Fear has gripped everyone in the past two weeks, and it has become difficult to offer reassuring news without conveying false hopes that may put vulnerable people at risk. But in these times of uncertainty, we also need to pause and celebrate some of the positive changes that have already occurred on an unprecedented scale around the world.
We are no longer ignorant to what matters. Illnesses and accidents always trigger a cascade of unexpected positive events. First, they tend to channel our attention toward things we usually take for granted. Illnesses and pandemics such as the one we are currently living through are also blessings for bringing families, friends, and communities together. The mass anxiety, extreme measures, and manic media coverage around the COVID-19 event have drastically restructured our attention toward many crucial features of our lives. We are now more mindful of our health and thankful for our bodies. We are reminded of all the vulnerable populations in our societies, and how much we care about them. We are more grateful for the complex chains of production, supply, maintenance, and care without which our societies couldn’t exist.
Cooperation is spreading on an unprecedented global scale. Before the panic around COVID-19 mobilized our attention, the Western world was already facing an epidemic of anxiety, loneliness, mental illness, and rising uncertainty about the future. From politics gone mad to climate change, and social media feeds exploiting our mental vulnerabilities, the symptoms of individualism were already ravaging our lives. In many ways, the conditions for a global panic and mental health crisis were already in place. The COVID-19 epidemic is providing a timely antidote to all of this.
What we forget to notice, and what never gets reported on or shared on social media, is the cooperative business of life as usual: people patiently waiting their turn and taking precautions to protect the weak, ongoing acts of kindness among strangers, friends checking in on each other, families spending time together, volunteers delivering food to elders. On a much bigger scale, world governments are now coordinating preventive measures with a degree of cooperation never seen before. China has deployed doctors and public health experts to assist Italy with the ongoing crisis. Israelis and Palestinians are uniting to fight the epidemic. Governments around the world are implementing economic measures to assist the economically vulnerable. Natural disasters typically bring people together and prompt spontaneous acts of solidarity among strangers. In the past, pandemics have often proven to be a sad exception to this rule, with fear of contagion increasing discrimination, conflict, and competition for resources. But humanity seems to have learned from past mistakes. The recent increase of fast media (from print media and the telegraph to radio, TV, and the Internet) enabled the efficient spread of information. This mass diffusion of myths and ideas, in turn, accentuated both tribalism and exchange.
We are finally slowing down. Overworking is another problem COVID-19 is helping us surmount. From poor mental health to pollution and increased polarization, it had already become evident that our societies’ addiction to over-production, over-consumption, and individual achievements was a public health, political, and environmental disaster. As social distancing measures are being implemented around the world, a sharp increase in life-saving air quality has already been documented from China to Italy, with carbon emissions reaching new lows each day because of reduced air travel. At this point, most of us are already living in conditions of enforced slowness and distancing that are finally giving us the opportunity to work less, spend time with loved ones, and find the time to chat, read, play music, cook, go for long walks, and engage in all the pleasures we had forgotten to cultivate as we were chasing the futile goals of our accelerated, anxious lives. Our traditions used to prescribe days of rest, family, and pleasure like the Sabbath — along with many opportunities for ritual gathering and celebration of our shared humanity and a common search for meaning. COVID-19 also reminded us that the very social fabric that once made us strong was broken, and is showing us the way to fix it. As quoted: “There is a time for everything under the sun... a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” It can be hard to accept that the most important and helpful thing we can do at this time is stay home. But we are doing so to save lives and take care of one another.
Let us be grateful that these times of uncertainty have brought us closer together as a world.