Where are you in these times of pandemic, pandemonium, panic, panaceas and pandering to the politics of fear?
How will you answer this question?
Perhaps the physical space wherein you spend your days and the thoughts that preoccupy you?
Is the answer more about where you are in your relationships with others? Those you are closest to or members of that other tribe with whom you spend your work life?
What of all the others you interact with only when you leave your cloisters and go out into the world….those you only know by the name tag they wear, who guard and keep the places where you obtain your sustenance?
This is a time most of us never considered.
The whole 7.8 billion of us in a common moment of crisis. Threatened by a microorganism immensely ancient in the scale of time that defines the emergence of organized biological entities. A germ that has disrupted the very essence of modern human civilization — the ability to freely move and interact, to exchange in-the-flesh, goods, services, vice and the trust, love and animosity that bind us together. Be it at your local coffee shop, the protohuman watering hole/cooler, at a sporting match or in the cabin of an aircraft that transports you to the other side of our plane… all that which makes us what we are in AD 2020.
Those of us who are old enough to recall the hot days of the cold war when anyone who contemplated the cataclysm of nuclear weapons loosed in anger, followed by the collapse of civilization and the ensuing multi-decade famine of nuclear winter, would pull back before too-long dwelling in that terrible end. By whatever divine intercession or constructs of social altruism, we are not in that darkest place of purely human making. But it is remarkable to see how very much like Plato’s shadows in the darkest outcomes of our possibilities portrayed, we so easily display.
Where we are, in a very real time of individual existential dread that may feel to some of us as visceral as the imagined minutes before the warheads reenter the atmosphere, has actually come and gone many, many times before. The ascendance of a pathogenic organism tuned through evolution to exploit the weaknesses of our own exquisitely evolved immunological defenses, has recurred throughout all of recorded history. The black death, the English sweat, small pox, typhus, cholera, influenza, yellow fever, measles, polio, malaria, HIV, Ebola… the list will never end as long as we share a planet where interspecies competition occasionally infringes on our recent hegemony. But never in the modern age of understanding exactly what poses the biological threat, have we faced an emergent virus as precisely evolved to exploit our species and for which we have no collective immunity.
As a civilization, we understand to the molecular level of the genetic material that defines SARS-CoV-2 betacoronavirus, the threat we are facing. Despite the free access to that knowledge and the inevitability of a vaccine that will bring the pandemic to an end, we react, as individuals, according to the world we have each constructed of our own free will.
How we imagine these possibilities define us.
Will you suppress your own instinct to act out of pure self-interest and abide by the behaviors that will best protect everyone while we all get through this together?
Will you allow fear to dictate your actions, to cloak yourself in weapons and armor that although useless against the biological threat we face, somehow suppress the terror you feel at the reality of the powerlessness you cannot accept?
Think hard on these questions. Allow yourself to explore. When you can answer and when you find that you cannot, that none of us can with certainty, you will know yourself better than when you awakened today.
Since I asked first, I’ll offer where I think I stand.
I stay at my home as much as possible. My work life is through the portal of technology. It has become a mirror. My own image in the collage, reacting in near-real time. My facial expressions and my inner thoughts.. revealed… at least to me.
My little family. Three of us. In our ark. With a cat. I go out and forage weekly. Bringing back the sustenance. Preoccupied with economic survival. Planning for the summer garden. Respecting the space we share. Trying to, anyway. Trying hard to understand how we each experience this time.
I feel fear. Despite the range of individual responses to COVID-19 (the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection), I’m inclined to think I wouldn’t have an easy time of the ordeal. I’ve already spent weeks in a hospital bed six years ago. I know what it looks like in the best of circumstances. Not the way it is now when health care providers are afraid because they do not have the most essential means to protect themselves. The abject failure of responsible leadership at the highest level.
I believe in the process of science. The rational inquiry of possibilities. The rigorous tools for evaluating the probabilities that define the possibilities. The consensus achieved when evidence is shared and debated openly. The conclusions reached. I live my life in the time of pandemic by those rules. I willingly raise my cortisol levels by imposing the physiological and psychological stress that it takes to do things that are uncomfortable — using respiratory protection, following protocols for disinfection, practicing social distancing, bringing into being the great gulf of covering half my face when I interact… a half face is half of who I am. Half of how I connect. Half of how I share my humanity.
I accept that we, all 7.8 billion of us, share this common experience as if we are one. Because we are one.
But I feel that urge.. that inescapable urge to survive. To see that my family survives. To do what I can to see that everyone I know survives. To accept that I might be able to do more to better the lives of others who I don’t know. I’m not sure how I could do this, but I do know I have my limits. Would I sacrifice all I have for the 7.8 billion of us who are in this together? I don’t know but I do doubt myself.
For now, I will hold fast to what I believe. I will hunker down and look hard for how I can do more. I will imagine the possibilities of what lies beyond this time.