A few years ago, I wrote a short essay expressing hope that the world could unite around existential threats (supervolcanos, climate change, even hostile extraterrestrials, etc.). Perhaps in the face of such threats, I hoped, the world could be shocked out of the social divisions and behavioral patterns we’d grown so accustomed to and rediscover our shared humanity. Though I listed a few reasons why things are not so simple.
In that light, I’ve been disappointed so far how (some) people are reacting to coronavirus. There have been reports of anti-Asian racist incidents in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and France. As one Chinese-American man, Vincent Pan, put it, we have to “fight two viruses” now: COVID-19 and bigotry.
Racism isn’t the only social division that coronavirus has driven a wedge into. Yesterday it was reported that one of the attendees at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Maryland tested positive for the virus. Two prominent Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Paul Gosar, may have been exposed and were “self-quarantining.” Disappointingly, the response to the news on social media fell into the predictable partisan trenches that have been dug into the social fabric of the country over the past few decades.
For example, I saw some people expressing schadenfreude that some Republicans might be affected, perhaps as a form of comeuppance or karma because several of them had dismissed the pandemic as overblown, fear-mongering, or even a “hoax” being exploited to hurt the President politically. And, Donald Trump, Jr. accused Democrats of hoping that the virus would kill millions of Americans solely to hurt his father politically. He later defended those comments, saying he was “entitled to speak with hyperbole.”
There is something seriously wrong here. Unfortunately, some people are not rising to the occasion or listening to “the better angels of their nature.” This is particularly pernicious when those people have big platforms to disseminate irresponsible ideas.
Maybe we could re-frame our approach. We should remember that a virus doesn’t care at all about your ethnicity or your political ideology. Actually, it doesn’t care about anything. It is merely an insentient genetic program that acts to replicate and thrive in a host. And every single person alive fits that description. We shouldn’t wish it on anyone for both basic decency, but also for selfish reasons — the more it spreads, the higher the risk that you or someone you love will contract it, with potentially severe consequences.
Maybe this is a chance to shock ourselves out of the stupid, paralyzing cycle of bigotry and hyper-partisanship that we’ve inherited. Someone once wrote (possibly A.D. Williams, but I cannot find an original source) “Imagine what 7 billion humans could accomplish if we loved and respected one another.” I don’t know if we all have to love and respect each other, but it is indisputable that hatred and division are counter-productive and wasteful. Time, energy, and resources are all finite, and too much of those precious things are being wasted rather than applied toward solving actual human problems. So, here is an opportunity. Coronavirus is an equal-opportunity virus that could affect any of us. There is no vaccine. Whether you are rich or poor, Chinese, American, Italian, or Iranian, you — and everyone you love — are all vulnerable.
There is at least some good news, I think. I’ve written about this before, but the fact that human beings are obligatorily social primates says something good about us. Our ancestors have been group living for about 50 million years or so. And, if you’re going to live in — and depend on — a group, then it makes sense that evolution would have equipped us to care about the other social primates around us, even non-kin. It’s been said that disasters have a tendency to bring out the best in people. Maybe, maybe not. Doctors and nurses in Iran have shown compassion for their coronavirus patients by dancing for them to lift their spirits. One doctor in China took an elderly patient who had been isolated for a month to get a CT scan in another building. They stayed outside a bit longer to see the sunset.
In the U.S., one newspaper reminded us that “we’re only as safe as our most vulnerable neighbors.” People without enough income to take sick time from work are not only vulnerable themselves, but could potentially transmit the virus to others. In other words, it is in our self-interest to care about others’ well-being, not only for its own sake, but because our lives are all interconnected. We may sometimes feel separate, and that we can live out our lives in seclusion, surviving off stockpiled supplies of canned foods and toilet paper. But coronavirus reminds even the most self-reliant of us how much we need others for our basic necessities. It might be more fruitful if we remembered as if our fates were all intertwined.