The Coronavirus Crisis Is a Test of Our Humanity

Will we pass it?

Posted Mar 04, 2020

Dimitri Karastelev/Unsplash
Source: Dimitri Karastelev/Unsplash

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is like a real-life sci-fi movie, except we don’t know yet whether it’s The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Alien.

At least that’s how I feel, as I find myself in a state of anxiety in which “oh my god” can mean everything from “what a hype” to “this is it: the apocalypse.”

Arguably, the effects of the continued spread of COVID-19 are palpable, not only for those who fell ill or even died, but also for the global psyche. Work is perhaps where we feel it the most. COVID-19 is disrupting many businesses, most prominently among them the tourism and travel industry (Lufthansa announced it was going to temporarily suspend 25 percent of all its flight operations), and of course the event sector: Mobile World Congress was the first major show to be canceled, and many others have now followed suit. Yesterday, The Next Web, a leading European conference for the digital economy, postponed its June event. And one of my clients canceled a dinner that was planned for tomorrow—for 12 guests. 

Conferences and speakers alike are looking into virtual gatherings as alternatives. Piers Fawkes has a great piece on how the outbreak will push some fringe technologies into the mainstream. Azeem Azhar connects all the dots and projects the long-term implications of COVID-19 on business models and the economy overall.

In the short term, it’s clear what companies can do: limit travel (Amazon, Facebook, Google, L’Oreal, Nestle, SAP, and Twitter, among many others, have all put non-essential travel on hold and canceled their own events), encourage and enable employees to work from home, implement generous sick policies, and help staff cope with the new reality both physically – and emotionally.

The emotional side

The emotional side is often overlooked, but it’s the ultimate battlefield in our fight against the outbreak, which, even though not officially labeled as one yet by the WHO, bears all the characteristics of a pandemic.

I’m feeling it myself. I’m torn between mocking those who buy everything off the shelves of grocery stories as if WWIII was about to start, and disinfecting my hands every time I touch my face—and being, ever so slightly, freaked out. The words of M. Leavitt from the DHHS are wise and ever more relevant: “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate.”

The outbreak of the new coronavirus is hitting close to home. This week, my daughter’s school in Berlin was closed because a parent had been in contact with an infected person. And my father, whose immune system is severely compromised after several rounds of chemotherapy, is a high-risk person these days. 

As much as I’m feeling uneasy about the health of my loved ones and my own, as well as the possibility of mass infections and quarantines, I am also secretly enjoying the new constraints that reduce my life to more essential things, appreciating the mundane errands, and the time I have won back due to events and travel being canceled. Being bound to one place by superior force is a blessing in disguise. At the same time, I feel for all the pain and suffering the virus has inflicted on many, and I feel ashamed of my privilege to even consider COVID-19 a luxury that is replenishing my time stock.

Polarized, but now all in this together

We live in a bipolar world, in so many ways: liberal and open societies, allowing the rise of fluid identities and progressive social policies on the one hand, and on the other hand, neo-conservative, nativist movements that want to bring us back to the stone age. AI that can paint, write, and beat humans in the game Go is a strange juxtaposition with the archaic nature of an epidemic and humankind struggling to find an adequate response.

The coronavirus outbreak has brought all these paradoxes to the fore. It is hyper-global and hyper-local at the same time. Abstract and only one wrong touch away. Enabled by technological connectivity and transmitted through physical proximity and social intimacy.

The virus brings out the worst and best of us.

As for the worst, there have been incidents of Sinophobia and attacks against the infected, and everyone is racing to put on their own (oxygen) mask first.

But as The Atlantic reminded us (with an admittedly sensationalist headline, “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus”), we are all susceptible. I had the pleasure of speaking with special pathogens expert Dr. Syra Madad last week as part of an online lecture I co-hosted with my colleague Monika Jiang. Madad, who is currently featured in Netflix’s eerily timely docu-series, Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak, is in charge of preparedness efforts for NYC Health and Hospitals, the largest municipal system in the U.S.

 Demetrius Freeman
Source: Photo: Demetrius Freeman

She told us:

“This particular virus seems like it is highly transmissible and is certainly acting a lot like the flu in terms of its ability to infect a large number of individuals. From that standpoint, I think that it is certainly plausible that 40 to 70% of the world’s population could become infected with coronavirus disease, but a large number of cases are [expected to be] mild.”

Madad warned of spreading contagious misinformation and looking for scapegoats: “Implicating a particular community is very unfortunate, because viruses don’t respect boundaries. When you’re marginalizing a particular community or society, or group of people, you then instill more fear in that particular group and then they are more reluctant to come and seek healthcare services. We should not fear individuals, but the virus itself.”

She insists that everyone has a role to play, as we struggle to contain or mitigate the virus, and while it may seem like common sense, these are still excellent and timely reminders and simple actions we can all take:

“While you may not be a public health practitioner, or a healthcare provider, or even in the healthcare field, every single person has a role to play. This includes our own human behavior. If you know you are sick and can infect others, don’t go out to public places. If you know you are sick and you need to see a healthcare provider, let them know ahead of time so that they can bring you in through an entrance where there’s not a lot of people. Additionally, the everyday preventative measures that we constantly talk about like washing your hands, not touching your mucous membranes — things like that go a long way.”

Stories of hope

This is our test, and while there are examples of how the virus can dehumanize us, there are also countless examples of how we can respond with the best of our humanity.

Monika Jiang posted stories shared with her by her Tianjin-born mother, who since the outbreak had been keeping in close contact with relatives and friends whose worlds have shrunk to their own four walls, sharing compassionate words and “quirky jokes with one laughing and one weeping eye.” She told Monika of a daughter who witnessed her father carrying her infected mother on a bicycle around a local hospital for 14 days, until one bed finally was available. Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain. It was already too late. Or the young marathon runner who turned his room into a training ground, accomplishing 6250 laps in his winning time! Or how animal lovers, vegans, and vegetarians buried their differences and shared cooking recipes among each other, as all restaurants had been shut down.

There is also this video of Wuhan residents cheering each other on, from window to window.

Last week, we concluded our lecture with a brief video message we had received from Hong Kong-based Chinese journalist Yuli Yang who has family in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the outbreak. She asked the world to send messages of encouragement and support to the people in Wuhan through social media, so they know they’re not alone:

“When people in Wuhan have more hope and strength in their hearts, their immune systems improve. It literally makes them stronger,” she said, “and if Wuhan becomes stronger, we’re all one step closer to winning this fight against COVID-19. That’s just the simple logic of our oneness as a species.”

And further: “What gives me hope is that we are human beings, and the year right now is 2020. We have shocking, amazing powers. This virus might not know this, but we have walked on the moon, we can speak to one another instantaneously, even if we are on two sides of the planet. We have cured and gotten rid of so many diseases on the face of this planet. We can definitely defeat this virus. It’s just a matter of time. But exactly because of our powers as a species, we need to be cautious in how we use our strengths. We absolutely cannot allow fear, hate, or anger lead our actions, because whenever that happened, horrible things followed.”