This is a longer post but, since I’m spending a lot of time at home now, I have some time on my hands to write it — and hopefully you have a few minutes to read it!
It’s only Day 5 of our self-imposed “social distancing” period, but I’ve already had a lot of time to reflect on what the Coronavirus pandemic means for our country and the world. And how coincidental it is that this is happening during the season of Lent, a time of sacrifice and reflection to begin with.
First off, I hope you are well and that your families and loved ones are safe. As the situation evolves day to day and moment to moment, it’s hard to know what direction to turn. Are we making the right decisions? Are the inconveniences worth it? Are our loved ones going to be OK? Can we survive the economic fallout? What is going to happen to our healthcare system?
I think it is important to take this time to slow down, think as rationally as we can (which can be difficult with all of the news constantly flying around), and take the time given to us, whether in a “social distancing” period or a self-imposed or mandatory quarantine, to reflect on our lives. Where we’re headed. What’s important.
Since my blog is an environmental blog at its heart, I can’t help but reflect on the important lessons the pandemic is offering to us . . . lessons that we had better heed.
Is Sacrificing Our Health and Well-Being Worth It?
Many of us go about our lives at a tremendous pace. We work all day, run around to one activity after another, try to maintain some semblance of a social life, exercise/eat right/watch our health, stay up late catching up on emails, all as part of a hyper-technology-driven and globalized culture. Are we running ourselves into the ground?
Modern life has its undeniable benefits. Healthcare systems in the first world are more advanced than they’ve ever been before, and life expectancies are high. Technology grants us access to the entire documented knowledge of all human history. Many companies have enabled their employees to work from home, either full-time or in case of emergencies like this. Conveniences like Instacart and grocery pickup services, not to mention carside food delivery, are saving many people right now who can’t make it out to a grocery store. With schools canceled, computers and online apps are enabling children to keep up some semblance of an education, and many high school and college classes can be held entirely online, as can meetings and even worship services. Social media and video calling help us to stay connected with friends and family even during times of physical separation.
But we are human, after all, and we still get sick. For many elderly people and those with compromised lungs and immune systems, an unknown virus like COVID-19 with no treatment options is a death sentence. What are we sacrificing in the pace of modern life? Are we taking the time to play games with our kids, sit down and have a family dinner or movie night, flip through the kids’ school workbooks to see what they’re studying right now, call your parents or grandparents to see how they’re doing, check in on a friend you haven’t seen in a long time, or hold your loved ones close in a big hug at the end of the night?
Here’s our chance. For those quarantined at home right now, we can catch up on all of these things. Maybe it’s the Earth giving us a wake-up call.
How Much are we Consuming?
I’m sure if you’re on lockdown, you’ve done an accounting of your fridge and pantry recently, or joined the massive lines at the grocery store. How much food, water, and other provisions do you have? Do you think you have enough for your family, or did you overbuy? Try to picture what your food supply looks like compared to someone in, say, Monrovia, Liberia right now.
How many electronic devices are you using to stay entertained? How many toys are your kids playing with? How many lightly-worn outfits are you putting away or planning to donate as we transition into spring? Since you’re home all day, how much trash are you throwing out? How many lights do you have on? How many times are you flushing the toilet?
This may be an interesting exercise to keep yourself occupied if you’re stuck at home on a Friday night, but it’s also indicative of our larger consumption culture, or “Affluenza,” in the words of author John de Graaf. How much are we consuming vs. what we actually need to get by? I’m not even going to dig into the broader environmental implications here, because that information is all over the Internet. But if we use the coming weeks as a time of reflection, I promise you, once you see it, you’ll never be able to un-see it.
We are all Interconnected.
As we hear more and more about chronic loneliness and social isolation (thanks in part to technology’s role in helping us to insulate ourselves from face-to-face social interaction), we sometimes forget how globalized the world has become. We can fly anywhere in the world in 18 hours or less. We can Skype with someone half a world away and see and hear them in real time. We enjoy food, music and films from all different countries and cultures. Odds are that the majority of American citizens live relatively close to a first- or second-generation immigrant, and that you’ve studied a foreign language in school. We import and export goods and services to and from almost everywhere on the planet.
Along with this comes some not-so-pleasant byproducts, like trade wars, negative stereotypes, a lot of political muscle-flexing, cross-border proliferation of hateful and/or extremist ideologies and, yes, disease transmission. Look at how quickly Coronavirus has spread from one city in China to all over the world, shutting down major European nations and bringing many everyday activities in America to a screeching halt. One infected person unwittingly passes it on to five, 10, or who knows how many more people, and the spread becomes exponential.
Epidemics and pandemics are a stark reminder of just how interconnected humans on this planet are, but we would do well to remember this in other aspects of our lives, as well. How do emissions from our vehicles and factories affect other people across the city, the state, the world? And how closely are we connected to the animals, plants, landscapes, and ecosystems around us? What will happen if sea levels rise and force whole populations to move out of their homes and migrate elsewhere? What if a natural disaster blows out a major electric grid, destroys crops, or disrupts the food supply chain? These are all distinct environmental crises that we are likely going to have to face in the near future. Will COVID-19 make us more mindful of this? Will it push us to rethink how we live and encourage us to make broader societal changes? Will we be willing to make small sacrifices now (such as social distancing in the case of Coronavirus, or walking more/taking public transportation in the case of climate change) so that we aren’t forced to make giant sacrifices later?
If life goes back to “normal” after this, or if we’re forced to adapt to a “new normal,” I hope that, individually and as a species, humanity will take away some important lessons from Coronavirus (which I’m sure is destined to become Merriam Webster’s 2020 Word of the Year): How important it is to slow things down and focus on what brings us joy in life, free from other distractions. Distinguishing what we have vs. what we really need. And realizing that we’re all in this together, for better or worse.
Hang in there, everyone. Be well. Be safe. Be kind.