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[Kim Seong-kon] Coronavirus resembles a corrosive ideology

May 20, 2020 - 10:01 By Kim Seong-kon
The global pandemic called COVID-19 is now ruthlessly invading the world, devastating all the infected nations and still causing untold numbers of deaths. Humans cannot but shudder at this never-before-seen deadly virus that attacks and kills them callously.

Meanwhile, the lethal coronavirus has radically changed our society in many ways. For example, we are now living in an inhumane society where people are suspicious of one another and shun the warmth of human touch because we cannot be sure who might be a virus carrier.

Presently, the whole world is at war with this unprecedentedly malevolent and belligerent enemy. In that sense, it is as if we were having a world war now with an invisible alien foe, as H. G. Wells depicted in “War of the Worlds.” We could and would prevail eventually and yet, the casualties will be heavy in the meantime.

The coronavirus reminds us of the zombie virus in Max Brooks’ novel, “World War Z,” in which the zombie virus begins in China and then spreads all over the world. In the novel, the United States is overconfident, assuming the pandemic is something the mighty country can defeat easily. Embarrassingly, however, the US fails to cope with the pervading virus. A similar thing is now happening in the US with the coronavirus. Meanwhile, other nations are building a wall to stop infected foreigners from coming into their country. Likewise, many countries are now under “lockdown” to prevent foreign influx.

In that sense, “World War Z” was a novel that foresaw what might happen in the future when a foreign virus attacks us. So were Stephen King’s “The Stand,” Dean Kuntz’s “The Eyes of Darkness,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death” and Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” Indeed, quite a few literary works have delved into the hidden theme of the pandemics in history, such as the pestilence, cholera, the Spanish flu, AIDS, SARS or MERS, all of which have substantially threatened human beings.

In her insightful essay on Camus’s “The Plague,” Liesl Schillinger recently wrote that COVID-19 could be a metaphor for a corrosive ideology such as fascism or totalitarianism. Schillinger also pointed out that Camus witnessed the rise and fall of Nazism before writing the monumental novel and thus he was likely to have it in mind when he wrote “The Plague.”

It occurs to me that COVID-19 is also an excellent metaphor for communism. Like the communist ideology, for example, the coronavirus is highly contagious. It spreads rapidly all over the world and overtakes the people, attacking their immune system. Once in your body, the coronavirus controls and manipulates you completely. The patient, then, spreads the disease to others clandestinely. The scary thing is that you never know who the carrier is. Surely, however, it will take over a city, a country, and the world silently, while no one knows when and how.

Like communism, COVID-19, too, is invisible and yet, ubiquitous. Since it is unseen and undetectable, you cannot fight it effectively. In Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death,” people confine themselves in a tightly sealed castle to prevent the deadly pandemic’s spread and yet, the invisible plague wearing the mask of red death infiltrates and mingles quietly with the people.

Technically, communism disappeared as the Cold War ended. However, a German writer who was from erstwhile East Germany once told me that communism did not vanish, but hid underground, waiting for resurrection.

Like the communist ideology, the coronavirus is deadly. Communists have massacred so many people under the banner of their ideology. Likewise, the coronavirus has massacred numerous people all over the world for the past few months. Communist leaders are only good at surveillance, censorship, and the lockup of their political opponents. They are also good at executions in a kangaroo court. Likewise, the coronavirus, too, puts us under surveillance, confinement and lockdown, killing us unscrupulously as if we were a helpless defendant in a summary trial execution.

Like communism, COVID-19 is now ruining the world economy irrevocably. It shuts down the market, forces industries to go bankrupt, and makes tens of millions of workers lose their jobs. They say that COVID-19 is an equal opportunity disease because it attacks the people indiscriminately. Contrary to popular belief, however, it makes the poor poorer, while the rich are intact. Rich people retreat to a luxurious villa in a remote island, fleeing from the lethal virus, just as Communist Party members did in times of crisis.

Like the communist ideology, the coronavirus looks attractive and gorgeous in appearance. Nevertheless, it is a calamity threatening human civilization. Ever since its birth, Communism has been a catastrophe to humans, just like the coronavirus is now. Contrary to its sugarcoated propaganda, communism features a one-party dictatorship, the privileged party members and the underprivileged non-party members, and equal distribution of poverty

Even today, there are some countries where people hate and antagonize one another over ideologies. Fighting COVID-19, we should learn how the deadly coronavirus resembles the ideology we cling to as absolute truth. 

Kim Seng-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.