In less enlightened times, an outbreak of a deadly virus was taken as a sign of God’s displeasure and would be accompanied by the persecution of an unpopular minority. It was less than a coincidence that the scapegoats tended to be those of whom the Church took a dim view: heretics, ‘witches’ (i.e. unmarried women) and, above all, Jews. How neatly it all fitted into an existing narrative.
The desire to fit the Covid-19 pandemic into a moral fable of what sinfulness means in a secular society has been palpable. One of the most puzzling features of the virus is the way in which it severely incapacitates certain people while leaving others virtually unscathed. It is unsettling to think that our fate could depend on the roll of a dice. We don’t want to believe in an invisible, indiscriminate killer. We want to find to find some logic.
In a society in which healthfulness means drinking plenty of water and avoiding carbs, we want to believe that we can avoid the worst effects of Covid-19 if we just the follow the rules. There is an almost medieval desire to believe that those who suffer must have brought it on themselves in some way.
Fortunately, this is not the Middle Ages. Conventional religion has lost its power and nobody is threatening violence against scapegoats. But we do have the quasi-religion of the NHS and a prejudice among some against those who are considered to be a ‘drain’ on it. In our supposedly enlightened times, smokers, binge-drinkers and fat people may not quite be heretics, but they are certainly seen by some as sinners.
Attempts to link the coronavirus to the deviants of the twenty-first century got off to a rocky start. There was an assumption that heavy drinking made people more susceptible to the virus, but this has not been proved and alcohol consumption does not seem to be a risk factor.