“Have you heard? That new virus is spreading like crazy in Wuhan, China. That seems just awful.”
“Oh gosh, now there are tons of cases in Italy and Iran. I heard it came from a bat. How terrifying. Thank goodness there are only a few cases here.”
“It’s exploded in New Rochelle, just outside New York city, and cases are increasing across Europe. Close the borders.”
“New York is the epicenter of coronavirus in the U.S. Those damn, godless New Yorkers, all pressed up against each other. Good thing we’re safe out here in Texas. Or Wyoming. Or Nevada. Or in Lagos or Delhi or Mexico City for that matter.”
Obviously, we all know the terrifying punchline: “there” became “here” for all of us in a matter of weeks. Just as quickly, our carefully cultivated story of separateness has been debunked.
As we live through this, we have the opportunity to acknowledge a few revealed truths.
First, unavoidably, we are all selfish in some important ways. Or, at least, I am.
I know that I started paying attention to, and worrying about, this coronavirus early. I vividly remember the daily, sickening terror I was feeling in mid-February, unable to shake recurring thoughts about the risk to my three children from a MERS-like killer. Then one day I tuned into The Daily podcast and learned that children were very likely to be safe from this virus. I exhaled, the worst of my fears momentarily put to rest.
Fast forward two more weeks and it became real again: I began actively worrying about my parents, and then about my friends, my community, and me.
The truth is, most of us only really wake up when something threatens people whose names we know: our family, our friends, our community.
Does this remind you of anything?
Second, the parallels to global warming are so glaring, it feels heavy-handed to point them out.
Something out there is slowly, inexorably putting us all at great risk. The science is clear about these risks and about the steps we could take to mitigate them. Most of us understand the problem but we ignore it. A few powerful people deny it. Those that don’t do the polite, educated thing, giving lip-service to how important this thing is while making virtually no sacrifices to fight it.
The mirror we can all see
What have we learned in the last few months? That most (but not all) societies are geared—politically, economically and socially—to underprepare, underreact, and stay complacent for far too long. Then, when it’s nearly too late, when it becomes real to us, we will panic, overcorrect, and bemoan the missed opportunity of having started sooner.
A few societies, though, learned important lessons from near misses. They retooled and reprioritized, capitalizing on shifts in attitudes to make significant shifts in resources. They made sure that the next time they’d be in a position to act and act quickly.
The questions we must ask ourselves
Will we all take the lessons we are living and apply them to the next gigantic, looming crisis on the horizon? Or will we, in our desperate desire to return to normalcy, rush headfirst into collective amnesia?
I think the answer to these questions will boil down to our willingness to look own selfishness squarely in the face, to study it without flinching.
If we could see how most of us (importantly, not front-line heroes) have responded to this crisis—how, when left unchecked, we fall prey to a massive, collective failures of imagination and empathy, effectively ignoring far-away-seeming hardships and far-off-seeming risks—might we gain the perspective to start acting differently?
Might this experience engrain in us our fundamental connection with each other?
Might it push us to set different priorities, be willing to give up a bit more, and act sooner and with much more urgency the next time around?
We’ve all been warned.
We all are living through this.
What will we do with this knowledge when we come out the other side?