A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away… --Albert Camus
Viruses are strange things. Viruses are commonly characterized as submicroscopic, obligate intracellular parasites, which do not have the means to function or reproduce on their own. They are submicroscopic because most are too small to be seen with an optical microscope; obligate because they do only one thing; intracellular parasites because they coopt the machinery of infiltrated cells to reproduce themselves.
It has always struck me as weird and remarkable that something so foreign to the sensible human world can have such a great effect on human life. We’re taught at an early age that we experience only one level of reality, the level of dogs and trees and buildings. But there are many more levels containing things much smaller and much larger than us. We cannot easily peer into these levels like we might peer into a secret room. Yet things that happen on these hidden levels affect our world, because we are stretched out in them. We exist in the microscopic and the cosmic worlds, although our positions there are complicated and difficult to understand.
Over the last several months, life has changed radically as a result of something happening in a world that we cannot see. I’m speaking, of course, of the COVID-19 pandemic and the suffering, death, and grief that comes with it. People all over are shutting themselves in their homes. Economies are teetering. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Social events have been cancelled; businesses closed; cities quarantined. All because of the spread of a minuscule, senseless, unfeeling thing: a virus called SARS-CoV-2.
Everyone I talk to finds this situation weird. Probably it feels weird anytime one’s life changes in ways both unexpected and dramatic. This situation certainly meets those criteria.
But, at least for me, there’s an added layer to the weirdness. My plans and projects, my routines and ways of living, the establishments, relationships, and interactions that bring meaning and substance to my life seem to belong solely to the world of sight and sound. They don’t seem immutable, but that which threatens them ought to be things I can grasp, reason with, or flee from, not things from another world, which I occupy only darkly. It’s weird that we should desperately strive against not a human being nor a beast nor a mountain, but against invisible parasites, billions of which could stand on the head of a pin. It’s weird that something so small could wreak such havoc.
Yet it does. Viruses aren’t made to man’s measure. They don’t fit into our everyday picture of cause and effect. They remind us of the fragility of our existence, of how everything we do depends not only upon our designs but upon goings-on and contingencies outside the ordinary realm of agency and action. They remind us that all of human life hangs by a thread so thin it can be cut by something 179,000 times smaller than a dime.
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this situation feels like a dream. But it isn’t.
 The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International Edition, Random House, p. 37 (1991).
 Cann, Alan. Principles of molecular virology, Elsevier Academic Press, 2015.
This is a blog about general philosophical topics that serves as a creative outlet. Browse around, and hopefully you'll find something interesting (but no promises!).
University of California, Santa Barbara