Culture In Pandemic

Photo by Daniel Tafjord

The first case of COVID-19 was traced back to November 17th in Wuhan, China.  Four months since then, the U.S. is starting to feel the full weight of the virus which can go highly undetected given “mild” symptoms in 80% of those infected.  Over the past week, life has been transformed for many across the country in profound ways. Bars, restaurants, churches, gyms and other non-essential businesses are shutting their doors.  College students are leaving campuses rapidly to continue their semesters from home with uncertainty about when they will return.  Colleagues work from home.  Parents homeschool their children.  Employees are being laid off from their jobs.  Customers in grocery stores are fighting over toilet paper.  The general sense of fear and anxiety is pervasive, etched in the faces of those all around me.


That all said, after living in NYC in the days right after 9/11, I know that tragedies ultimately have a positive connective force amongst us.  People I don’t know tell me to “Stay safe” on the elevator.  As a New Yorker, having someone dare to speak to you is an astounding event.  For many years now, I have felt that community was eroding as narcissism prevailed.  The bright light of the mobile screen seems to have become the principal form of social interaction.  I worried about these developments for many reasons but partially because there is power in strong communities.  


Resilience is a characteristic of a community rather than of one individual.  For example, after the tsunami tragedy in Japan, many pointed out that the strong connective tissue of local communities reduced deaths far more than the strength of the infrastructure.  After Hurricane Katrina, those communities with powerful community ties moved quicker in rebuilding efforts than those that did not.  Sharing resources to battle disaster is more effective than hoarding your own 40 rolls of toilet paper, in essence.
Now, I’ve lived all over the U.S. and nowhere do I see less community cohesion than in urban environments.  That said, I suspect this coronavirus is already helping us to pull together.  Italians are singing from their balconies and Spaniards are clapping for their health workers.  Here in the U.S., children are singing online as their school performances are cancelled, restaurants are giving out free meals to children who typically get their meals at school, and neighbors are helping people they have never met get supplies if they need to self-isolate.  We all have the power to make the acts of kindness far stronger than the panic and fear.  


Acute stress reminds us of our humanity; the importance of social connection and love.  That’s ironic of course during calls for social distancing, but that distance is just proximity.  It doesn’t tell the entire story of course.  For example, take this husband celebrating his 67th anniversary outside his wife’s window as she is in isolation in her nursing home.  Here’s another of Chinese healthcare workers dancing with their patients in quarantine to lift their spirits.


While the virus is scary and something to be concerned about, some positive effects are bound to take shape as well.  The one that feels most palpable right away is the construction of a stronger community.  We need each other now more than ever and this time now is a power of our connection to each other.  Whether it’s joining a Netflix Party to watch your favorite show together with friends, a virtual dance party or a family group chat over Zoom, people are getting together more than I have seen in a very long time.


Emergency situations bring out the humanity in all of us.  They give us a moment to come together and create great things even in our isolation.  On the other side of all of this, it is my theory that we will all be a more powerful community of survivors.  To all of you, I hope you stay healthy and weather the storm as best you can.  Be well.  Take care of each other.

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