What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Ourselves

My last pre-coronavirus memory was about a week before the lockdowns. It was a Saturday night, and I and a group of friends were eating at an Italian restaurant down the street from my new condo. I was excited because we had just moved a few weeks before, and I was finally getting to experience the culture and nightlife that my new neighborhood had to offer.

After eating dinner, we went to a nearby bar, gathered around a table, and ordered a round of drinks. My friend shouted, “Five Coronas please!” We all giggled a bit nervously. We really did want Coronas; we weren’t trying to be ironic.

A few minutes later, the waitress brought the beers, and my friend said quietly, “Wait, do you think we’re jinxing ourselves?”

We shrugged, each took a sip out of our beers, and grabbed a deck of cards.

Even though this novel disease was spreading across the globe, with Italy and most of China entirely shut down, I didn’t think much of it. I was nervous, yes. But from what I had heard, it mostly affected older people or people with pre-existing conditions. I hadn’t yet heard the argument to “flatten the curve.” I saw it as a fairly similar threat to the seasonal flu – a danger that was deeply tragic to those it affected, but not something that I had to worry about too much.

Maybe I was ignorant, but that was my honest experience.

Over the next week, I started to learn more about the severity of the situation, mostly from writers that highlighted the importance of not overwhelming healthcare systems. My friend sent me articles about “flattening the curve” and about the accelerating death rate. Within a week, my opinion had completely changed: this was a situation that everyone had to take seriously. This could really be bad if we didn’t.

Very quickly, I developed a conviction to social distance. I sent my friends and family news articles urging them to do the same. And I started paying much more attention to what I was touching, started washing my hands longer and with more intent, and I even pleaded with my boss to send a sick coworker home. Perhaps, at this point, I was more properly scared.

I was convinced that this was a particularly threatening situation, so I changed my behavior accordingly. I felt cautious, but connected. Nervous, but hopeful.

Then, the Mayor of Denver announced that bars and restaurants would close until the end of the month.

Now, I was really scared.

Perhaps it’s a product of my generally positive health, maybe it’s a result of my socioeconomic privilege, but when I heard that entire sections of the economy were going to be shut down, and then that everything (except essential businesses) was going to close, my gut fell out from under me.

What…? How…? What are we going to do?

For a brief side note, I think it’s important to share that not all of my economic experiences have been smooth or easy. As, I’m sure, are many of my readers, I am a child of the Great Recession. I was in high school when the economy completely tanked. I saw my dad, who had gotten laid off a few years before and finally found his footing as a realtor, lose almost his entire life savings, half of his salary (as housing prices crashed), and – what was probably the worst part to witness – most of his dignity.

More recently, in my last year of graduate school, I endured one of the most grueling experiences of my adult life: applying for jobs. I was searching for over seven months, facing rejection after rejection. Never one to have acne, the stress of rejection paired with fear for my future fueled the spread of large, cystic bumps across my forehead. Of course, this only made the job interviews more nerve-wrecking.

Countless nights I averaged about two hours of sleep, tossing and turning through the shame of what felt like the ultimate professional and personal failure. I wasn’t just scared of not being able to support myself. I felt useless and without purpose. Looking for jobs, and fearing that I wouldn’t get one, was by far one of the most stressful experiences of my life.

I tell this story because I think it’s important background for my next point. Or maybe it’s not. Either way,

I think it’s notable that what scared me the most about COVID-19 wasn’t the disease itself, it was its economic repercussions.

It’s been over a month that we’ve been in lockdown, and I’ve paid attention, mostly via popular news outlets, conversations with friends, and perusing social media, to how American society seems to be digesting and debating this catastrophe.

I think it’s fair to say that we still don’t know which is the greater threat. Some have argued that the “cure” might be worse than the disease. Others continue to argue that we just don’t know enough yet to justify lifting restrictions. Some even argue that a form of social distancing should last for years until we have a vaccine.

I don’t know yet whether my heightened fears for the economy are rational, but I do know that one potential upside to the lockdowns is that, more than any other event in our lifetime, this proverbial “pause button” has put our society on hold so that we can grab our magnifying glasses (or telescopes) and take a look around.

We can observe the deep political, economic, and social flaws that this pandemic is unveiling, and we can start to imagine better realities that we can realize as humanity moves forward.

For the past month, I’ve attempted to do just that. The following is a list of some of my observations, particularly as they relate to the economy, our political culture, and what I believe is the most pressing task before us.

1. Our country is extremely unequal and our communities lack even basic levels of economic resiliency.

Many of us, including those I expect to be reading this blog, are already sorely aware of the deep inequalities in our country. Yet, the pandemic has brought so many of these inequalities to the forefront. We’re learning that the virus itself has hit black and brown communities much harder than white communities.

We are also seeing how an economic collapse disproportionately affects these same communities, as well as service workers, retail workers, small farmers, and other groups that were already scraping by on meager incomes and minimal benefits before the pandemic hit.

Economic resiliency, which is defined as “the ability of a community to use its assets to withstand, adapt to, and recover from adversity,” is nearly absent in most of our communities. We are seeing swaths of small businesses go under from this one, swift blow to the system. And we are seeing our most fundamental institutions – non-profits, local governments, and universities – struggle to envision scenarios where they can survive without massive layoffs or reductions of services.

After only days of city- and state-wide lockdowns, I personally knew many people that were either laid off, took a pay cut, or worried about losing their small business. While some scientists are arguing that lockdowns or some form of social distancing could last for a year or more, the speed at which so many people were affected by these economic interruptions is notable.

Clearly we have an economy that is extremely insecure, unequal, and far from resilient to adversity. This tweet said it best:

2. Hyper-politicization of issues, especially crises, makes everything worse.

Most who know me know that I strongly identify as a liberal, I always vote Democrat, and I even went through an intense “social justice warrior” phase during my first master’s program where I eagerly and angrily argued with anyone in my path about women’s rights, people of color’s rights, LGBTQ rights – you name it. If there was an injustice that you didn’t yet know about, you were going to hear about it from me.

Now, about four years later, I’ve calmed down quite a bit. Not because I care less, but because I saw that infusing hyper-emotionalism with self-righteous anger might make us feel good in the moment, but it gets us nowhere in solving any of the problems we’re so passionate about.

When an issue becomes hyper-politicized, two things happen:

  1. Emotions, especially emotions of fear, anger, or disgust, cloud our rational mind and blur our judgement;
  2. We create and enforce an “us” versus “them” dichotomy that leaves little room for nuanced discussion or problem-solving.

In this crisis in particular, I’ve noticed this dichotomy emerge:

If you’re liberal, you care about protecting people’s health and lives. If you’re conservative, you care about the economy and protecting people’s livelihoods.

Most of us seem to be forgetting that our health is irrevocably connected to our livelihoods and that our livelihoods are intrinsically connected to our health. It’s not just the virus that disproportionately affects black, brown, low-income, and other subjugated communities. This economic fallout, like all economic downturns, will most certainly impact these communities more than the rest of us.

It already has.

The most fundamental reason that hyper-politicization is problematic, especially during crises, is because it impedes creative problem-solving. “Us” vs. “them” morality doesn’t just send a “right” vs. “wrong” message. It takes it a step further to say that if you are “us,” you are a good person, if you are “them,” you are a bad person.

One of our most fundamental human drives is to belong to a group that’s bigger than ourselves. If venturing outside our moral group doesn’t just mean we disagree, it means we’re a bad person, many of us would prefer to stay in our moral enclaves of safety than venture out into the wilderness of free, individual thought.

In my opinion, one of the leaders that has most exemplified a desire to transcend political boundaries to propose nuanced solutions to the problems arising from COVID-19 is Dr. David Katz. His Coronavirus information page can be found here.

Dr. Katz, and many others, display courage and creativity during this trying time. Now, as a collective, it is our job to give space for more of these thinkers to emerge without digitally grabbing our pitchforks and chasing them to the gallows.

3. Pitting science (or health, or anything else) against the economy helps no one.

One of the most disturbing tendencies I have seen, in this crisis and in others, is the American tendency to pit science against the economy. In regards to coronavirus, we say “listen to the science,” as we beg people to stay home, shutter their businesses, or avoid going to work. In discussions about climate change, we repeat, “The science is irrefutable,” as we propose shutting down coal mines or banning fracking, both immensely harmful to the environment and also the sole source of income for thousands of Americans.

Two seemingly opposing forces can be true at the same time. A paradox, which is what we have here, is defined as

a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.

I propose this paradox to all of you:

We can care about both the strength of the economy and the health of our planetand ourselves. Arguably, we must do this if we are to avoid future populist movements fueled by scientific denialism, nationalism, and fear-fueled anger.

4. We need to reimagine an economy that is equitable, resilient, and sustainable.

One consequence of the global lockdowns is the surprising speed with which the natural environment seems to be bouncing back from centuries of pollution, deforestation, and our relentless pursuit of fossil fuels. We’re seeing before our eyes how quickly a change of course can reap benefits in our fight against climate change.

Ironically, we’re seeing that humans are the greatest threat to ourselves.

As with all observations, the point isn’t what we see; the real question is, what are we going to do with this information? We already know that our current economic system is unequal, our communities are vastly ill-equipped to withstand adversity, and that untempered human activity will lead to our demise.

Still, it would be unjust, unwise, and unrealistic to demand an end to it all. Instead, we need to focus economic growth where it is most needed, both on a national and international scale, and we need to challenge the idea that wealth should always beget more wealth.

The goal of our global political economy should no longer be growth; it should be enough.

5. Whatever we do, we need to do it together.

I have umpteen memories of walking through my parents’ house in suburban Chicago, hearing Bill O’Reilly’s voice billowing through the halls – a slow, fiery anger burning in my chest. I was so angry that, not only was my dad watching Fox News, he subjected the entire house to it by blasting the volume on the T.V. in the room closest to the front door.

Even my escape route was blocked by Bill O’Reilly.

My dad passed away three and a half years ago. I remember some details of all the heated, political arguments we would have. No matter how many chain e-mails, YouTube videos, or memes he would send me, there was no way he was changing my mind – and there was no way I was changing his.

Clearly, the thing I miss and love most about my dad isn’t his political leanings or his social ethics. From my perspective, he lacked an understanding of how our political, social, and economic systems tie together. I also, regrettably, think that his diehard devotion to the meritocratic ideal led him to blame much of his own economic struggle on himself.

No, what I miss most about my dad is that he always, always encouraged me to speak my mind, to think independently, and to act on my convictions with passion…even if my thoughts and convictions were entirely the opposite of his.

This commitment to free thought, creativity, and action is what our society sorely needs. Without it, we can only repeat vapid political maxims, edge further away from each other, and criticize those making decisions without taking any responsibility for action ourselves.

I have a suggestion for all of us:

Let’s crawl out of our ideological bunkers, choose courage over fear, and start getting to work on creating an economy, and a future, that will sustain us all.

2 thoughts on “What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Ourselves

  1. Why would you assume ‘many of {your} readers are child[ren] of the Great Recession’?? Seems arrogant.


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