COVID and the Meaning of Apocalypse

I recently had a strange dream. In it, I was moving through the crowded food court at my local mall. In my dream, I had visited my favorite haunts — the tea store and the bookshop — and was on my way out to the parking lot. Suddenly, the sleeping me was gripped by a feeling of horror: I thought, “Why are all these people crowded so close together? Why is no-one wearing a mask? What on earth are they thinking?” My pleasant dream turned into a nightmare.

Empty shopping mall during COVID-19.

Empty shopping mall in Sofia, Bulgaria, during second wave of COVID-19, 15 January 2021. (Photo by Oleg Morgan, CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons)

The mall (where I have been only four times since March 2020) is not the only thing that has changed in my life, and I imagine that most readers can list a number of things that have changed in theirs. I no longer teach in a classroom, and I attend all my ethics meetings by Zoom. I have not eaten in a restaurant nor met my friends for coffee in months. I see very few people, and I am glad that I love reading, as I would otherwise feel very isolated and bored.

I want to devote my next series of columns to exploring some of the ethical dimensions of living through a pandemic, and to thinking about how we can make sense of our current situation. I want to frame these columns with the ideas I will be exploring in this one, and, in particular, with the idea of apocalypse.

The term “apocalypse,” as it is popularly understood, refers, of course, to the end of the world. However, what it really means is a kind of unveiling, in which assumptions and falsehoods are stripped away, and we are suddenly able to see reality as it truly is. In these columns, I want to play with both understandings of the word, the colloquial, and the more accurate. I want to consider both what features of the pre-COVID world may be ending, and what aspects of our social reality we are now able to see more clearly because of the pandemic.


I want to begin this exploration with some ideas drawn from a marvelous book —  Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope is an ethical enquiry into the way in which human beings construct worlds and ways of life which allow us to function by giving each of us individually, and all of us together, mechanisms through which we can experience meaning and purpose in our lives.

Plenty Coups (Edward Curtis portrait circa 1908 via Wikimedia Commons)

Plenty Coups (Alaxchíia Ahú) Edward Curtis portrait circa 1908 via Wikimedia Commons.

Radical Hope begins with a narrative about Plenty Coups (Alaxchíia Ahú) the last great chief of the Crow nation. Before he died, he told an interviewer:

When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.

Lear finds this statement — that “after this, nothing happened” — profoundly puzzling:

It would seem to be a retrospective declaration of a moment when history came to an end.

But what could this possibly mean?

We could, Lear notes, give a psychological explanation of this utterance, and say that, after the buffalo disappeared, the Crow became depressed, and nothing more mattered to them. But this psychological explanation, he believes, is unsatisfactory, because Plenty Coups is making a claim about the world, not a claim about himself. The psychological explanation, then, seems too trivial, too rushed and too easy. And, indeed, it does not fit with what we know about Plenty Coups’ biography: he lived an extraordinarily active life even after the Crow changed their way of living, and he seems, by all accounts, to have been happy.

Lear thinks that there is a much deeper significance to the claim that, at some point in Plenty Coups’ life, things ceased to happen than the psychological explanation suggests. What if this assertion “gave expression to an insight into the structure of temporality: that at a certain point, things stopped happening? What would he have meant if he had meant that?”

This question, Lear argues, “is what it would be for Plenty Coups to be a witness to a peculiar form of human vulnerability.” If it is possible for things to “stop happening,” this is something that could happen to any of us, because each of us individually, and all of us collectively, inhabit ways of life.

Humans are by nature cultural animals: we necessarily inhabit a way of life that is expressed in culture. But our way of life — whatever it is — is vulnerable in various ways. And we, as participants in that way of life, thereby inherit vulnerability.

And, Lear continues:

Should that way of life break down, that is our problem. The suggestion I want to explore… is that if our way of life collapsed, things would cease to happen. And there is another aspect to our question…what would it be like to be a witness to this breakdown?

The short answer to these questions (and I recommend that readers of this column check out the book, because I cannot do full justice to Lear’s argument in a short essay) is that things stopped happening because a way of life ended for the Crow, and that all the markers of meaning and purpose that gave events their significance disappeared; and it was the disappearance of this world that Plenty Coups witnessed. Although he lived for a number of years after that, the world in which he had grown up, with its cosmology, rituals, activities and landmarks, had — quite literally — come to an end.


What I want readers to take away from this is not that I think that the pandemic we are currently experiencing will cause “our” world to collapse (although some pandemics in the past have arguably had this effect, and some pandemics in the future may as well), but that, rather, it has revealed to us, in the proper sense of an apocalypse, that the things we took for granted — like trips to the mall, visits with friends, hours spent in the library, and in-person classes — are vulnerable, and that our way of life is fragile.

Further, it is surprising that this pandemic has caught us so much by surprise: our surprise reveals that we have not recognized our own vulnerability (and, indeed, the expectation that an effective vaccine or two will allow our lives to “get back to normal” suggests that we still have not taken this lesson to heart).

Raumati school playground closed under COVID-19 'Alert Level 3'

Raumati, NZ school playground closed under COVID-19 ‘Alert Level 3’ (Photo by Alan Tennyson, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

I am no exception: Despite the fact that I have been telling my bioethics students for more than 20 years that we are long overdue for a pandemic, if you had told me on New Year’s Eve in 2019 that a global pandemic would shut down my university in March, upend the airline and cruise ship industries, cause many people to work from home and turn my local mall into a ghost town, I would have had a hard time believing it.

So the question for us becomes: what are the ethical consequences and implications of our sudden recognition, not only of our own vulnerability (none of us knows how well we would fare if we caught COVID), but of our shared vulnerabilities rooted in our shared way of life? What “certainties” might we have to give up? What do we owe to one another in this time of upheaval and unveiling? How can we make sense of our current situation? And, have we really learned any lessons from this experience, or do we really believe that things can return to the way they were they were before COVID hit?

I will consider some of these questions further in future columns.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.