Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
What Are Some Lessons in Covid-19?
Jung and the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2019-20
“Life is an energy-process. Like every energy-process, it is in principle irreversible and is therefore directed towards a goal…. Life is teleology par excellence; it is the intrinsic striving towards a goal, and the living organism is a system of directed aims which seek to fulfill themselves….”
“… you are the same as the Negro or the Chinese or whoever you live with, you are all just human beings. In the collective unconscious you are the same as a man of another race, you have the same archetypes, just as you have, like him, eyes, a heart, a liver, and so on. It does not matter that his skin is black.”
“Thanks to industrialization, large portions of the population were uprooted and were herded together in large centers. This new form of existence—with its mass psychology and social dependence on the fluctuation of markets and wages—produced an individual who was unstable, insecure, and suggestible. He was aware that his life depended on boards of directors and captains of industry, and he supposed, rightly or wrongly, that they were chiefly motivated by financial interests. He knew that, no matter how conscientiously he worked, he could still fall a victim at any moment to economic changes which were utterly beyond his control. And there was nothing else for him to rely on….”.
Carl Jung was a Swiss medical doctor. Born in 1875, Jung was 43 when the influenza pandemic hit Switzerland in 1918. This “Spanish flu” pandemic is regarded as the worst pandemic since the Black Death of the 14th century: It killed more than 50 million people, c. 3-4% of the world’s population, and Switzerland was one of the hardest hit countries.
As a male citizen, Jung was required to perform military duty annually, and, being a doctor, Jung was part of the army medical corps. During the 18 months the flu gripped Switzerland Jung must have treated infected soldiers during his month-long tours of duty, so he was well aware of the devastation a global pandemic can cause. Killing 35 victims a day, the first wave of the virus seriously affected the Swiss army. Neither the federal nor cantonal governments were prepared for this level of lethality and, just as we are witnessing in 2020, treatment protocols were of limited effectiveness.
Ever the teleologist, Jung would wonder at the purpose or goal of phenomena. What was the point of this ravaging flu, coming amidst the carnage of the “Great War”? Drawing on Jung’s psychology we can ask the same question about our less-lethal pandemic. Why? What are we to learn from this experience? We will address this question from many perspectives, e.g. what social, political, economic, psychological, astrological, and alchemical lessons or insights might we take away from the coronavirus pandemic?
Jung was cosmopolitan. He traveled widely, making trips to Africa, India, the United States, as well as all over Europe. He met Native American shamans, rich, poor, black and white Americans, African tribal chiefs, Indian gurus, and all manner of prominent intellectuals, clergy and social leaders in Europe. All these varied contacts led Jung to conclude that we
“… are the same as the Negro or the Chinese or whoever you live with, you are all just human beings. In the collective unconscious you are the same as a man of another race, you have the same archetypes, just as you have, like him, eyes, a heart, a liver, and so on. It does not matter that his skin is black.”
or yellow, or red. We are all one, all vulnerable to germs, sickness, and death. As great levelers of humanity natural events like epidemics do not differentiate, discriminate, or render anyone immune from being affected by a pandemic.
The key social lesson here echoes ecological wisdom. One of the 4 laws of ecology is that “everything (and everyone) is connected to everything (and everyone) else.” Centuries before the rise of ecology as a science, the English poet John Donne said this another way: “… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized our common humanity when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” That a viral outbreak thousands of miles away now has millions holed up in their homes speaks to our oneness as human beings.
The virus also holds political lessons for us. Covid-19 is showing us just how we are so globally interconnected. An event in one country can, and does, have major impacts in hundreds of other nations. With the virus revealing how everyone and everything is interdependent, we must recognize that nationalism and chauvinism are atavisms–foolishly outdated attitudes or political goals. If, as John Donne said, “no man is an island,” likewise no nation is an island. We cannot isolate ourselves, pretend that we can go it alone, or try to cut ourselves off from the global life of which we are a part.
Politicians who pander to some voters with nationalistic rhetoric show their ignorance. More than just ignorance, they are deluded. Jung was clear about this in his warning about “the present politico-social delusional systems” and “monkey tricks” that politicians use as they “poison the utterly incompetent mind of the masses…”. We must take care lest we allow ourselves to be deluded by poor leaders. Our current social isolation can help us to move away from all the noise, do some reflecting and think for ourselves.
We also need to learn economic lessons. Jung was a devotee of etymology, recognizing that word roots can provide useful insights. “Economics” comes from the Greek oikos and nomos, meaning “management of the house.” On a collective level, the “house” is our planet Earth, which we clearly have not been managing well, as we see in our current myriad forms of pollution, climate change, and ruthless resource extraction. We fail to adhere to Nature’s rulebook, which states that “Nature knows best,” “Everything must go somewhere,” “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” as well as the interconnectedness of everything mentioned above. We like to think that we humans are in control, but, if Covid-19 has anything to teach us it is that we are not in control. Nature is.
This is as true on the personal level as it is on the collective. We see this now in the hoarding that has taken place, as key supplies of paper products, medicines and other items considered to be essentials disappear from stores. Prudent management and pro-social attitudes would preclude such behavior. But prudence rests on valid information, and many people in our world fail to understand the nature of “just-in-time” inventory systems, and the fragility of our global distribution systems. And our political leaders with their “fake facts” and alternate realities do not provide us with good leadership.
These are important lessons we must take away from our experience of the pandemic.
We also are now aware of just how deep has been the hollowing out of our American manufacturing base. So many vital supplies–of medicines, masks, tools, etc.–are no longer produced domestically. This is another illustration of how global we have become as both a society and an economy. Lesson? We have become dependent on a global supply chain and can no longer provide some of the basics our lives depend on. Jung found appalling “this new form of existence” with its “social dependence on the fluctuation of markets and wages” and how much it made our lives “depend on boards of directors and captains of industry” who are “chiefly motivated by financial interests.” Our economic system has been on an unsustainable trajectory and our business leaders don’t care about the proverbial “man in the street,” the workers who “could still fall a victim at any moment to economic changes … utterly beyond their control”–like the swoon in our economy caused by the coronavirus.
Given our delusional political leaders, economic volatility and the contagious spread of the virus, anxiety is now rife, as people hunker down at home, listen to the news, worry about relatives who have contracted the virus, or about family in far-off places who might do so. As a psychiatrist Jung had a lot to say about anxiety, the “seat” of which he felt to be the ego. That is, if we live our lives relying on ego, we are likely to feel anxious, insecurity, unsafe. Why? Because the ego fancies it is in control, when all the above political, social and economic sections above show us that is a foolish delusion. The ego is puny, limited in its wisdom (if it has any at all), and operating with a narrow perspective. Jung reminds us that “the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents.”
Much better is it for us to live relying on the Self, our inner divine source. How to rely on the Self as we move through life, and survive through crises like Covid-19? By internalizing a locus of security. This process is described in detail in a four-part essay archived on our Jungian Center web site. A short answer is by doing what Jesus urged people to do when he spoke about “laying up treasures in Heaven” which moths, rust and thieves cannot destroy or steal. We avoid feeling anxious when we turn to the Self for guidance and protection.
Having lived through the most lethal pandemic in modern history Jung knew from first-hand experience what epidemics are like, and his Collected Works have 18 citations to epidemics. True to his orientation as a psychiatrist, Jung was far more concerned about psychic epidemics than physical ones, because he understood that
“The gigantic catastrophes that threaten us today are not elemental happenings of a physical or biological order, but psychic events. To a quite terrifying degree we are threatened by … psychic epidemics.”
and Jung reminds us that
“… there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes. The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole nations is a psychic danger.”
What did Jung mean by “psychic epidemic” and “psychic danger”? Mass hysteria, “mental contagions” in situations when masses of people get caught up in delusion, fear, anger or anxiety–the sorts of situations that demagogues like Hitler stirred up which led to the massive destruction and death in World War II. Such experiences are not a thing of the past: We witness contemporary political leaders foment psychic epidemics in their huge rallies where they spew fake facts and encourage hatred and violence. A vicious circle gets created as fear makes people irrational; irrational action leads to negative consequences; and negative consequences lead to more fear.
In this time of both physical and psychic epidemics Jung would have us stay grounded in our “archetypal foundations” by avoiding large groups (“always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics” as well as physical epidemics) and by “finding a new interpretation appropriate” to our current situation “in order to connect the life of the past that still exists in us with the life of the present, which threatens to slip away from it.” Why bother to find a new interpretation linking past and present? Jung explains:
“… if this link-up does not take place, a kind of rootless consciousness comes into being… a consciousness which succumbs helplessly to all manner of suggestions and, in practice, is susceptible to psychic epidemics.”
Given the current worldwide spread of Covid-19, the last thing we need is more epidemics!
Jung’s advice to “find a new interpretation” reminds us that we have choices as to how to view what is going on now. We can choose to regard our current situation as horrible or as an adventure. We can see this time of challenges as lamentable or as provocations to become more conscious. We can focus on the grim news reports or put our attention on what serves our health, remembering the adage that “Reality grows where attention goes.” If we focus on health, eating well, getting sufficient sleep with an attitude of gratitude for our blessings, we are more likely to have blessings to be grateful for. Likewise we can choose to lose ourselves in confusion and fear, or choose to gain higher perspectives from the wisdom of astrology and alchemy.
Jung was open-minded, even as he recognized that most of the public, and certainly most scientists were not, so he knew he was “taking a risk” by writing about astrology. I too, with my Ivy League training, shared this closed-mind attitude until I was forcibly shocked out of it in 1984, when I had my first chart reading. Now, like Jung, I recognize that the elements of astrology are symbols which can be interpreted according to the Law of Correspondence (“as above, so below; as within, so without”).
Jung worked in astrology on both the individual level (especially with the charts of couples, examining their synastry) and the collective level (studying the shift of aeon that occurs every c. 2,100 years), and he wrote about it, even knowing it might mean “putting my hard-won reputation for truthfulness, reliability, and capacity for scientific judgment in jeopardy.” Why did he take such risk? Because he recognized the changes that were (and still are) underway as the aeon shifts from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius. Such changes show up inwardly in what Jung called “psychic consequences” which he knew could be disturbing. He wrote an essay on Ufos to try to explain to people what some of these psychic implications might be. For his efforts, he has gotten the label “the Father of the New Age.”
Jung also recognized that the shift from Pisces to Aquarius would have outward manifestations in addition to inward psychic changes. Jung looked back to ancient Egypt when the Age of Taurus gave way to the Age of Aries, and to the Roman Empire, when Aries began to morph into the Age of Pisces. Features of such transition times include new religions, new tastes in the arts, new values and new societal configurations, as well as large-scale dislocations, e.g. barbarian invasions, the collapse of governments, and widespread pandemics.
Why pandemics? Because transition times are stressful. People sense things are changing, evolving, but they lack a clear sense of direction. The old familiars seem to be morphing into all sorts of new forms, e.g. women’s equality, gay marriage, transgenders–all sorts of challenges to old norms. Confusion, anxiety and a general malaise are common in such times, and Jung knew that such emotional states can lead to weakened immune systems, which leave people vulnerable to disease.
More specific to our immediate present, astrologers remind us that Jupiter, Pluto and Saturn are currently in a conjunction–a celestial phenomenon the world has not witnessed since the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Like that time in our global history, ours is a time of “potential reset” as we witness major challenges that offer us the opportunity to reflect on our lives, our values, and our beliefs, toward rethinking and “resetting” how we spend our time, our money and our energies.
As we move more deeply into the Aquarian aeon, the cosmic energy of Aquarius is nudging us toward humanitarianism, a deeper recognition of our shared oneness. Ruled by Uranus, the planet associated with electricity and electronics, it is not surprising that ours is a time when all sorts of computer-based technologies are shrinking the world and helping us develop global awareness.
The Alchemical Context
Another of the “unpopular things” Jung studied was alchemy. Like astrology, alchemy was (and still is) outré in most circles, and Jung’s muse/mistress Toni Wolff tried to talk him out of immersing himself in it. But Jung sensed that the writings of the ancient, medieval and Renaissance alchemists held valuable insights, so he worked diligently to comprehend their symbolism. Over years of study Jung came to see that the quest to turn lead into gold closely parallels the process of individuation, in which the “lead” of unconsciousness is turned into the “gold” of individuation. For those of us with years of Jungian analysis under our belts, this parallel is obvious.
For those without any experience of analysis alchemy can still offer useful insights because the alchemical operations are archetypes of change. Jung and the alchemists recognized that change is not a haphazard jumble of events, but rather a series of patterned energies that, like all archetypes, have intent. That is, archetypes want certain actions to be performed, e.g. the “mother” archetype calls up actions of protection, nourishing, nurturing, care for the young, the weak, the vulnerable, while the “child” archetype asks us to play, investigate the world, be creative. When you know (from dreams, intuitions, synchronicities or meditative practices) the archetype of change you are living within, you can choose to live aligned with the energies that want to be expressed at that time.
For our purposes here, we can use alchemy to understand the wider context within which the pandemic is occurring. The key archetypes of change the people of Earth are experiencing now are the transitio, separatio and the mortificatio. I mentioned transition above, as part of the much longer evolution out of the Age of Pisces into the Age of Aquarius. The intent in a transitio time is to become aware of feelings of confusion, hold them in consciousness, and watch for signs of the new reality. Such times are uncomfortable but we can all take comfort from the fact that we have all lived through such times on the personal level: We all have been teenagers–the classic transitio phase of life (with the Uranus opposition, c. ages 35-45 being another); in these intervals we sense we are changing, we feel confusion, discontent, a desire for change, often without quite knowing what form that should take.
The separatio now is showing up in our enforced quarantining, which is separating some families from their loved ones, and all of us from our co-workers, friends, classmates, and regular activities. What is the intent of this archetype? In general terms, the separatio asks for differentiation, distinguishing this from that, applying one’s reason to discern what is appropriate from what is not. This time of pandemic is forcing us to pause, giving us the opportunity to go within, to think, to get clear about our values, what is really important in life, how we should be spending our time, money and energy so as to serve our fulfillment and help the world.
The mortificatio is the most painful of the archetypes of change. As its roots imply it “makes death.” In an all-too-literal way now, we are seeing thousands of people dying from the Covid-19 virus, and this is characteristic of times of major change, when the anxiety level is high and human immune systems are highly stressed. Most of us experience this archetype in more metaphorical ways, as personal losses, e.g. the death of a relationship, the loss of a much-loved job, the demise of a beloved pet, or the decline of some physical function due to the frailty of old age. Whether literal or not, the intent here is for us to grieve, but few indeed welcome grief. We avoid it, but Jung knew that this was not healthy: What we try to repress does not disappear but falls into the unconscious, where it festers. Much better to hold our grief in consciousness, recognize it when it appears and reappears (it has its own timetable, and can show up at all sorts of odd times), and be accepting of it. Why accepting? Because what we resist, persists. And as with all the archetypes of change, it passes.
Let’s recap the lessons the pandemic offers us:
- We are all one, and everyone of us is connected to the rest of us. We all share a common destiny and humanity.
- We are globally interconnected, living together on a planet in which no one and no nation is isolated from others. Nationalism and chauvinism make no sense, and political leaders who espouse these ideas are deluded. We must not allow ourselves to be deluded.
- We have not been managing our Earth-home properly. We run our global economy ignorant of the laws of ecology. We are ignorant of global supply chains and such ignorance leaves us vulnerable in times of major dislocation. We need to have foresight and plan for the future more realistically.
- We cannot rely on the ego or any externality to keep us safe. We need to internalize a locus of security by developing a relationship to the Self, our inner divine wisdom. Avoid large groups and mass-mindedness. Watch your thoughts: be mindful of how you are choosing to interpret what is going on. Remember that “reality grows where attention goes,” so choose to put your attention on what is positive, uplifting and inspiring.
- Recognize the nature of our time: We are living in a transitional interval, which calls for reflection on your values, rethinking your priorities, resetting your schedule of activities.
- Understand the wider context in which we are living: In this alchemical phase the 3 key archetypes of change are calling on us to stay aware of feelings–confusion, anxiety, fear, discomfort–and hold this tension, so it does not fall into the unconscious and fester; accept this interval of separation from loved ones and usual routines, and put it to good use by gaining clarity about what is really important to you; and allow yourself to grieve, with the understanding that this pandemic time shall pass.
This is a momentous time in our collective history and such times present us with many valuable lessons. You may spot other lessons relevant to your individual circumstances. You have the Self within and you can trust it to guide and protect you through this and any other turmoil that the future presents us. For more in-depth discussion of many of the topics mentioned in this essay, check out the sources cited in the notes or bibliography.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Baker, Peter & Maggie Haberman (2020), “Trump Is Faced With Crisis Too Big for Big Talk,” The New York Times (March 22, 2020), 1,12.
Boynton, Robert (2004), “In the Jung Archives,” The New York Times Book Review (January 11, 2004), 8.
Brome, Vincent (1978), Jung. New York: Atheneum.
Commoner, Barry (1971), The Closing Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago: Open Court Press.
Jung, C.G. (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kolata, Gina (2020), “How Is This Not Like the Spanish Flu?,” The New York Times (March 22, 2020), 2F.
Kury, Patrick (2015), “Influenza Pandemic (Switzerland),” International Encyclopedia of the First World War; access at https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/influenza_pandemic_Switzerland.
LaFerla, Ruth (2020), “Postponed Galas Imperil Much More Than Boldface Names,” The New York Times (March 22, 2020), 1,10ST.
Lewis, Charlton & Charles Short (1969), A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Liddell, H.G. & Scott (1978), A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Ofri, Danielle (2020), “Doctors Are Just As Anxious as You Are,” The New York Times (March 22, 2020), 5SR.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie (2020), “America, Not Trump, Will Save America,” The New York Times (March 22, 2020), 4-5SR.
Stevens, Anthony (2003), Archetype Revisited. Toronto: Inner City Press.
Three Initiates (1912), The Kybalion. Chicago: The Yogi Publication Society.
 Jung, Collected Works, 8, ¶798. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 18 ¶93.
 CW 10 ¶453.
 Bair (2003), 43-4.
 Kury (2015), 1. Page references here are to the copy I printed off the Internet source.
 Kolata (2020), 2F.
 Kury (2015), 2.
 Brome (1978), 63.
 Kury (2015), 3.
 I.e. a person who recognizes that all things have some purpose, plan or goal.
 CW 8 ¶798.
 Bair (2003), 341-7,422,426,428.
 CW 18 ¶93.
 See Commoner (1971), 33-48 for an in-depth discussion of the four laws of ecology.
 Donne (1623), Devotions, XVII.
 Slaughter (2020), 5SR.
 Nationalism is defined in the dictionary as “devotion to the interests of one’s own nation,” and chauvism as “extreme patriotism” or “warlike patriotism, jingoism;” World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1288 & I, 331, respectively.
 Donne (1623), Devotions, XVII.
 CW 9i ¶49.
 Ibid, ¶477.
 CW 18 ¶1302.
 Cf. CW 8 ¶s 663,664,627; CW 5 ¶s 210n,214n,233,235,280,370-3,416,465,570,579 & 682.
 Oikos means “house” and nomizo, “to order, govern;” Liddell & Scott (1978), 546 & 534, respectively.
 Commoner (1971), 39-48.
 Baker & Haberman (2020), 1 & 12.
 Only 11.6% of US economic output is in the form of manufacturer goods; www.thebalance.com. Eighty percent of US antibiotics are made in China; www.politico.com
 This would be less of an issue if we accepted the reality of our global interdependence.
 CW 10 ¶453.
 Ofri (2020), 5SR.
 CW 10 ¶360.
 CW 10 ¶491.
 “Components of Individuation.”
 Matt. 6:19-20.
 Cf. CW 5 ¶221, CW 9i ¶s272,267,496, CW 10 ¶s471,490,519,721, CW 13 ¶54, CW 18 ¶s93,696,1161, 1358,1385,1389,1474 & 1495.
 CW 10 ¶471.
 CW 18 ¶1358.
 CW 7 ¶242.
 CW 9i ¶267.
 Ibid. ¶227.
 Ibid. ¶267.
 CW 10 ¶590.
 Three Initiates (1912), 28-30. This is one of 7 Hermetic principles; the text is an in-depth treatment of all seven.
 CW 8 ¶s872-915.
 Jung wrestled with just how long an aeon lasts; CW 9ii ¶149 & notes 83 & 84.
 CW 10 ¶590.
 Boynton (2004), 8.
 No typos here: the signs of aeon run opposite the normal sequence of the zodiac in persons’ charts.
 E.g. the Vandals and the Goths sacking Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries.
 E.g. Rome “falling” in 476.
 E.g. the Black Plague in the 14th century, which wiped out half the population of Europe.
 These planets are on the cusp of Sagittarius and Capricorn, moving back and forth over the cusp of these two signs as they go retrograde in the course of the months ahead. Being in “conjunction” means the planets are in close proximity, usually within 6 degrees of arc (or 10 degrees if the Sun is involved). Conjunctions intensify the effect of each planet.
 LaFerla (2020), 10ST.
 “Letter to Esther Harding,” 30 May 1957; Letters, II, 362.
 Bair (2003), 368,371,390,395 &399.
 Jung worked on his alchemical studies for the better part of 30 years, beginning around 1928, when he met Richard Wilhelm and ending c. 1955, with his “master work,” Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14.
 Stevens (2003), 59, 139-171.
 A Jungian-oriented astrologer can spot this in your natal and progressed charts.
 See Edinger (1985) for a full discussion of all the archetypes of change.
 From the Latin mors (“death”) and facere (“to make”); Lewis & Short (1969), 1166 & 716-718.
 CW 16 ¶452; cf. CW 13 ¶464.
 Our society, so much into rationalism and efficiency, has little patience with hard feelings like grief, and it is common for people to be surprised when months or years after a death they feel grieving upwell from the unconscious.
 In addition to the archetypes of change, alchemy has several phases: the nigredo, the albedo, the rubedo, and (in some alchemical texts) the citrinitas. For more on these and how they are showing up in our current reality, see the essay “Jung’s Prophetic Vision and the Alchemy of Our Time,” archived on this blog site.