WILL SELF: The book to help you deal with the coronavirus pandemic

PUBLISHED: 06:30 16 March 2020 | UPDATED: 13:55 16 March 2020

People pass graffiti reminding people to wash their hands on the window of a bar in Dublin's city centre, on the first day of a series of sweeping virus delay measures in Ireland. Photograph Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

People pass graffiti reminding people to wash their hands on the window of a bar in Dublin's city centre, on the first day of a series of sweeping virus delay measures in Ireland. Photograph Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

WILL SELF on mortality, metaphors and the book that might help you deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

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People terrified of contracting coronavirus and dying from Covid-19 might be better off stocking up on copies of Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor than dried pasta and hand-sanitiser.

Indeed, in my more whimsical moments I imagine just this: panic-buying of the celebrated essay - the aisles of Waterstones packed with hypochondriacs, their eyes starting from above their face masks as they scan page after page of this revelatory text, too desperate for its palliative effects to even take it to the till.

Alternatively, I picture self-isolating and tormented neurasthenics, their faces wan in the light from their computer screens, as they download Sontag behind what they believe to be the cordon sanitaire of their bedroom doors - before gobbling it up, together with piles of dried pasta and washing it down with lashings of alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

Sontag's contention that what ails us most are not diseases per se, but what out fervid minds make of them - specifically, our transmogrification of physical symptoms into metaphysical punishments - would seem to be a far more effective vaccine against mass panic than measured briefings from the likes of the World Health Organisation.

I reread Illness as Metaphor when I was diagnosed with a myeloid blood disease a decade ago, and was blaming my somewhat, um, carcinogenic lifestyle for ushering this most indolent of cancers into the temple of my body. Sontag taught me not only that my illness hadn't been visited on me by a vengeful non-smoking, teetotal God, but that it was precisely these metaphorical constructions: blood disease = bad (immoral) blood, which made it hard to cope with ill health.

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But the spread of infectious diseases and their inevitable metaphorical sequels is of a different delusory order. Listen, I'm not saying that a death rate of between one and two percent of those infected is a trivial matter - certainly not if 60% of the world's population ends up contracting coronavirus - but we need to put these estimated mortality figures of between 50 and 100 million in perspective. When I was diagnosed with Polycythemia vera (yes, yes, I know - it does sound like a cross between a Greek god and East End pub landlady - but what sort of disease would you expect me to have?), my median life expectancy was 15 years. Not great, I think you'll agree - but the consultant hastened to reassure me, saying: 'In my experience no patient thinks of themselves as a statistic - so this probably isn't a helpful way of looking at it.'

She was effectively channelling Sontag - but of course the problem for the individual, is that while he or she may not think of themselves as a statistic, the epidemiologists advising governments and the UN most certainly do. Indeed, one way of thinking about epidemiology itself is that its employment of forensics and statistics align its methodology - if not its ultimate objectives - with those of repressive state apparatuses. Consider this: the term 'cordon sanitaire' has come to be employed in ideological quite as much as pathological circumstances - implying that certain political perspectives infect those who adopt them.

In Naples, where my eldest son continues to teach English to sniffling Neapolitans, the rumour is that the massive hike in coronavirus cases in the north of the country is a result of CIA Black Ops planes, spraying virions from the skies. As to why the Americans would wish to do this, the answer is - of course - China; Italy continues to benefit from inward Chinese investment, while refusing to back the Donald in his quixotic trade war. I think you'll agree this has the pleasingly tenebrous character of all Italian conspiracy theories - but what it does highlight is the (figurative) lockstep between global financial markets and the virus. Indeed, what more terrifying metaphor is there than 'market contagion', given it's really no metaphor at all.

Marx said that history is made 'by the great mass of individuals' - and you'd have to be devoid of poetry not to see the way this great mass has responded to the disease's outbreak as an extended metaphor for their view, not of their own history alone, but their destiny as well. Close the borders! Shut the city gates! Barricade your doors! Mask your mouths! Glove your hands! The alien hordes are coming with their animalistic diseases! The time was when they stuck it out in their remote Wuhan fastness - but now they're out in the world, and breathing on us!

And here we run up against the reason why Illness as Metaphor is only a mild palliative for coronavirus panic, rather than a complete cure: given all human civilisations are founded on the domestication of animals (and with them, their diseases), the global pandemic isn't some sort of metaphor for the ills of globalisation - it's precisely that: the metaphor having dissolved into a puff of airborne (and air-freighted) droplets.

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