As we roll through this global pandemic, we’re learning a lot about how disease spreads, how interconnected the globe is, and how quickly we should be responding to outbreaks of this nature. There are valuable lessons here and, if we’re not shortsighted and ridiculous, we’ll come out of it stronger.
But—this wouldn’t be a column without a “but”—I’m worried about the truly garbage lessons we might accidentally “learn” from this global pandemic.
We need to learn how to react nimbly to outbreaks, but also prepare for a time when things will get better.
We might think that social distancing should be a way of life. If I never shake hands with anyone ever again, I’ll be safe. If I stay at a distance and never feel the heat of another person, we can keep our interactions short and germ free.
If I order everything and never leave my house, I’ll be safe. I can get everything I need delivered to my door.
If I work from home, I won’t ever have to breathe the same air as my colleagues. We’ll use Slack. We’ll get by as our personhood is mediated by screens. Of course, in this scenario, we’re not thinking about the wage workers whose livelihoods require them to be among other humans, engaging in social if not actual commerce.
In the post-apocalyptic world of the film I Am Legend, Will Smith manages to have conversations with a dog; in Cast Away, Tom Hanks befriends a volleyball. You can do that but remember, the volleyball never talks back. All of us need human connection, and our goal through this terrible time must be to find creative ways to maintain it, without the actual contact.
There are other bad lessons that might come from the fact that President Donald Trump has proven utterly unable to provide the kind of leadership that this moment requires. Even some Republicans admit he’s the wrong person for this gargantuan challenge. His constant lying and complete lack of competence require that he must be ignored, as much as possible, at this critical time.
Yet this is a time when we need a strong federal government, so that there is uniformity in our response. Leaders including Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York City have done the best they can to fill the void left by Trump’s lack of leadership. But even they admit that they can’t do this alone. That leadership needs to come from the top. If we can’t speak with one voice, do we even have a national identity?
Another danger is that we might come to feel that authoritarianism is good. Look at what China did! They flattened the pants out of that curve! Maybe limited civil liberties aren’t so bad. Maybe that’s how we fight future pandemics. Maybe the President should have some unchecked power so he—because it’s always a he—can quickly respond to pandemics or whatever crazy global event that might come our way in the future.
These are some terrible takeaways and they’re all wrong. Let’s work from home because we must, but let us not accept this as the new normal. Getting everything delivered to our door is fine and dandy—except that a whole bunch of someones have to deliver everything to our door.
We’re already creating two classes of people: those who consume and those who deliver. It’s easy to work from home if you have that kind of job, but many people do not.
Of course, we need to restrict movement and reduce person-to-person contact, for a time. Of course, we have to work from home if possible, temporarily! We need to learn how to react nimbly to outbreaks, but also prepare for a time when things will get better.
I can’t wait to get back to my community, to share a space with people I know and don’t know. I also can’t wait to see the kind of leadership that will make that possible.