COVID-19: Danger and Opportunity

COVID-19: Danger and Opportunity March 20, 2020

“I didn’t think I’d have to give up this much for Lent,” says a meme that’s been circulating around social media.

Though we do not yet know just what will happen, we may be giving up this much for the rest of the year.

As the global number of deaths from COVID-19 has surpassed 10,000, I am struck by how quickly the world has changed.

Just two weeks ago, I was at a large writers’ conference in San Antonio, Texas, staffing a table at a crowded book fair and sitting in panels. Admittedly, the plane I took to get to my destination was not even half full, and the conference was significantly smaller than its normal size. But the mood was lively. We greeted one another with elbow bumps and dabbed our hands in sanitizer, but beyond that, everything was as it always is: animated literary readings, informative panels, and lively nights out at Texas saloons.

Last week, the situation was rapidly starting to change. I’d been invited to accompany a delegation of Catholic sisters to the Commission on the Status of Women’s Annual Meeting at the UN. The event was canceled, but since my airline was refusing to refund money or change travel plans, I went anyway.

My stomach was tense as the plane landed in Newark Airport, but the worry dissipated once I got into the rhythm of a city I knew and loved. On March 8, I took a train from Penn Station to Long Island, where a dear friend from college greeted me with an enthusiastic hug. I also visited a high school friend, her husband and new baby. We walked through busy streets and a crowded park, relishing a sunny, early spring day. With the sisters I toured the UN building on the last day it was open to visitors and met some women from around the world who, like me, had been unable to change their travel plans after the event was canceled.

But as the days went by, the unease around me mounted, as did my own. I started having nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep. I came down with an ear infection (a chronic health issue I deal with) and attended a walk-in clinic, where a sign at the front desk informed me that COVID-19 was only available for those patients with the most severe symptoms. The day after my return, Mayor di Blasio announced that all New Yorkers should consider themselves as having been exposed. While I’ve shown no symptoms since my return home, I’ve been social distancing while transitioning to online work and trying not to check the news too obsessively.

Once my ear infection cleared up and a generous friend lent me his spare laptop (working from home is kind of hard if you don’t have a computer), my personal anxiety began to ebb. Now, as I continue to watch this situation unfold, I am struck by an emotion that surprises me: curiosity, even a bit of excitement.

At first I felt ashamed for reacting this way. How can I be excited when thousands of people are dying, and we can be sure that many more will die, and I have no certainty that my loved ones and I won’t be among them? How can I be excited when health and economic systems are strained, when I live in a country with millions of uninsured and undocumented people who are more threatened than most by this fast-spreading pandemic?

The answers lie in other headlines I’ve been reading.

In China, after the factories first shut down in the Wuhan region, satellite images showed pollution clearing.

In Venice, the waters are clear again; fish and dolphins can be seen.

In Iran, political prisoners have been freed.

In the USA, arrests are down, and ICE is stopping most raids.

In Canada, a group of people have started “caremongering” – reaching out to advocate for and provide necessary aid to friends and neighbors.

JSTOR is making its academic databases open to the public; some newspapers are tearing down their paywalls.

I recently had a conversation with a loved one who argued that this pandemic might be seen as a plague for humanity’s wrongs. I refuse to view it in these terms. I do not believe that everything happens for a reason, nor do I think that God would will the suffering and premature death of thousands of people.

I’d by lying if I said I was not afraid. At this writing, the community I live in has just had its first confirmed case.

But, as is often commented, the Chinese character for “crisis” contains both “danger” and “opportunity.”

In a rare television address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel described this pandemic as the biggest challenge facing us since World War II. That war was devastating, but from its ruins, we built many of the institutions that continue to lead our world today, like the United Nations. It was after the war that the UK and other European nations established their healthcare systems.

Many of us have known for a while now that our current way of mass consumption is not sustainable. This virus is compelling us to question our ways of life, to give up many of the privileges we enjoy in a kind of global Lenten penance, and to face the fragility of our lives and social systems. We are offered a chance to build something new, to create what Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin called “a new society in the shell of the old.”

Will we actually do it? Most likely, science will manage to get on top of this disease, and we will go back to living as we are accustomed to. But, as with any major upheaval that affects large large numbers of people– whether World War II, the Cold War, or the attacks of September 11, 2001 and subsequent “War on Terrorism” – something will have shifted; it is hard to imagine that we will go back to being just as we were before.

We do not know what will happen. Unfortunately, it seems that we are still only at the beginning. But I believe quite firmly that, despite the suffering and challenge, human decency will prevail. We have a rare opportunity we’ve not seen in a long time, a chance to “make that kind of society in which it easier for [us] to be good,” as the Catholic Worker urges. Though we are faced with a real danger, we are also offered a rare opportunity.

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