Coronavirus: Infecting the Zeitgeist

If every crisis is an opportunity and every failure is a lesson, then the world is brimming today with opportunity and lessons.

I was hours away from get­ting on a plane a mon­th ago to meet an Ital­ian friend, Sal­va­tore, in Tel Aviv, when he called to tell me to can­cel. He’d been put under house arrest as a con­tain­ment mea­sure.

Israel’s first Coro­n­avirus case had just arrived from Rome, and the Airbnb where we’d planned to meet was now his quar­an­tined home for 14 days. We joked about bing­ing Net­flix.

This morn­ing I spoke with Sal­va­tore from his home in Rome, where again he is under effec­tive house arrest. There were no jokes.

It’s like end times here. I’m hon­est­ly wor­ried the econ­o­my is going to col­lapse. Nobody can be out in the street, every­thing has been ordered shut except phar­ma­cies and food stores. It’s bad, bad, bad.”

Sal­va­tore had shut­tered his web agen­cy and told his staff to stay home long before the gov­ern­ment made that manda­to­ry, and yet he was berat­ing him­self for not hav­ing done more, not hav­ing dropped every­thing and used his net­works and influ­ence to help slow the spread of the virus. How, I want to know, was that his respon­si­bil­i­ty? But his answer sug­gest­ed I’d just told a man in a burn­ing house there’s noth­ing he can do because he’s not a fire­man.

His mes­sage to me, here in the Nether­lands, com­pla­cent as he had been weeks ago, was this: Snap out of it. “I want to warn every­one that what’s hap­pen­ing here will hap­pen to you unless you act, and faster than you think. It’s a chal­lenge to every one of us, as if we’re all pas­sen­gers on a sink­ing boat. You need to treat slow­ing the spread of the virus as your per­son­al mis­sion, a civic duty. You’re mak­ing choic­es every day that are going to hin­der or speed the spread of the virus, choic­es that will have an impact on oth­er human beings. Social dis­tanc­ing works, it slows the out­break, and that’s what makes the dif­fer­ence between a health sys­tem that can cope and one that col­laps­es. Here in Italy I’m watch­ing doc­tors, too few because so many are sick, hav­ing to decide who gets the care that deter­mi­nes who dies and who lives. Imag­ine that psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure…”

What I also heard was the psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure of Salvatore’s guilt: that hol­low voice that whis­pers in our ear every day that there’s an exis­ten­tial cri­sis requir­ing our col­lec­tive and indi­vid­u­al respon­se, and no mat­ter how much we’ve done, it isn’t enough.

Sound famil­iar? Coro­n­avirus is cli­mate change on fast-for­ward.

So first, a plea: wash your hands of virus, not respon­si­bil­i­ty. Take the pre­cau­tions that will slow the spread. Keep social dis­tance, can­cel meet­ings and trav­el that are not essen­tial. Share infor­ma­tion that’s infor­ma­tive and sound. Don’t pan­ic but don’t short shrift the mag­ni­tude of this threat. Being care­ful is being kind to any­one in a high risk cat­e­go­ry. As a 60+ asth­ma suf­fer­er liv­ing in a coun­try whose health care sys­tem is about to be over­whelmed, that’s a per­son­al plea.

That said, I have some thoughts on how this pan­demic could leave some help­ful anti­bod­ies in its wake.

I believe sto­ries are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of soci­ety. That they shape our sense of what’s right, what’s nor­mal, and what’s pos­si­ble. That they rep­re­sent a vast col­lec­tive tro­ve of humanity’s notes to self on how to sur­vive. Events like this pan­demic shake the exist­ing sto­ries that explain the world to their foun­da­tions, and open up space for new sto­ries that teach new lessons to help us over­come new obsta­cles.

Coro­n­avirus just might turn out to be humanity’s most impor­tant lesson in how to sur­vive the exis­ten­tial threats of our own mak­ing.

Lesson one: Truth wins. You can’t spin away an epi­demic. One of the rea­sons the 1918 influen­za out­break was so fast and dead­ly was the wartime cen­sor­ship in the US and Europe. Gov­ern­ments not only pre­tend­ed it didn’t exist, they hid the threat from their own peo­ple. Trump can’t out-tweet an epi­demic, and despite the hor­ri­fy­ing attempt to turn it into yet anoth­er deep state / for­eign attack, the dai­ly reveal of incom­pe­tence in the face of cri­sis will strain the lim­its of his strat­e­gy of bat­tling every foe with a tox­ic cock­tail of mis­in­for­ma­tion. The habit of labelling truths you don’t like as “fake news” is about to get its come­up­pance.

Lesson two: One of the heroes of this sto­ry is sci­ence. In 1918, the idea that dis­eases were spread by germs and viral agents was in its infan­cy, and dis­missed by many as the day’s equiv­a­lent of fake news. One town in Spain that shunned the advice of health offi­cials was Zamora, which instead brought peo­ple togeth­er for nine days of prayer and a cer­e­mony in which every­one lined up to kiss the relics of the patron saint of pesti­lence. The result was the high­est death rate in Spain. Today, the patron saint of irony is com­ing down hard on every politi­cian who ignores the advice of the sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ty — whether it’s to brazen­ly shake hands in a crowd to prove they’re not cowed or to craven­ly attempt to pro­tect eco­nom­ic inter­ests. Sci­ence, peo­ple: when it guides pol­i­cy, we win. When you ignore it, it bites human­i­ty in the ass.

Kate Raworth, the author of the fan­tas­ti­cal­ly bril­liant “Dough­nut Eco­nom­ics” tweet­ed this recent­ly:

And isn’t that it in a nut­shell? We’ve all been mad­ly play­ing Monopoly for cen­turies now, but if we’re going to sur­vive, the game has to change.

And that brings us to per­haps the most impor­tant lesson Coro­n­avirus is teach­ing us: That the sta­tus quo and busi­ness as usu­al are not the unstop­pable jug­ger­nauts that we imag­ine.

Covid-19 teach­es us both that they are frag­ile, and that human­i­ty can sur­vive their dis­rup­tion. As bad as the pan­demic is, we’re get­ting off light­ly com­pared to the hor­rors that will be vis­it­ed on our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren by the wages of today’s dig, con­sume, and burn mod­el of con­sump­tion. Com­pared to entire coun­tries on fire or under­wa­ter, mass star­va­tion and forced migra­tions, the pan­demic will look like a bad cold. If we can change our behav­iour to stop a thou­sands of deaths, sure­ly we can do so to stop mil­lions?

Every one of the choic­es — not to dri­ve, not to fly, not to stop the relent­less pace of man­u­fac­tur­ing and eco­nom­ic growth! growth! growth! — that seemed hard when the con­se­quence was cli­mate change, are sud­den­ly easy in the face of a threat that kills in weeks rather than decades. The skies over Bei­jing are blue and the air there is clean­er than ever. Let’s breathe that in and think in a big­ger time­frame about how the price of eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion com­pares to the price of inac­tion.

Jon­ah Sach’s book Win­ning the Sto­ry Wars talks about the impor­tance of “Myth Gaps”: times when an old sto­ry, whether it’s the greek gods or the Amer­i­can Dream, stop mak­ing sense as expla­na­tions of the world. Because the human brain can­not func­tion with­out mean­ing, a new sto­ry will always rush into the vac­u­um, whether it’s monothe­ism or the 99%, as the new expla­na­tion of the world.

There’s an old sto­ry here that’s dying. One that says we can car­ry on doing as we’ve always done. That the sci­ence is scary yes, but the impor­tant thing is the econ­o­my. That “the game is still Monopoly.”

It’s not.

The game is Pan­demic, and the game skills we need to sur­vive are empa­thy, com­mu­nal­ism, per­son­al action com­bined with civic respon­si­bil­i­ty, and the will­ing­ness to tell and act on the truth.

Look for the helpers” was Mis­ter Rogers’ sound advice to fright­ened chil­dren fac­ing cat­a­stro­ph­es beyond their com­pre­hen­sion. “There are always helpers.” There are sto­ries of helpers and hero­ism in abun­dance right now, if you look. From med­ical work­ers pulling 12 hour shifts in Italy to the 9 doc­tors who flew from Shang­hai to Italy, hav­ing sur­vived their epi­demic, to bring tens of thou­sands of ven­ti­la­tors, face masks, and test kits to anoth­er, to acts of gen­eros­i­ty and com­pas­sion great and small that reveal human­i­ty at its best. They remind us of Homo Sapi­ens’ resilience and abil­i­ty to rise to a cri­sis. The coro­n­avirus unites us again­st a com­mon foe in ways that reveal a sin­gle, shim­mer­ing, hope­ful truth: Our human­i­ty can save human­i­ty, and that’s nev­er more evi­dent than when both are under threat.

Bri­an Fitzger­ald is direc­tor of Danc­ing Fox, a cre­ative agen­cy ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing activists and social change artists tell more pow­er­ful sto­ries. This sto­ry first appeared on Medi­um. 

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