity, its impact is down to how we respond. He says we need to adopt social distancing practices right away, including the Ebola handshake (elbow bumping) and avoiding going to work if we have even normal symptoms of a cold:
“Society has to continue but we do have to modify our behaviour in ways that reduces the risk of transmitting the virus… We need to act collectively in a co-operative manner.”
The Government is not yet recommending social distancing, but perhaps it will soon, even though the Prime Minister seems to be going out of his way to shake hands with as many people as possible before the curtain comes down.
Buddhist philosophy has a concept of fierce compassion that it distinguishes from idiot compassion. Fierce compassion is fearless in articulating uncomfortable truths while idiot compassion offers people false comfort. Perhaps we can extend the distinction to equanimity. The idiot equanimity of those who affect to know that this is an ephemeral panic does not serve the collective co-operation that Dr Hatchett says we already need. Fierce equanimity looks into a potential abyss and steps back into a grounded responsibility. We don’t know what the next weeks and months will hold. But we each have a part to play in mitigating the virus. That part entails apprehending it with due seriousness and changing our behaviour accordingly.
In Robert Harris’s novel, I’m not sure if “the second sleep” refers to the new dark age in which his story is set or the era of soporific knowing that led to the collapse of civilisation. We have the chance to wake up and moderate the entitled abandon by which we live our lives. A global pandemic will force this upon us. But if we awaken sooner, we can influence the course of the disease.
Watch the full interview with Dr Richard Hatchett.