There is an old story about a student who really wanted to stump his brilliant teacher. Every difficult question he asked, the teacher found an amazing answer. Finally, the student came up with an evil idea. He put a small live bird in his hand and hid it behind his back. He asked the teacher, “There is a bird behind my back, is it alive or is it dead?” The student thought that if the teacher said it was dead, the student would release the live bird, but if the teacher said it was alive, the student would crush it and show that it was dead. The teacher studied the face of the student and finally replied, “You ask if the bird is alive or dead, but the answer to your question is in your hands.”
In this age of social distancing, closed businesses, self-isolation and constant virus updates, we can’t be faulted for just wishing that things could just go back to normal. It would be wonderful to be able to go out to eat once in a while, to go and get a haircut when you need it and to just be able to go to the store and find toilet paper. We just want to go back to a simpler time, before this virus turned our world upside down.
I am not a believer in magical thinking. Wishing will not make this virus go away and it will not help us get back to normal sooner rather than later. This pandemic will have to unwind according to natural and scientific patterns and will not disappear just because we want it to. But I am also concerned about what comes next. How will we live our lives after this virus has been tamed? Do we really want to go back to the world that has been left behind?
What is the point of going back to a society where people can’t talk to each other because they have differing political views? What is the point of going back to a time when we called each other names because of our opinions? What was so special about a time when society was divided by income inequality? Why would we wish to return to the time of hyper partisanship if, due to our concern for this health care crisis, we are learning to care for each other no matter what our opinions might be?
So far, we have Congress working in a bipartisan atmosphere, and passing legislation that we need to fight this pandemic. We have a population that increasingly is paying attention and staying apart from each other. Children are learning from parents, and everyone, parents and children, are learning to balance their needs with the needs of their family. Friends are calling friends and, even with social distancing, we are reaching out to help each other. Retired health care workers, and retired military are volunteering to help ease the crisis at our hospitals. We are starting to respond to this crisis by actually caring about each other.
I think we need to learn from this virus that there are more important things to worry about than the political or social leanings of our neighbors. This virus can infect rich people as well as poor people. (My friend in Colorado tells me the hotspot in his state is around the city of Vail, where lots of rich and middle-class people go to ski in the winter, and apparently they took COVID-19 home with them). This virus attacks people regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats. It infects Socialists, Capitalists, Liberals, Conservatives, Libertarians, Nationalists, and Universalists. It does not know anything about national or state borders, race, gender or sexual orientation.
My wife showed me an article from the news about a woman whose husband has come down with a serious attack from COVID-19. The story tore me apart. The man could barely make it to the hospital for his evaluations. The strain on this woman and her family was heartbreaking. She told her story so people would understand that this disease is serious and needs to be stopped. It was painful to read. She was not looking for sympathy, just that everyone should have a jolt of reality, that this is real and has real effects on normal people. As I read her story, I did not stop to ask if she was a Republican or Democrat. I didn’t wonder if she lived in a red state or a blue state. I was not interested in learning about her leaning right or left. I would be embarrassed to ask such questions in the face of such suffering. She was a woman, with a partner who was very sick and the health care in her neighborhood was so stretched that it could barely care for someone she loved.
So, as we sit home in isolation. trying to do our work remotely, trying to juggle kids and work, trying to make ends meet because we were laid off, furloughed, or had to close our business, and we are wishing that this would be over before we run out of money, can’t pay our bills and can’t afford to go to a hospital; just before we drift off into our troubled sleep, think about what we want the world to be like when this is all over.
Life in this country is what we will make it to be. If we want to live again in the partisan world of 2019 before this virus hit our shores, you can bet that that will happen come summer. We still have a presidential election coming, and fights over gerrymandering and the census loom. Already I see on Facebook people blaming this virus on a wide variety of scapegoats but not on the bats that seem to be the first creatures to have given this virus to people. Already I have seen people blaming mistakes our government has made, on political parties that are trying to “weaponize” (whatever that means) this virus as if it was some kind of biological weapon banned by the Geneva Convention and that is being used to attack those whose politics are different than one’s own. If that is what you want to return to, then you have learned nothing from this microscopic killer virus.
On the other hand, if we can unite on ways to stop this virus who says we can’t unite to find answers to other global problems? Climate change could be addressed. Global trade could be addressed. Information on health care and scientific research could be brought to bear on other global health concerns. Maybe different political parties could stay bipartisan long enough to address important issues like health care, immigration, extremism, fake news, and (if we can step into miracle level) the infusion of big money into our politics. What would our world be like if we could find the means to trust law enforcement, our intelligence agencies and our scientific communities? These are all problems that need to be addressed and not by people screaming at each other, but by really smart people, perhaps some of the same ones that are helping us in this moment of crisis, who can show us the way out of our serious problems without blaming or shaming.
Is this my own magical thinking? Like I said, I don’t believe in magical thinking. But all of this can be real if we make up our minds that we will NOT go back to the way things used to be. This virus, like all disease, is not here because we have people like ……………………….. (fill in the blank). COVID-19 is just the most recent part of the dark side of the nature of life on this planet. But we have the power to make something good from these bleak and confusing days. This crisis will come to an end, they always do. But will we be different when we get to the other side? Will we see what humanity can be and insist that this is how it should be?
That answer, my friends, is in your hands.