No century has gone viral quite the way this one has.

There have been worse plagues than COVID-19. The 14th-century Black Death wiped out more than a third of Europe’s population. The Spanish flu of 1918-19 killed an estimated 50 million. COVID-19’s global death toll to date, 300,000-plus and rising, remains low by comparison.

To put tragedies into perspective is not to trivialize the less severe. Nor is death the only measure of severity. The vast global economy threatened with ruin by COVID-19 has no historical precedent; likewise the suffering its collapse would cause. Suffering itself has many levels. Instances chronicled by Spa magazine this month, well short of tragic, will still require, and perhaps generate, large stores of that perennially saving human resource — resilience.

A woman in her 50s nurses her father in his 80s. This has been her life for 13 years — exhausting at all times, far more so now with the home helper service she relied on to relieve her stress from time to time shut down by the virus. How much can her nerves stand before they snap altogether? She doesn’t know. She hopes the crisis will end before she finds out.

A 31-year-old man Spa encounters had been stranded in Philadelphia in March, unable to get back to Japan. There are worse plights than his, certainly. It was unsettling all the same. The world shrank to a hotel room. Every day drained his limited funds. Locals encountered on rare forays outdoors or in the elevator recoiled, he thought, from his Asian features as though he were virus personified. How long would this go on? Ten days, as it turned out, but indefinitely for all he knew at the time.

From a global and tragic perspective, this seems beneath notice — but we don’t generally view our personal predicaments from a global or tragic perspective. “The emotional stress and financial strain are immeasurable,” he tells Spa.

It’s a dark time. The 21st century is betraying the hopes it fed before its birth. As the 20th century closed, we peered into the looming 21st and saw light. It seemed of a new wavelength, never seen before. Techno-light. U.S. news magazine Time, hardly alone, was dazzled. “Will cybersex be better than real sex?” it asked in June 2000. “Will Frankenfood feed the world? … Will tiny robots build diamonds one atom at a time?”

The possibilities were dizzying — robots to work for us, care for us and keep us company; genetic medicine to cure us, rejuvenate us, possibly immortalize us; eco-technology to heal the wounds technology had inflicted on the environment; wirelessness to free us from everything wires bind us to — and so on and so on, the sky’s the limit. No, it isn’t. Why should it be?

A faint cloud on the horizon alarmed us briefly but soon dissipated. This was Y2K. When the mass computer paralysis it was to have caused as 1999 segued into 2000 never materialized, we sighed with relief — too soon, perhaps. Although a “bug” rather than a “virus,” we can see Y2K in retrospect as an eerie foreshadowing of the “viral” century soon to engulf us.

“An infectious, often pathogenic agent or biological entity that is typically smaller than a bacterium.” That’s “virus” in the conventional sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. In the 1970s, the word suddenly mutated. Applied to computers it became “a program or piece of code,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “which when executed causes itself to be copied into other locations.”

Mutation followed mutation. “Going viral” is a 21st-century phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to a book published in 2004, “How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office.” The relevant passage: “Their petition also went viral, gathering half a million signatures in a few weeks.”

It’s good to go viral. It’s what netizens the world over long to do. “Nobody knows the secret formula,” says the technology information site Lifewire.com. “And that’s sort of the beauty of online virality. Most things go viral by accident.”

What goes viral in and from Japan? Ask internet news magazine ViralViralVideos.com. Its answer is links to “167 Japanese viral videos, memes and GIFs.” Topping the list: “American Kids Try Japanese Food.”

Very artful, very cute, nice background music. What faces the little ones make! “Fish eggs” and miso soup are tolerable, if “weird,” but nattō, ingested, somewhat squeamishly, with a fork, proves too much for one little boy, who scrunches up his face, closes his eyes and pretends to throw up.

What else? “Japanese Man Takes Pet Tortoise for a Walk.” “Hippos Eat Entire Watermelons Whole at Zoo.” “Little Girl Godzilla Adorably Destroys Toy Tokyo.” “Japanese Girl Eats 100 Pieces of Bread In One Sitting.”

That sort of thing. “Truthfully,” says Lifewire.com, “anything can go viral on the internet. … A piece of content can spread just like a virus if people become ‘infected’ when they see it.” That’s what we try to do with our posts: “infect” people. “The infection usually comes from evoked emotions that spur the viewer to share it. … Whether it made you sad, happy, angry, surprised, disgusted or anything else, you share it because you want other people to share those feelings with you.”

How nice, how sociable, how innocent. Will words like “viral” and “infect” continue to be used this way, with COVID-19 reminding us what they really mean? Maybe it will jolt us into minding our language. Or maybe it won’t. Innocence seems a 21st-century trait.

Innocence is prey. Viruses are predators. Virus begets virus. Virus goes viral. “Beware of fraud taking advantage of the new coronavirus,” warns the Metropolitan Police Department on its website. Fraudsters phone, email, offer anti-viral masks, anti-viral medicine, anti-viral water purifiers, financial compensation for the viral impact on the economy — this, that, all of it tempting, click here, click there, give us your bank information and credit card information, we’ll do the rest: use the information to rob you blind.

There’s a lot of that going around these viral days, the Metropolitan Police Department says. There’s a lot of a lot of things going around.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book, now on sale, is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.