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The Coronavirus is a Stark Reminder We Are One Global Family

What a difference a month makes. The whole world is reacting to a pandemic of a previously unknown virus. It’s an emergency on a global scale, dominating every news cycle. It’s the subject of conversations over coffee counters at 7-11 in the mornings and at local watering holes in the evenings. Our lives are being disrupted. You can see concern and worry etched on people’s faces.

Is this a new phenomenon? Of course not, because the world has faced many devastating outbreaks of disease in human history, including the Black Death in the 1300’s, the flu pandemic of 1918, the Asian Flu of 1956-58 and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic of 2005-2012  - to name a few. The pandemics of the past have killed hundreds of millions, shaped history, shifted population demographics and influenced art, music, literature and theater, leaving an indelible imprint on our collective psyche.

Is this why the Coronavirus seems so suddenly terrifying – because the trauma of such a widespread disease is embedded in the ancient part of our brains and triggers fears of vulnerability, helplessness and fear? Or had we lulled ourselves into the illusion that such a pandemic is not possible in the era of modern medicine? And why is our reaction to this so much more visceral and vocal than our reaction to let’s say the crisis of climate change? Is it because the virus pandemic is less abstract, more personal, more immediate?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is certain: when it comes to a potentially massive catastrophe like this, national boundaries will not protect us. Nor will wealth or status make us immune. Humans from all social strata and from every corner of the planet are faced with the same humbling thought - that at the moment our best protection from contagion is hand sanitizer, incessant hand washing, medical masks and the avoidance of physical contact with others or even our own faces.

So here we are all at once in the same boat, and for some of us we are literally in the same boat - stuck on a cruise ship in quarantine and dealing with an even greater degree of confusion and hysteria. We are coming face to face with our human frailty and at the same time with our fundamental oneness. Regardless of religion, political affiliation or mindset we are now starkly being reminded that we are all – every one of us – Homo Sapiens, the species to which all modern humans belong (and the only member of the genus Homo that is not extinct).

It’s a reality check of epic proportions, at a time when it’s become so convenient to retreat into the comfort of online echo chambers that validate and amplify our viewpoints and make us comfortable designating others, whether consciously or not, as less civilized, less intelligent or less moral than we are. We’ve become adept at “othering,” as we stridently advocate for the positions we are passionate about. We’ve succumbed to the false narrative that social media is a forum of ideas, whereas in reality it is all too often a platform for venting our frustrations and anger, or for spewing hatred.

But the Coronavirus is a harsh refresher of Humanity 101 - the most basic of courses. It teaches that we share identical DNA and the same genes, cells, and microbes. On the macro level we share a common heritage as humans,  Humanity 101 teaches that collectively we will shape our destiny on planet earth, for better or for worse. As it is said from long ago, we will live together or we will die together. Faced so immediately and directly with our own fragility as a species, others become brothers (and sisters), who are dealing with the same set of dangerous and scary circumstances as we are. The barriers we’ve erected, whether physical or mental, between us as members of the human family, melt away as we face an existential crisis like the one we currently face.

Our illusions of separateness disappear in the light of the new realities we are confronting, which may be old realities that we have long forgotten. We will no doubt survive this latest onslaught upon our collective well-being, but not without great pain and tragedy. The bigger question is what we will learn from this experience? Will it jumpstart a new era of international cooperation, the development of new commonly agreed upon protocols for safety, more efficient sharing of information across borders, the creation of more robust yet localized health delivery systems and clinics, the innovation of new medicines at prices that everyday people can afford?

Hope springs eternal, and hope is what we cling to now. At dark times like these, let us hope that a vaccine is developed sooner than later. Let us hope that we can resist the “survival of the fittest” mentality that humans have descended to in pandemics past; that we can hold and support each other as we feel stress and fear. And at the same time let us hope for a new dawn - a renewed awareness of our interconnectedness – which could light our pathway toward a future of greater harmony and better collaboration.

Monday, March 9, 2020