Monday, April 20, 2020

Epicenters and Aftershocks of the COVID-19 "Earthquake"

Nearly four months into 2020, the world is still shaking from the coronavirus. It really is shaking, and even if many of us who are sheltering-in-place can't feel it, we still need to stay where we are, for now. That's not always easy or immediately evident, given our diverse particular situations.

For Christians it's the Easter Season. I trust in the resurrection of Jesus, the light who strengthens me and gives me confidence in God's goodness. Jesus guarantees the ultimate value of all our efforts to do good in this world. But he doesn't provide packaged solutions to complex human problems. Rather he calls us from within those problems to grow in new life by living intensely our humanity in its present needs and with our particular gifts. I'm a thinker and writer, so I here I'm sharing my perspective.

We are all enduring a public health emergency that is obviously serious but can also seem a little "remote" from the experience of many of us. Unless we are sick with coronavirus or have loved ones who are sick or are medical professionals and health workers caring for these sick people, we don't directly encounter the terror and suffering of this disease. Still, we are all affected by its proximity. We have heard testimonies — some awful and heartbreaking, others courageous — we have seen pictures and videos, read articles with statistics, numbers, and curves.

We understand that the "chances are low" for most people to become seriously ill. We know — statistically, as individuals in "low risk" categories and in good health (I speak not for myself here, but for a broad group of people, for most of the people I know personally)  — that we will "probably" be fine, but that there is also a real danger from this virus for each one of us. We need to take proper precautions, and part of the craziness of life right now is the somewhat uneasy awareness that (however “remote” the chances may be for us) we might still get sick and even develop further complications. We can't live in excessive fear, but we do need to give special attention to the matter and use particular procedures to protect ourselves from the virus as best as we can.

Most of us have been doing all of this for the past couple of months (more or less —  hopefully more rather than less). Maybe we've been eating too much junk food and watching too many videos, but otherwise we feel "fine," and Spring is here. We're sick of Zoom and FaceTime and we want to get out and be with people and hug them, and get back to larger groups and public gatherings again. We're getting more antsy and jittery and are running out of patience. We want this to be over — but we can't let our restlessness prevail over our responsibilities as members of a society in which this problem is far from over. In fact, we have before us a difficult path with bumps and twists, and we are basically drawing the map as we go.

So where are we going? We know that scientists are working hard to find treatments (we've also heard about a few nutty conspiracy theories and quack remedies). Meanwhile, economic hardship is already hitting some people hard (and we care a great deal about this suffering too). Moreover, beyond all the theories and dire warnings, it's beginning to look like the economy is falling down all around us. We are nervous. Rumors abound, driven by the latest tweet. It may not be helpful to us to turn to the media or the Internet every day hoping that The Solution will appear. Real life never works that way, so let's not jump at oversimplifications out of the need to "feel secure." Let's not be suckers. This is an exercise in human patience and perseverance. We have to stick with it.

Everybody knows this. We have been admonished by all the celebrities on television or social media — as they chill out in their gazillion-dollar mansions (😉) — to "stay home," wash our hands, wear a mask, and that "we're all in this together," etc. (Perhaps we grumble at the screen or even comment on Instagram that "I'd love to stay-at-home if I could stay at YOUR home, which is the size of a small country!" — it's okay to joke around, but really, don't become an internet troll for a celebrity: it doesn't help anybody.)  Actually, the fact is that some of our celebrated people have been working hard to improvise ways to keep us entertained or to share their creativity, while also pointing the spotlight on the real heroes who are grappling with caring for the sick or doing the jobs necessary to keep our basic social infrastructure intact.

Overall we have a flood of "information" (in terms of content); indeed, maybe we have too much information about things we have no control over. In spite of all this, however, the actual experience of COVID-19 still feels somewhat "at a distance" for those of us not afflicted by it or otherwise directly dealing with it — certainly we are concerned, we want to help, we're willing to make sacrifices, and we have some anxiety about how the pandemic might get worse.

We are also perplexed, confused, and even spooked by the whole thing. After all, the point of the "lockdown" is that we don't know who might be carrying the virus (perhaps without any symptoms) and communicating it to others, and we don't know who might get very sick if they are exposed to the virus. This means that close interaction with people outside our own household is a complicated variation on "Russian Roulette." The gamble increases in proportion to the amount of people we interact with. And we are not just gambling with our own life and health; we are gambling with other people's lives and health, and indeed with the common good that pertains to everyone.

This is not abstract or theoretical. This is real. This virus has spread rapidly through the whole world, and it is highly contagious. It is also (apparently) pretty much harmless to the vast majority of us, but dangerous and deadly to a few of us. When that "danger-to-a-few" rolls through an entire society, it becomes a social crisis. Right now it's a crisis we don't know how to manage. We have some broad indications regarding who is vulnerable: the elderly and the chronically ill might seem like a small group, but when doctors in the USA include pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and (medically defined) obesity, they are flashing a yellow warning light at a sizable chunk of the American population (😲😷). And there is much we still don't know about the virus and its potential for adaptation and change. We do have the resources to address the challenges of this weird, tricky virus, but it's going to take time to work out what is necessary for the good of the people as a whole.

Even though you can find practically every imaginable opinion on the Internet (endorsed by someone claiming to be a medical doctor or researcher), what we have actually seen — again and again — is that wherever this virus goes it brings death, severe respiratory injury, and chaos to health care systems. This is enough to introduce further destabilization into the whole society that entails incalculable consequences beyond even the immediate casualties of the epidemic.

We are all potential carriers and facilitators of the virus, and for all we know potential victims of the acute respiratory disease it can turn into. Social restraints slow down the spread of COVID-19 and buy us some time to learn what the next steps need to be. None of us has the right to play games regarding what public authorities are asking of us. We are all involved in this crisis even if we never feel so much as a tickle in our throats.

That's why we are all in quarantine.

It makes sense, even as it continues to feel so very strange. We need to be committed to seeing through a complicated and difficult process, and we need to extend a lot of practical credit to public officials and public health experts. Whatever their flaws may be, they are all we've got right now. We have to have some authority to direct this as a common endeavor. We can't just make up our own solutions to problems that affect our whole society and the common good.

And what comes next? Nobody knows for sure.

Theories and plans abound, as do
disagreements. Already we can see the political fights heating up.

The current acute crisis with COVID-19 only intensifies the already dramatic overall situation of our times. All the issues of the expansion of our material power and the excessive indulgences of our culture that I have written about recently are not going anywhere. A crisis like this might make us pause and reflect a little more about the meaning of life, or it might make us more desperate and more reckless.

Perhaps we must face an inevitable escalation in the impact of forces that have been moving for a long time. There may be many new and unforeseen types of “global wildfires” that will rage up on our super-fast, interactive, interdependent world that thrives on the untrammeled acceleration of power. I address these larger concerns in other articles posted elsewhere on this blog. The larger unfolding drama of the emerging epoch is obviously relevant to COVID-19, though the dynamics of this particular connection require further consideration at another time. For the present, more immediate concerns preoccupy us.

In addition to the fatalities and suffering caused by the coronavirus itself, the consequences for our habitual lifestyle are difficult to predict. We know that there will be consequences. There will be personal and communal tragedies. People have already lost their jobs, businesses, careers, and find themselves in strange places in life, unexpectedly. The losses are already heavy and will likely get worse.

New possibilities will also open up. But it will be a hard time for some, perhaps many people. This is another undeniable facet of the crisis that will also make demands on our resources and energies, and call for sacrifices we haven't yet imagined. Indeed, the unprecedented "One World" we live in today is no tame sentimental dream; it's a new raw place full of possibilities and danger, and there's nowhere to hide. It would certainly be better if we try our best to help one another. That’s obvious. But we need to realize that there are no quick fixes, no easy solutions, and no mere "getting things back to normal" as if the "Pandemic of 2020" never happened. We have to learn how to be better prepared for the next time something like this happens.

We don't know how alternative scenarios would have played out. The quarantine has hurt the economy, and moving forward is going to be slow and painful. But taking different measures might have caused other problems, including economic problems. Perhaps the location of the initial outbreak might give us some indication of what the health and social damage could have been in other countries if the disease had been underestimated even more or ignored even longer (because government thugs in China's Hebei province and "higher up" did that for as long as they could get away with it). Unfortunately the real scope of the meltdown in Wuhan is likely to remain a mystery for years to come.

The fault for this is not with China's medical and scientific community, whose members have worked very hard and for their own part appear generous in their desire to share what they have learned with the rest of the world. This effort, however, is hindered by censorship and possibly other methods of repression. In spite of this, many of them are trying to cooperate however they can in global scientific and medical research work on coronavirus, to the point of risking political persecution in their own country,

The courage and integrity of Chinese doctors is exemplified by Li Wenliang, who tried to warn his colleagues in Wuhan of the disease in December 2019 only to be forcibly silenced; he continued to treat patients without adequate protection for himself, until he succumbed to the illness and died in February 2020. His story is particularly tragic, but he is not the only doctor or researcher who has been subjected to repression. The "ruling class" in China is determined to forcibly control the narrative, as they have in the past. Therefore, I cannot help being suspicious of any "information" provided by (or subject to the approval of) the Chinese Communist Party oligarchy. They are unworthy of trust in a way that's on a categorically deeper level than most of today's governments (which are inevitably going to be corrupt and mendacious to some degree).

Overall and "down the road," this crisis should help all of us to have clearer heads about the special serious problems that the partystate dictatorship in China poses in the present world. But otherwise I don't see much value in playing a "blame game" if we're going to dig out from this global disaster. We need to collaborate and cooperate on many levels, not the least of which is a common commitment to help people in need.

Real success depends on the measure in which we put the human person at the center of our efforts for recovery. In the new global epoch, focusing on the dignity of the human person is not only an imperative of justice. It is necessary for survival.