Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Quarantine: "It's The Law" in Virginia (And All Over the World)

We have reached the end of what might be the most bizarre month of world-altering events that I have ever experienced.

Yesterday, the governor of the State of Virginia joined more than 30 other States in the United States of America in giving the force of law to what had been "guidelines" and "recommendations" to stay at home, and practice social distancing

More than 80 percent of the population of the USA is now legally under constraints similar to the ones in Italy, most of Europe, and indeed most of the rest of the world. The evidence is clear that this is the best way to slow down the spread of the potentially serious respiratory infection known as COVID-19. This is a global pandemic of a very peculiar "new virus" that is highly contagious, that causes a relatively minor-to-moderate illness (including cases with few or no significantly discomforting symptoms) in the vast majority of people it infects, but can cause very grave illness requiring hospitalization in something like 15% of identified cases. Numbers can be cold; we are talking about multitudes of people who will die or develop serious lung disabilities or at least require a long and difficult period of recovery from a disease that is transmitted to them by other infected members of the community who may not even know they have it. Such a chaotic phenomenon is obviously something that societies can't ignore (as has been demonstrated by the disasters in countries that did try to ignore it). 

During the second half of March, the USA was forced into the position of trying to mitigate as much as possible the effects of a problem it neglected for too long, which is already multiplying prolifically, killing thousands of people, paralyzing the health care system in some major urban areas, and posing many unknown dangers. It is very hard to predict how things will unfold from here. Best-case projections are looking at 100,000 - 250,000 deaths in this country with many millions of serious illnesses requiring intensive medical care.

Obviously the numbers for victims worldwide are or will be exponentially higher. At this point, the only way to slow down (and eventually stop) this pandemic is for entire communities of people to "act as if" each member has the virus at least to the point of being possible communicators of the infection to others. In other words, everyone must observe at least some aspects of quarantine. As much as possible, we must stay at home, or practice "self distancing" when it is necessary to procure (or provide) essential services.

These are unprecedented restrictions, and we don't really know how long they will be necessary. But for now, they are necessary.

Perhaps this is all just a temporary "inconvenience" for the vast majority of us — an odd pause in our "normal" lifestyle of crisscrossing the Global Village unhindered, using our hyper-travel machines to move between and interact with various massive gatherings of bodily human beings, continually trafficking in millions of germs that our immune systems can handle.

Or perhaps it is the beginning of as yet unimaginable changes in how we relate to one another on a global and local scale. This is a possibility. All through my life, there have been people who have insisted — for various reasons — that such changes are inevitable and necessary, and that if we don't make these changes, events will force them upon us. I think they are pointing to something very real, which has to do with this elusive yet unmistakably emerging new epoch that I have been pondering in recent years.

We really are all interrelated and interconnected. We are all one human family. We are immersed within a delicate ecosystem. We are not submerged, so as to be merely a part of a larger system that takes precedence over our "species." We are human persons, with spiritual personal existence, intelligence, and freedom. Even as we transcend the physical universe, we also "belong" in it as its apex and crown. Here we mature and fulfill our vocation. The world has been entrusted to our care — not to abuse as meaningless stuff to be pillaged and destroyed in pursuit of our endless violent cravings, but to receive as a gift that can provide adequately for our physical needs, and a place we engage with wisdom and gratitude, cultivating spaces of habitation that peoples call "home," where human persons live in communion with one another and with gentle, organic solicitude for all the natural world and the beauty and diversity of its creatures.

I remember when we saw Earth on TV
We have not been doing this very well. For all of our dazzling material achievements, we have too often used our power recklessly. We use our power over the world and over our own bodies for many good things, but also (and too often) to build gigantic edifices and systems in the service of our titanic illusions.

Though our delusions and ambitions are limitless, nature is not. A culture of power-without-wisdom is fundamentally unsustainable. We must change the way we live, or else change will be forced upon us.

Here I confess to my own weakness: I do not like change very much.

I have lived my life in a historical period of seismic changes. I haven't weathered the stress of change very well. I have endured the earthquakes by somehow managing to fall into the cracks where survival and even some ingenuity remain possible. They have served in part to provoke me to those deeper changes that are essential to growing and moving forward in the journey of being a human person. I seem to be very slow to change. I know that I prefer to change slowly!

I don't know how to live during the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 except one day at a time. It has not (at least, not yet) created too many external changes to my rhythm of life. I have been "staying at home" for a long time. What is interesting is that the rest of the world seems to have joined me, and everyone is avidly (perhaps desperately) using the powers of communications technology to make up for what they are missing by being deprived of the freedom to move about with transportation technology.

For now, it has made social media a more genuinely "social," more aware, more creative, more human place. People are discovering that the "digital continent" does exist, that it is more than a means of narcissistic indulgence, haphazard interaction, and invasive curiosity. It is a means of human communication. It also has limits. Recognizing its relative utility and its limits may help us build up constructive facets of media that will endure beyond this crisis.

Presently, the crisis is still unfolding. What will happen? I don't know.

Are we all going to DIE? 

The answer to that question is "YES."

But it is also likely that most of us will not die from the COVID-19 infection. Some will die from it, and others will feel the impact of losing loved ones. We must care for the sick and suffering among us, and stand with compassion and solidarity with those who endure loss from this pandemic and other disasters. But we will all die... eventually. We don't need to be unreasonably morbid or terrified, but the disruptive and disorienting experience of this pandemic can serve as a signal to us of our mortality, and the need to prepare for that final, defining moment.

Being a foolish human being, of course, it's only natural for me to speculate about how this will play out. Obviously we are all taking responsibility for limiting our activity in order to facilitate the end of the pandemic and the prevention of it returning in the future. So we all reasonably hope for that. 

My "speculation" for my own country is that probably this is going to be (for those who are not directly or proximately hit by the affliction itself or its economic and social consequences) a temporary-and-very-strange-period-of-time that will be followed by a season of economic hardship. It will be especially difficult for the poor. In the long run it will yield some small readjustments to human living that most of us will not notice too much in our lifetimes. Maybe there will be some advances in medical science (and our health care system as a whole) corresponding to the needs that this pandemic has revealed to us. Maybe we will even see some of the advantages of "slowing down a bit" and simplifying our lives, focusing on what really matters.


Maybe some of the impressions people are now having about how we are all united as one human family will bring about some good — something that lasts beyond the intensity of sentiments that current circumstances are generating; we all know that sentiments will not last on their own strength.

Maybe we can choose to make some changes for the better in our attitudes as well as our behavior. Maybe we will remember to be less presumptuous about how much we control reality. Maybe we will learn that being reasonable and responsible human persons does not conflict with being open to the ultimate mystery of life. When the reality of life's mystery confronts us, as it has in these days, we remember our humanity, we turn our hearts to one another, we discover in ourselves surprising resources of real practical energy, creativity, courage, and compassion.