We are living in interesting times. Our daily routines and structures as we know them have changed in a matter of hours and days as governments around the world have imposed quarantines and travel restrictions. The things we took for granted, like seeing friends, going to the gym, visiting galleries and museums, eating and drinking at cafes and restaurants are not daily realities anymore as the majority of people are home-bound in self-isolation and quarantine.
It is especially strange to me, as I am part of a generation which has no direct memory and experience of major international wars or disasters. Yes, major things happened while I was alive, like the Syrian war and the Great Recession in 2008, but they were either far away, distant headlines, or I was too young to actually notice what went on globally and was more interested in what new film was coming out. Now, I am being directly confronted with something I cannot simply ignore or turn notifications off for, as my life as I have known it for the past 20 or so years has completely changed, if only for a few weeks or months.
The virus is a threat to my health, yes, but what I find myself more anxious about is the widespread fear and xenophobia amongst people, something I have only witnessed in sporadic, isolated incidents, or read about in history books up to this point. Now I hear stories of some friends being refused water in customs because they ‘look too Asian’ and ‘might infect other people’ with the virus; I sense the fear of elderly people as they walk past me on the largely deserted streets, peeking out at me nervously from underneath their scarves; I see long queues for supermarkets and empty shelves because people are stocking up on canned food, eggs, and toilet rolls in panic, even though there are no shortages of these things.
And I am not saying we should not be wary of the virus. Fear is a natural response to the unknown, and we have evolved, as humans, to fear change and external threats. The virus is especially disorienting because we cannot rely on our senses to alert us on its whereabouts – we cannot see, hear, or smell this danger. We know it is there because we were educated about how viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms function. But we need to remember that we were also educated about hygiene, soap, and disinfectants, and how these discoveries helped to progress medical care, significantly lower infant mortality, and curb death rates.
Whilst it is natural to feel fear in the current situation, we should not let it control us. As humans we have some degree of choice as to how we react to situations, and we have the power to influence our own thoughts and actions.
Yuval Noah Harari managed to summarise two choices we, as a collective species, need to make: ‘The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.’.
When we think and act our of fear, it is easy to control our minds, and to give up freedom and privacy for the feeling of safety. But this can blind us to the fact that we don’t need to give up the rights our ancestors fought for for centuries to feel safe. We can foster a sense of safety by remaining connected to each other by talking to friends and family, by being aware of the risks and implications of going outside, and by learning how to regulate and handle the spread of the virus. Viruses don’t respect national borders, and whilst these man-made boundaries can help manage citizens more effectively by breaking them up into smaller populations, they can also develop an alarming sense of the ‘Other’ – someone who, in reality, is not much different from us.
It is simultaneously reassuring and heartwarming to see similar scenes play out around the world. People cheering and clapping to acknowledge the hard work of doctors and nurses from their balconies, windows, and porches. Creative, funny memes and videos making fun of the circumstances. Spontaneous outbursts of playfullness, like a woman in a supermarket line the other day, who sang the Hokey-Pokey at the top of her lungs to raise the spirits of her fellow shoppers.
I want to add another choice we need to make in our current circumstances, and that is the choice of how we perceive time. On the one hand, we can see the world grounding to a halt as a nuisance. Businesses operate less efficiently than usual as people navigate the world of working from home, exciting events and holidays are cancelled, our activities as to what we can do with all this extra time are limited to things you can do within the four walls of your home, and, if you are lucky, a garden or a nearby park.
On the other hand, we can see this time as a much-needed gift. It is a resource many of us complain of having too little of, a resource we always run out of, something we always wish we had more of and something we sometimes wish we could spend in different ways. And for the first time, we are simply being given more of it. Even if you are working from home, you are saving commuting time, or of you are used to working from home, you cannot do the variety of things you used to be able to do. But this can be a good thing on a personal and global level.
On a personal level, you can choose how you divide and spend your time. Maybe you can finally finish reading those books which have been collecting dust on your shelf for months on end, or you can go through the list of movies you wanted to watch but kept putting off, or you can pick up a new hobby which has been at the back of your mind for weeks but you were too tired or busy to try previously. And instead of going to cafes, galleries, clubs, and cinemas you can go outside and enjoy nature without any artificial stimuli. I feel like families are spending more time together as well, as I see more parents than ever at the park with their children, something which was perhaps more common in the pre-Internet era.
But the Covid-19 crisis is also buying us time globally, in terms of climate change. We are all aware that the current economic system and our habits as consumers is detrimental to our planet to say the least, and that we cannot continue living at the same pace if we want Earth to remain habitable for future generations of life. And now, as non-essential work places are brought to a standstill and travel is restricted in an unprecedented way, carbon dioxide levels are plummeting, and laws about the trade and consumption of wildlife are being rewritten. We are finally, as a species, forced to pause and reflect on our behaviour and how it is affecting our home. Whilst there are many people comparing the responses to the virus with the lack of similar response to the climate crisis, to me they are part of the same message.
The current state of our world is strange, and somewhat scary, but it is also a lesson on what makes us human. We are being given several choices about how we behave ourselves, choices which will have implications and repercussions for generations to come. We are also being given the most precious resource in the world – time.
Top three interesting articles about the situation which don’t depress me, and which informed this post:
- Yuval Noah Harari: The World After Coronavirus https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75
- Coronavirus: ‘Nature is sending us a message’, says UN environment chief
- A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future