5 Stages of Epidemic

by Slavoj Zizek

Maybe we can learn something about our reactions to the Coronavirus epidemics from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who, in her On Death and Dying, proposed the famous schema of the five stages of how we react upon learning that we have a terminal illness: denial (one simply refuses to accept the fact: “This can’t be happening, not to me.”); anger (which explodes when we can no longer deny the fact: “How can this happen to me?”); bargaining (the hope we can somehow postpone or diminish the fact: “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”); depression (libidinal disinvestment: “I’m going to die, so why bother with anything?”); acceptance (“I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”).


Later, Kübler-Ross applied these stages to any form of catastrophic personal loss (joblessness, death of a loved one, divorce, drug addiction), and also emphasized that they do not necessarily come in the same order, nor are all five stages experienced by all patients.

Ecological Catastrophe

One can discern the same five stages whenever a society is confronted with some traumatic break. Let’s take the threat of ecological catastrophe: first, we tend to deny it (it’s just paranoia, all that’s happening are the usual oscillations in weather patterns); then comes anger (at big corporations which pollute our environment, at the government which ignores the dangers); this is followed by bargaining (if we recycle our waste, we can buy some time; also there are good sides to it: we can grow vegetables in Greenland, ships will be able to transport goods from China to the US much faster on the new northern passage, new fertile land is becoming available in Siberia due to the melting of permafrost . . .), depression (it’s too late, we’re lost . . .); and, finally, acceptance—we are dealing with a serious threat, and we’ll have to change our entire way of life!

Digital Control

The same holds for the growing threat of digital control over our lives: first, we tend to deny it (it’s an exaggeration, a Leftist paranoia, no agency can control our daily activity); then we explode in anger (at big companies and secret state agencies who know us better than we know ourselves and use this knowledge to control and manipulate us); next, bargaining (authorities have the right to search for terrorists, but not to infringe upon our privacy. . .); followed by depression (it’s too late, our privacy is lost, the time of personal freedoms is over); and, finally, acceptance (digital control is a threat to our freedom, we should render the public aware of all its dimensions and engage ourselves to fight it!).

Medieval Plagues

In medieval times, the population of an affected town reacted to the signs of plague in a similar way: first denial, then anger at our sinful lives for which we are punished, or even at the cruel God who allowed it, then bargaining (it’s not so bad, let’s just avoid those who are ill . . .), then depression (our life is over . . .), then, interestingly, orgies (since our lives are over, let’s get out of it all the pleasures still possible with lots of drinking and sex), and, finally, acceptance (here we are, let’s just behave as much as possible as if normal life goes on . . .).


And is this not also how we are dealing with the Coronavirus epidemics that exploded at the end of 2019? First, there was a denial (nothing serious is going on, some irresponsible individuals are just spreading panic); then, anger (usually in a racist or anti-state form: the Chinese are guilty, our state is not efficient . . .); next comes bargaining (OK, there are some victims, but it’s less serious than SARS, and we can limit the damage . . .); if this doesn’t work, depression arises (let’s not kid ourselves, we are all doomed) . . . but how would will the final stage of acceptance look? It’s a strange fact that this epidemic displays a feature common with the latest round of social protests in places like France and Hong Kong.

Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek

They don’t explode and then pass away, they persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives.

What we should accept and reconcile ourselves to, is that there is a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses, which has always been there and which will always be with us as a dark shadow, posing a threat to our very survival, exploding when we least expect it. And at an even more general level, viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives: no matter how magnificent the spiritual edifices we, humanity, construct, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all . . . not to mention the lesson of ecology, which is that we, humanity, can also unknowingly contribute to this end.

(The passages were excerpted from Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World! the first book on the Conavirus pandemic that OR published recently)

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