As We Head Into Dark Days, a Few Slivers of Light

Fear causes us to see danger everywhere, and numbs us to anything else.

Posted Apr 06, 2020

As the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. and many other places begins to surge, it may be the very worst time to try and find a sliver of a silver lining in the terrifying storm swirling around us. Or maybe this is the best time to try and respectfully add a bit of balance against the worry and suffering we’re all experiencing. Not to deny an ounce of that worry and suffering, but to add a bit of perspective that is so hard to keep in mind when we are so afraid.

Faced with a potentially threatening stimulus, like, say, a global pandemic, we undergo all sorts of instantaneous biological changes in the name of self-defense. This is commonly known as the Fight or Flight or Freeze response, which among other things raises the level of stress hormones in our bloodstream that make us more alert to any sign of danger, and less conscious of anything else. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop that helps protect us, but narrows our focus and literally impairs our ability to reason.

So in our heightened state of alert, it’s hard to bear in mind that while the absolute risk of death from COVID-19 is a dramatic 1.3 million, and rising fast, the relative risk (the number of dead out of the whole population at risk, which is everybody) is tiny, just 0.00017. One estimate is that over the course of the whole pandemic, which could be 12-18 months before enough of us are immune that the infectivity rate drops below 1 per person and the spread slows, that the disease might kill a frightening 10,000,000 people. Unquestionably tragic, but a relative mortality risk for the global population of 0.0013 per person.

For the U.S. a predicted death toll of 240,000 would make COVID-19 the third leading annual cause of death in the country, after only cancer and heart disease. Awful, though a relative risk for the whole population of 0.00073.

But risk numbers are a callous way to put things in perspective. So here are a few other positive parts of this awful global experience that, in our fear, might be hard to keep in mind.

In modern human history, there has never been anything close to this global outpouring of social altruism, of people caring for each other. From tens of millions of people willing to stay indoors to people making masks and other protective gear to donate to medical workers, to balcony serenades, to everyone in New York City cheering out their windows for the medical workers and sanitation workers and postal workers and grocery store clerks keeping our world going (instead of shouting “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore”), to artists around the world sharing their work from home, to elementary school teachers driving through neighborhoods of kids home from school just to say hello and we miss you, to Yemeni tribesmen canceling the annual camel race (to maintain social distancing), and in so many other ways, we are reassuring each other that when we really need to, we can all sacrifice for the greater common good.

We are social animals and we have evolved to act this way to keep ourselves safe because a world that protects everybody protects us too. As divided as our world has become, how wonderful to see all this instinctive selflessness and concern for others that transcends the other divisions ripping so many societies apart.

Then there’s how we’re all being reminded of how much our governments actually do for us. We share our resources to create institutions – government – to do the things we need to be done that we can’t do ourselves. Even the most arch-conservative “government is too big” right-winger is looking right now to the federal, state, and local government for help and protection. It’s easy to spout that ”Socialism is Evil” in normal times, but just now, there’s a heck of a lot of socialism pouring out of our governments, and we’re all glad for it and reassured by it (snags and serious missteps by government, especially at the federal level, notwithstanding).  

How about this dramatic reminder to appreciate the nurses and doctors and EMTs and everyone else on the medical front lines risking their lives — giving their lives in some cases — to save the lives of strangers. Or even that Big Pharma, for all its greed, can pitch in with unprecedented rapid global collaboration on the development of anti-viral drugs and vaccines. (I wonder how many vaccine opponents will be in line for a COVID-19 shot should one become available.)

Remember how a few months ago the world was dumping on Facebook and Twitter and other social media companies (for good reason), but now these free tools have become appreciated lifelines helping us maintain social contact? 

Remember how trust in the news media had fallen so low, yet now we rely on much greater numbers on the news to stay informed?

Remember how parents would normally only see their kids for a few minutes before school and in the evening, but families are now spending way more time together (which is not without its tensions, of course)?

The news is bleak. Our fear is high, not only about the disease but for what the future will look like. We’re heading into the horrible spike in death and suffering that a new disease takes when it attacks a naïve population (with no immunity). The clouds are dark indeed. But in that darkness, there are slivers of light. It may be hard to see them just now. But they are there.