Me, We and Sitting in a Room

The psychology of coronavirus: How pandemics can teach us about ourselves.

Posted Mar 14, 2020

A college student refuses to leave her dorm, or won’t come back from spring break, or insists on visiting with her friends, or going to just one more party. Someone there has coronavirus. But the college kid doesn't know, because the sick person is asymptomatic until days after the party. Someone from the party gets it, goes to the store (coffee shop, bar, restaurant, movies) and gives it to a worker or other patron who gives it to her co-worker, who gives it to her senior parent, and the chain is complete. That's why, as a recent Science magazine article explained well, we need to close schools and universities and businesses, and end our usual routines for a while. 

It doesn’t help to have a White House occupant who keeps shaking hands, holding rallies, gatherings, and dinners, then hedges at getting a tested, even after being pictured with people who test positive days later.

The problem here is that the first instincts of most people is to think of themselves. Humans don’t tend to be altruistic. Freedom in countries like Italy and the U.S. means freedom to be selfish; people think of themselves, not the risks they pose to others.   Some less free countries like Iran suffer from an undisciplined population; the government urges, the people ignore. Other countries like China or South Korea or Singapore may be unfree in many ways, but at least they enforce urgent medical needs, based on science, and a disciplined population concurs. 

Public health doesn’t fit well, in fact, with an individualistic society. It’s not the general will of the majority of the population, nor my personal opinion, that counts: it’s the medical truth. Cigarettes, and their vaping cousins,  kill, even if many citizens want to smoke or use them. Truth is not a matter of majority vote.

Nor does public health fit well with our post-1960s postmodernist cultural correctness: The conservative right wing attacks anything they don't like as fake news: global warming isn't happening. With similar logic, the liberal mainstream speaks of social constructions that benefit the Establishment: vaccines aren't necessary. 

As they say about executions, so it is about pandemics: they have a way of focusing the mind. We should be reminded that there are truths in the world that are neither hoaxes nor social constructions. There are realities outside of you and me, and we, no matter our political persuasion, have to adjust to those realities. 

Pandemics have no politics, in terms of who they infect. Diseases as novel as COVID-19 require novel responses.

Italy finally got locked down when young people refused to stop going to bars and restaurants, passing a pandemic along that eventually would kill over a thousand of their grandparents. The prime minister of Italy—young and serious, the exact opposite of his American counterpart—got it right: We’re not drafting you into the military, he told his citizens; we’re asking you to stay home.

Now the challenge is for America, and the world, to be about we, not me. I, a young college student or middle-aged person, may not get seriously sick. But I can spread the infection to someone who will get sick, and as a result of my personal choices, others will die. 

It doesn't matter that the current U.S. government puts sanctions on Iran, or dislikes the China trade policy. Coronavirus doesn't care about your politics. If we don't help everyone, everywhere, we'll hurt ourselves, further proof of that inescapable web of destiny in which all humans are intertwined. 

Even if not for a basic sense of human decency, there still is self-interest. The world's economy is grinding to a halt, for a while. It will recover if we are decent human beings and halt the spread of the pandemic. It may not recover if we continue to pass the infection along, and eventually face even longer periods of economic disruption. Our individual responses have the ability to slow or quicken the economic recovery for everyone.

But human beings are a restless lot, and me tends to defeat we. In this case, though, we truly aren't being asked to do much. Staying at home doesn't take much courage or sacrifice. So why are we still bothered by it? In fact, in the modern world with the internet, endless TV viewing options, and books online, we can still do a lot from home, including a great deal of work. But still, we're reluctant.

One factor is that we're not used to slowing down. We don't want to read a book, and talk to family, and not rush about. People always go hither and thither in cars and crowds, but where are they really going? What are they doing? How much does this busy-ness really matter?

The pandemic reality reminds us that most of that activity is meaningless. And then we're thrust back on ourselves, with nothing to do, with a sense of emptiness. 

Maybe that's a deeper reason why so many resist the logic of the pandemic. Their left brain knows they should stay home and not spread the infection. Their right brain can't tolerate it. 

And that's a problem that existed before the pandemic, and will continue after it. Maybe the crisis can teach us a lesson though; maybe it can make us aware of the problem, and teach us that we need to slow down, and do less, and stay home more, not just now, but in general. 

A few centuries ago, an old French philosopher who probably lived through more than one pandemic might have been having similar thoughts when he remarked that all the miseries of men stem from one thing: the inability to sit quietly in a room.