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Death Foretold.

I haven’t written in a while (not for enjoyment, at least) and it feels cliché and grim to start back with something on coronavirus, but Chronicle of a Death Foretold has me thinking about how we respond to slow-moving, predictable crises like COVID. 

Santiago Nasar’s death is foretold. His murderers discuss their plans openly, even boastfully. They sharpen their knives at the local meat market. By all accounts, everyone in town knew — or at least had ample warning and reason to believe — that Santiago’s death was imminent. 

But almost no one takes action. 

In retrospect, some chalk it up to thinking his murderers weren’t serious, that they were merely angrily (and/or drunkenly) ranting. Others thought maybe Santiago deserved whatever he had coming. He was not a good man. Many thought it was not their business — something for others to deal with, others with more proximity to the events that precipitated the murder. Some just got distracted! They had meant to do something, of course, but the Bishop was visiting town that day and, in all the preparatory commotion, they just didn’t get around to it in time. 

Everyone had their reasons. So Santiago winds up dead, as foretold. 

“‘The truth is I didn’t know what to do,’ he told me. ‘My first thought was that it wasn’t any business of mine but something for the civil authorities, but then I made up my mind to say something…’ Yet when he crossed the square, he’d forgotten completely. ‘You have to understand,’ he told me, ‘that the bishop was coming that day.’” 

– Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Being Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle also deals heavily in omens and questions of fate: whether Santiago’s death was unavoidable, always in the cards. 

But Gabo makes a strong case that intervention could have averted the tragedy. 

The COVID crisis feels similar in that we saw it coming and yet mostly failed to act. Like the death foretold, it was a slow-moving crisis, simmering before boiling over, with plenty of warning. Doesn’t it feel like those kinds of crises are often harder to respond to? 

There’s something about a sudden shock that jolts us into action. Surprises can harden our resolve and set the frame for the proportionality of the response.

9/11 is the obvious example. The shock of that tragedy so deeply impacted the national psyche that, coming up on two decades later, we still haven’t returned to our pre-crisis “normal.” 

We will likely spend the rest of our lives walking bare-footed through airport security. 

Anything that catches us by surprise has potential to have the same catalytic effect, albeit typically at a smaller scale. Didn’t it feel like we moved pretty swiftly after hearing about a handful of vaping-related injuries and a couple of deaths? Compared to our relative inaction and complacency on smoking and obesity, which cause tens of thousands of deaths per month? 

Maybe most urgently, think how little we do on climate change: a slow-moving but existential threat to the entire planet. If a foreign invader threatened to sink New York and Miami, we would respond with shock and awe. But steady upticks in temperature and inch-by-inch sea level rise lull us into inaction, even as we approach points of no return. The threat is big and amorphous and we’ve been hearing about it for so long that it feels like just another news day, until it’s not. 

Which is sort of like COVID. 

We heard about the virus and its inevitable trek toward the U.S. for weeks, even months. 

What did we do? Like Santiago’s neighbor’s, we sort of did nothing. Someone else would take the lead, surely. If the threat was real, we would see action — everyone knew. It was foretold, the worst-kept secret in the world. We didn’t want to, or couldn’t bring ourselves to, grapple with it until it was already here. Too late. 

COVID and Chronicle have me reflecting on that kind of crisis: the slow-moving, everyone-knows-it’s-coming kind of threat. And how those situations can paralyze us, or lull us into complacency, even though they’re often most dangerous. 

The chronic vs. the acute. The deaths that are foretold — the ones we expect and maybe even accept — vs. the ones that come as a shock and nudge us into action.