Viral Fear Reveals The Worst Of Us: COVID-19 And Fear Of Scarcity

Viral Fear Reveals The Worst Of Us: COVID-19 And Fear Of Scarcity March 10, 2020

Like many of you, I’m troubled by many things right now. I’m not panicking– I am, in fact, still traveling this week. I’m in a hotel as we speak. I’m not engaging with people. But I have my concerns.

As a parent, I’m concerned about germs in the close quarters of public schools; I’m also concerned about kids don’t eat well or have basic necessities when school is canceled.

As a pastor, I’m concerned about how houses of worship are going to deal with preparedness and proactive measures, without adding to the panic. I’m also concerned for those living in the close quarters of nursing homes and assisted living facilities; and I’m concerned about further isolating those who are already isolated.

As a public theologian, I’m concerned about the implications for our spiritual lives if we all hide inside and sequester ourselves from community.

As a voting citizen, I’m concerned that this has quickly devolved into partisan sniping, rather than a concerted group effort to get our best and minds to work and prevent mass contagion.

I’m concerned about the economic effects of travel cancellations, restaurant closures, and any other number of industries whose lowest-paid workers will suffer the most from missed work. I’m concerned about what this does to other sick people in our already-strained medical system. I’m concerned that some seem to think that this is all a joke. I’m concerned that our President told folks it was just fine to go ahead and go to work if they are sick. Listen– do not go to work if you’re sick. I mean, don’t panic, but don’t be an idiot.

Point is– it is concerning. I err on the side of, do what the CDC tells you, and meanwhile get on with your life until otherwise advised. But I’ll tell you what concerns me the most about this whole deal:

The empty shelves at the store.

I went to the grocery store on Saturday, legitimately out of hand soap at my house. I took two of the last remaining bottles in the aisle. Part of me felt badly for taking even those. And part of me was resisting the urge to buy all of the remaining stock. Did I need it? No. But did seeing a lack of it make me want more? You bet.

That’s human nature. It’s how we’re wired. And right now, that animal response to scarcity concerns me more than anything. Not because I’m afraid I will need Clorox wipes and won’t be able to find them– but because all of those empty shelves reveal the worst of us. Once we start hoarding stuff, bad things happen–whether we’re sick or not.

In fact, the fear of scarcity is its own kind of sickness.

Yes, the Coronavirus is concerning– we should all take precautions and do what the CDC (not the President) tell us. But what’s truly viral at this moment is fear. It’s making people act crazy. Stockpiling more hand sanitizer and cleaning product than we could ever need. Filling basements with canned goods like doomsday is coming. And toilet paper enough to cover the whole neighborhood come Halloween.

What’s really viral is fear. And fear makes us act out of scarcity. But can I tell you something?

That litany of concerns I rattled off up top– that’s what we’re all afraid of, right? Disease, economic meltdown, isolation? Kids going hungry, people out of work, restrictions on our freedom? Check, check, check. We’re worried about all of this.

But here’s the news: these things already exist. They are already happening. With or without a global pandemic, people’s lives are disrupted by sickness and ill health; kids are hungry; people are out of work; the economy is a dreadfully fragile glass animal. All of this is real, already.

It’s just that… well, maybe it isn’t real for us. It takes a threat like COVID-19 to call us into awareness of the insecurity that many live with all the time. Catching a glimpse of that makes our primal selves kick in and go gather stuff.  But stuff won’t protect us.

Because that isn’t how health and wellbeing works. In order for us to be well, our neighbors have to be well too.

People who are hoarding soap and cleaning products fail to recognize that, if your neighbor doesn’t also have soap, you will get sick anyway. Germs travel like that. If your neighbor doesn’t have access to healthcare, you’ll probably get sick too. If your neighbor doesn’t eat– well, they can’t take care of you when you might have a need.

We are all connected, is the gospel truth– and that part, at least, is good news. Kind of gives whole new meaning to the whole “we are all one body” deal, doesn’t it?

The bad news is that we often live as though that’s not true. Our current situation is pointing to some pre-existing conditions that are, and should be, painful to us. The tension between canceling school to keep kids healthy, and knowing that it means some kids will go hungry; the tension between canceling gatherings and visits, and knowing that some people will be alone; the tension between wanting to cancel all travel and knowing that many vulnerable populations will be without a paycheck if we do…

Kids are already hungry. Old folks are already lonely. Hourly workers are already poor. If we could deal with that, the way that we are going about building bigger barns and storing up for ourselves Purel treasures on earth? Then maybe an impending epidemic wouldn’t seem so scary. We’d know that we had the communal capacity to deal with it, to care of ourselves and our neighbors and do what it takes to be well.

Do we not know? Have we not learned this by now? If we all take only what we need, there is enough. This truth is at the heart of our faith and is the gospel itself. But we are too afraid to trust it. Too afraid to live into it.

What we’re really afraid of is already here. Our fear is what’s viral, and our real sickness is scarcity. There’s not enough soap in the world to cast out that particular pathogen.

The antidote? Compassion. Connection. Community. A more just economy that can withstand a crisis with its humanity in tact. So yeah, I’ll go buy soap (when it’s available). I’ll wash my hands to keep myself well, AND to protect my vulnerable neighbors. I may get some nonperishable groceries, because from a disaster preparedness perspective, that’s just smart to have on hand anyway. I will monitor the news and the advice of the CDC. I will keep my kids home from school, if that’s what it takes, and I will abstain from further travel, if that’s what we need to do.

But meanwhile… we need to be immunizing ourselves in some much deeper, more lasting ways. Compassion. Connection. Community. A more just economy that can withstand a crisis. Rinse and repeat. Until we are all well.


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