COVID-19: We've Been Here Before

But are we going somewhere new?

Posted Apr 05, 2020

OK, so we haven’t met this particular novel coronavirus before. It’s novel. How could we? But the world has been introduced to novel viruses in the past. The reason our latest uninvited guest is called SARS-CoV-2 is because it’s the second SARS coronavirus to turn up unannounced. The first one arrived on the scene in 2002, and then MERS-CoV (another coronavirus) appeared in 2012. 

It’s certainly true that governments haven’t confined citizens to their quarters like this before, and we haven’t had such a massive disruption to things like the travel, food, and sporting industries either. But we have tackled, and overcome, new circumstances. Actually, we do it all the time. 

We are the supreme conquerors of novel situations. We inhabit environments that are constantly and unpredictably changing. Any one of us who did not quickly learn how to smoothly adapt, and adjust, and make things be the way they need to be (according to each of our unique requirements), would perish.

One of the things we do best is to create stability where there would otherwise be novel variability. Take something as mundane as getting yourself to work. It doesn’t matter how you do it—you might walk or drive or catch a bus or take the underground. Every time you do it, it’s different. If you drive, the conditions on the road are never quite the same from day to day. If you tried to use exactly the same actions on consecutive days—precisely duplicating the way you move the steering wheel, apply the brake and the accelerator, use the indicators, adjust the temperature, and so on—you would get outcomes that were very much not exactly the same. The actions that so successfully maneuvered you into your favourite car parking spot on day one would have entirely different, and probably disastrous, effects on duplication day. 

The same reasoning applies to the other forms of transport. The path you walk, for example, is always a little different. The general direction might be the same, but the people you encounter change, as does the timing of the traffic lights, and the weather is always different in different ways to different extents. 

In fact, the same reasoning applies to life in general. We are so good at navigating new situations that we rarely notice, much less are perturbed by, the newness. It’s only when something is a lot new that it might capture our attention for a while. There might be roadworks or an overnight snowfall that require a complete rethink of our usual route. SARS-CoV-2, and the impact it is having, fits the category of “a lot new." This is a situation that definitely requires a great deal of thought and concerted effort.

We might not yet know what the solution is, or where it will come from, but arrive it will. It always does. We wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. Sometimes the best solution isn’t the first one to come along, but if we can hang in there for long enough, its eventual arrival is inevitable.

As unsettling and tumultuous as these periods can be, they also provide opportunities for learning and creativity. One woman, for example, attended a live concert from the comfort of her own home. A man ran a marathon on his 23-foot balcony, and another man climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest without ever stepping outside his front door. Using his staircase at home, he scaled 41,000 steps to complete the task. Other people are dressing up to take the bin out. Ballgowns, tiaras, and dinosaur suits are all part of the wardrobe. 

We might not all want to do something as monumental as walking to the moon across the lounge room carpet, but we have been plunged into a time where we have the opportunity to rethink our routines, the way we work, even our family relationships. Simultaneous periods of home-schooling and working from home offer a chance that might never come around again to hang out together and learn more about each other. In the mayhem of treading on each other’s toes, and invading spaces, and chewing up internet bandwidth, a new, more fun, and robust way of relating might emerge. 

Is it too much to dare to imagine that, from this time, maybe, as global citizens, we might begin to experience, and also appreciate, the benefits of cooperating in a massive and sustained way? Could we even learn that, while competition might be fun to watch on a Saturday afternoon, it’s not the best basis for the harmony and longevity of a community, a nation, or a planet? As clever as we can be, our geniuses are profoundly more potent when we mix them together than they are when we go it alone. 

 123RF
Source: 123RF

By the time we finally put SARS-CoV-2 back in its box, will we have learned far more than how to overcome the latest iteration of the coronavirus? Might we have discovered that finding the best that humanity can be is far more valuable than striving to be better than each other? Will this teensiest of agents help us learn some of our biggest lessons? As a global race, are we finally ready for where those lessons could lead us?