Inside Story

Pandemic déjà vu

In the aftermath of the worst of Covid-19, what does history tell us about how best to deal with the experience?

Daniel Reeders 15 June 2023 1181 words

Accounting for the costs: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in Robin Campillo’s 2018 film, 120 BPM.

Traumatic experiences can provoke a wide range of symptoms — not just the obvious ones like flashbacks. Trauma survivors often undergo what the DSM-V calls a severe and persistent change of worldview and loss of self-esteem. Our ability to see the world as essentially fair, and our sense of ourselves as capable of adapting to adversity can be powerfully challenged. These changes can be accompanied by intense grief and volcanic anger. We have all just lived through a mass traumatising experience, and we are well and truly seeing those pandemic affects — grief, blame, anger — playing out on the public stage.

Twitter in particular has witnessed some egregiously bad behaviour by “Covid Zero” advocates seeking public vengeance for what they paint as a malign conspiracy to deny the hidden truths of Covid-19 — its transmission via the airborne route, its prevention via public masking and lockdowns, the threat of Long Covid and disability, and the need to aim for elimination rather than mitigation.

I was genuinely shocked to see a senior researcher, a full professor, seeking to humiliate a PhD student with whom they disagreed by naming and shaming his supervisors, implying guilt by association. I was staggered to see a medical doctor describe people at an airport not wearing masks as “oldies, fatties and crumblies.”

It sickens me to watch as one prominent ventilation advocate launches abusive screeds targeting doctors working on the Covid frontline. I feel sorry for clinicians abused because they don’t wear the level of PPE favoured by Covid Zero advocates.

If the case for Covid Zero is strong, it shouldn’t be necessary to try to publicly shame people who disagree with it. These tactics call into question the strength of the arguments that underpin this campaign. They highlight the non-rational drivers of these positions: the traumatic affects that are being given full voice on social media platforms.

As a queer person working in HIV, I’ve lived through this before, and our present situation gives me a powerful sense of pandemic déjà vu. I can’t overstate the importance of excising these practices from socially acceptable norms of conduct, while undertaking the kind of cultural production that helps us understand where they are coming from — the traumatic affects, experiences and practices to which pandemics give rise.

This can be an exceptionally slow process, prone to sparking “history wars” and paroxysms of public rage over seemingly benign topics. The queer community fought all-in battles over the changing meanings of HIV. First, as the HIV response became professionalised rather than resting in the hands of activists and volunteers. Then, following the widespread uptake of effective antiretroviral treatments, as the meaning of HIV changed from a death sentence to a lifelong, manageable condition. Finally, as the advent of preventive medication meant condoms were no longer the only game in town.

On each occasion, community figureheads took up purist and punitive positions and strategies. The damage caused to vulnerable members of the community was incalculable; it was toxic shaming at its absolute worst. It wasn’t enough to win the argument; it wasn’t even a debate in any rational sense — chosen scapegoats had to be obliterated, if not from this earth then, at least, from public view; they were shamed into silence. Each time this happened, necessary debates over HIV prevention policy and programming were set back years, if not decades.

Traumatic affect was clearly playing out in those conflicts. In 1995, at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the United States, 50,000 people were dying each year in communities that made up, on contemporary estimates, about 1.5 per cent of the adult population. That’s 1.2 per cent of that community’s population dying each year — for reference, that’s four times the mortality rate of Covid-19 in the mainstream US population.

These dry calculations only thinly approximate the human, social, relational and emotional impacts of the epidemic. It falls to cultural products like film and television and books to account for the incalculable costs.

One film that does this especially well is Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM (2018) about ACT UP Paris. (It is available to rent for $5 on Apple TV.) The film opens in a lecture theatre, in a loud and only loosely organised collective meeting, as newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) watches activists planning their next protest and, while this happens, checks out cute firebrand Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The film tells the story of the collective, their protests against recalcitrant governments and drug companies, and the emerging relationship between Nathan and Sean, which ends in scenes of unbearable tenderness.

The film interweaves the moments of tragedy and agency that were simultaneously embodied in the queer community’s response to HIV and AIDS, and powerfully evokes its protagonists’ overwhelming perception of government and the public: “They don’t give a fuck about us.” (A perception that is no doubt familiar to the many people left behind as Australia transitions into a Covid-Normal existence.) It highlights the diversity of people and groups engaged in the battle against HIV, rather than presenting cisgender, white, educated middle-class men as the heroes of the epidemic response.

Right now, we are missing two things.

First is the community infrastructure that, in the HIV epidemic, enabled affected communities to respond effectively with prevention programs, and to care for and support people living and dying with HIV and AIDS. We have a Heart Foundation, Cancer Councils, AIDS Councils, PWDA, but no organisation dedicated to representing the people most affected by Covid-19. This gap harms people who are vulnerable to severe illness and people fighting for recognition, treatment, services and research on Long Covid. In the absence of a representative body we are only hearing the loudest voices, not voices informed by the diverse needs and experiences of this community.

Second, we urgently need an investment in public storytelling that can help us understand Covid-19 as a mass traumatising experience. There is scholarly debate over whether Covid-19 lockdowns had lasting impacts on people’s mental health, often judged using simplistic measures of depression and anxiety included in longitudinal survey research. But the whole point about trauma is that symptoms often take time to emerge, and they are often quite indirect — it’s not immediately obvious where they are coming from and what has triggered them.

Trauma also has effects that play out at the collective level, reshaping how a group of people sees itself and organises its everyday life. Public narrative is one of the most powerful therapeutic interventions for grappling with and resolving individual and collective traumatic experience.

For this to happen we need the discourse over Covid-19 to shift gears. Public rage and pathos-filled personal narratives can pay off; both are ways of building an audience. But it is possible to get hooked on rage, stuck in the black-and-white, blame-and-shame mindset it produces. There is little possibility of processing the traumatic experience when you are spending hours each day marinating your brain in other people’s digitally mediated stress hormones. It is time for the merchants of rage to take a breath or take a seat. •