Two images clashed on my computer screen this week. One was the courageous brigades of medical workers risking their health and perhaps their lives in selfless service to prevent the spread the COVID-19 virus and to treat those afflicted. The other was a clip of defiant college students in Florida exercising their “right” to their spring break parties in spite of the dire warnings to “shelter in place” and to practice social distancing.
My initial response to the young folks was resentment that they would jeopardize not only themselves but those they would expose to the virus, and if and when the did get ill they would add unnecessarily to the already overwhelmed medical establishments dealing with the epidemic. Sure they’re just being twenty somethings filled with hormonal immortality, hubris and immature amigdala that I understand may limit their fear response to the point of high risk behavior. But they are also presumed to be responsible adults, and I am disappointed they were not exercising that responsibility. I am glad that the local authorities prevailed in closing the beaches to squelch the partying.
As I thought more about the two different responses to the epidemic I see them as near perfect metaphors for how we humans respond in general to a sense of deferred danger. Like the death denying young people, much of the world has reacted irresponsibly to the climate crisis by “partying on” and simply pretending/hoping the dire predictions of ecological collapse are wrong - or they don’t apply to me/us - at least not yet. And like the young revelers ignoring the epidemic, it is possible to convince ourselves that we can just go on consuming resources and fouling the air, water and earth without the devastating consequences projected. Where are the “local authorities” capable of squelching our folly?
Meanwhile, like the courageous medical teams working to stem the worst scenarios projected if the pandemic becomes more highly lethal, those who study the metrics of climate disruption are both charged with convincing others to heed their fearful warnings while also leading the courageous effort of preparing for the impact of the consequences if humanity continues to ignore our climate plight.
And as I have reflected further on our varied responses to the COVID-19 virus, I keep coming back to what we are to learn from how we as individuals, communities, and governments are coping with the mind boggling unreality of the pandemic we find so difficult to understand, accommodate and perhaps survive. It is, of course, way too early in the evolution of the virus to conclude much at this time. But it is possible to make some speculations about what we might learn, and, more importantly, what we might want to remember what we have learned from this incredible historical moment.
We are learning, for example, that we are all in this crisis together - every single one of us - and whether we agree about the extent of the threat of the virus we are realizing that absolutely no one is immune from catching it. And the only realistic defense against all of us contracting the disease is to work together to restrict its contagion by everyone cooperating to isolate ourselves from each other. In other words, we have no choice but to conform to a standard of the common good as opposed to the exceptionalism that proposes we can power or buy privileged safe passage. We are learning the importance of the ethic that depends on a personal responsibility that is also accountable to the community - no exceptions if we are to survive.
I also speculate we will learn a new, powerful respect for scientific study. A huge part of the virus crisis is due to the failure of our government to face the truth from the professionals who study epidemiology. What other crises could be prevented by professionals demanding the truth from governmental authority - anti war research versus falsely stoking up war fever, for example?
And I speculate that we will learn a great deal in the coming weeks and months about the power of love and self-sacrifice. Whether each one of us is capable of deep caring and service to others, we will all be subject to receiving care and protection from others we are to get through this. May we all learn and remember the profound ways of the power of love and service that will continue far beyond the virus epidemic.
And finally, I would like to speculate that our species will learn a new level of humility. All the great wisdom, wealth, and military might of the entire globe is not immediately able to effectively combat a tiny “bug” of a pervasive and persistent virus. May we learn the humility of bended knee as we learn pray for mercy and acknowledge that the earth itself has an ultimate and determined final say on how much damage will be permitted and how much respect and honor is required.
Peace to you in these very stressful, anxious, and dangerous times,