Coronavirus... and the choice we now face

The global pandemic as a mirror into our humanity

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I had hoped to get my final “why does patriarchy persist?” post up in time for International Women’s Day, but alas it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, like many of us I’ve been watching the accelerating catastrophe that is the coronavirus inexorably spread across the globe.

I’m writing from Seattle, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak here in the U.S. It’s surreal: a simultaneously terrifying and inspiring mirror into humanity in the 21st century. I want to use this post to explore this pandemic in the broader context of the global moment we are in.

TL;DR: this pandemic peels back the veil on an undeniable truth: we are deeply and inextricably interdependent. As such, it provides an opportunity for us to change course, to recognize that we are only as strong collectively as the most marginalized among us.

It is a metaphor for this global moment

We are living in a moment of intersecting crises. The best article I’ve found exploring this in the context of the coronavirus is this comprehensive essay from Nafeez Ahmed:

The global system is currently on the brink of multiple simultaneous crises. Intersecting energy, economic and environmental crises have formed destabilizing amplifying feedback loops with social, political and cultural systems.

This was true before COVID-19, and will remain true after. The question is how the pandemic will interact with these underlying dynamics. It’s not a passive question: we have agency. This is the choice we now face: will we intervene in the direction of justice and the future we need (from a place of love) or in the direction of scarcity, oppression, and a desperate clinging to a fragile status quo (from a place of fear)?

As with everything these days, I am not optimistic — but I am hopeful (a distinction I discussed in an earlier post). Fear is a powerful emotion, but so is love. And courage is also contagious. I love this from Sonia Sanchez:

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Radical change is required

This is true in an immediate survival sense: we simply cannot go on with business as usual. In addition to basic good hygiene practices, the only strategy so far that has proven effective in limiting the spread of COVID is “social distancing”: basically, staying away from other people. Here in Seattle we are fortunate to have coordinated messaging, strong local leadership, and many major employers can relatively smoothly shift white-collar employees to remote work (Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) I fear this is allowing us to mistake this moment as an inconvenience rather than a fundamental rupture. It’s hard to know how this will play out, but one thing is clear from China, Italy, and Iran thus far, where the caseload (and the resulting collapse of hospitals and health systems) followed an exponential trajectory. As Yascha Mounk put it:

We need to change our behavior in radical ways—right now.

This too reflects the fissures in society, along predictable dividing lines. Those who benefit from the status quo are urging calm, pleading for moderation, promising half-measures. The things they pay attention to reflect that (what about the stock market!) Those who are suffering and most precarious under our current system (and therefore will inevitably suffer worst under crisis) are calling for urgent action, particular in the disability community. Interestingly, the demographic typically most resistant to change (older generations) is most at-risk from this epidemic… so we may see some realignment as people reach different threat assessments.

There is no “them”: only us.

As the first cases were reported here in Washington state, I found myself grimly watching the Vox Explained mini-documentary on The Next Pandemic (which, appropriately, debuted on Netflix the month before COVID-19 emerged in China). The inescapable conclusion: diseases recognize no boundaries, no social classes, no racial differences. They are the paradigmatic example of a collective action problem: ONLY working together offers any possibility of averting catastrophe.

There can be a tendency to pull up the ladders and push others away from the life rafts: this instinct, though understandable, is ultimately self-defeating. This disease is a reminder of what has always been true: we are only as strong collectively as the most marginalized among us. We can't run away from our obligations to each other.

The only antidote is social cohesion

Pandemics are inevitable: the only thing we can do is ensure we are as well-prepared as we can be. The focus thus is on prevention, mitigation, resilience, and recovery. We can’t stop them, but we can reduce their likelihood of occurring, and the amount of harm they cause when they do occur. The common denominator that underpins all these responses is one simple thing: social cohesion. Our ability to preempt and respond depends on our ability to effectively coordinate, collaborate, and take collective action. For that we need trust.

The good news is, this doesn’t need to be mandated, or legislated. It’s innate. Here’s Michael Lerner:

Resilience is not something we need to teach people. Resilience flows directly from the deepest human instincts of loving and caring. We instinctively seek to survive ourselves and to help all those we love and care for to survive and flourish. In fact, we often care more about others than we do about our own survival.

I am reminded here of an emergent community of practice in the context of the climate crisis called Deep Adaptation, a response to a foundational paper by Jem Bendell. It recognizes that the single biggest factor determining the severity of the crisis (societal collapse as a consequence and leading indicator of climate collapse) is how we treat each other. It is precisely that sense of agency that is my source of hope in this moment; yes, the trend lines are deeply troubling. But how we respond to those trend lines is very much within our control. As Mariame Kaba says:

Hope is a discipline. It must be practiced.

Here’s Ahmed again:

The coronavirus will strain social, economic and political systems to the brink... Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values.

Time for a phase-shift

My last post featured Daniel Schmachtenberger talking about this moment of humanity’s “phase shift”: an interregnum between two paradigms, one clearly dying, the other not yet fully emerged. Ahmed uses this same framework in his essay. As such the COVID crisis provides a fascinating snapshot, a mirror into humanity in the age of the Anthropocene. Isaac Chotiner had a beautiful interview with pandemic expert Frank Snowden in the New Yorker, concluding:

Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are… They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people.

We face a moment of reckoning: this is who we are. Is this who we want to be?

This is the good news: the very things we must do right now to survive COVID are the same things we need to do going forward as a society if we want to complete this phase-shift. Chotiner again, framing the choice we now face:

The major thing that needs to happen, if we are to be prepared now and in the future, is there has to be an absolutely fundamental change in our mind-set. We have to think that we have to work together as a human species to be organized to care for one another, to realize that the health of the most vulnerable people among us is a determining factor for the health of all of us.

This crisis serves as a stark reminder that our system is deeply hostile to our better angels. We are structurally incentivized NOT to do the right thing: no paid sick leave means we go to work sick, no health care means we don't get tested, etc. We have a rare opportunity to re-align our structures to support us in our natural inclination to do the right thing. Here’s Zeynep Tufekci, writing in Scientific American:

Preparing for the almost inevitable global spread of this virus… is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do.

Like the proverbial frog, sometimes humans need to be thrust into boiling water before we can locate the agency to act. We know that in the face of the climate crisis we need to wean ourselves off oil, and start limiting ourselves to only essential travel… but we haven’t been able to do it. And now, of necessity, we are. Can we maintain that coping response as the new normal? One grounded in our abiding respect for each other’s humanity and the planet on which we all depend?

We become what we practice. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of society do you want to live in? This is a scary time: let’s support each other.