As I write this in late March, we are in the midst of a global crisis like none we have experienced. Other past crises, such as the Great Depression, world wars, natural disasters are in some ways analogous, but even they, by comparison, seem orders of magnitude different — somehow more comprehensible and thus not as terrifying.
The COVID-19 pandemic, with all of its unknowns and uncertainties, is posing challenges we are struggling to understand, let alone address. By the time you read this a few weeks from now, things may be better, but the odds are they will be worse.
What to do? What can the average citizen do?
Beyond all the things we’ve been urged to do to slow or stop the spread of the virus and thereby help keep our health care system from being overwhelmed, we need also to take steps to slow or stop the spread of fear and panic, and thereby keep the fabric of our society from being ripped apart.
Fear is one of the strongest emotions we humans have. It is elemental; it is innate. It is a key part of our basic survival instinct and, depending on how we handle it, can be the determining factor in whether we live or die.
In the midst of the Great Depression, at his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That’s the short, most well-known, version of the statement. Roosevelt elaborated, however, explaining that he was warning against the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
As in the Great Depression, it’s not just fear itself we’re afraid of; it’s the reality we find ourselves living in. Today we have a name for it: the COVID-19 pandemic.
But if we are to avoid being paralyzed in our efforts to deal with the enormous, unprecedented challenges it poses, we have to focus first and foremost on keeping unjustified terror at bay; and the only way to do that is to bring our reasoning skills fully to bear on how we, as average citizens, should think and behave, how we should handle our fear.
What’s emerging are two basic attitudes. One employs reason and recognizes that only by pulling together can we overcome the challenges of our time. The other ignores reason and rejects the very idea of working together—“It’s all about me.”
At this point, fortunately, the predominant attitude is one of keeping our fear under control by thinking our way through the crisis and relying on the advice, guidance, and counsel of experts and leaders who are knowledgeable, forthright, honest, and empathetic.
The vast majority understand that, under these circumstances, it is all about us; we know that only by working together can we make the choices and take the steps needed to solve the numerous and enormously complex problems confronting us.
By far most of us are heeding the advice of our health care professionals and taking in stride the unprecedented restrictions and upheaval in our daily lives. The supreme irony of the moment is that by being forced apart physically, we’re actually coming closer together socially and using a variety of creative, inventive ways to connect, to help others in need, to do our part.
And, as we were reminded recently by Dr. Emily Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, “ … these extreme restrictions may seem in the end a little anticlimactic because it’s really hard to feel like you’re saving the world when you’re watching Netflix on your couch but, if we do this right, nothing happens. Yes. A successful shelter in place means that you will feel like it was all for nothing. And you would be right. Because ‘nothing’ means that nothing happened to your family and that’s what we are going for here.”
In short, the vast majority of us around the world are handling the situation rationally, responsibly, and ethically. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have dampened our natural ego-centric and socio-centric tendencies to some degree so far. That optimistic assessment may be unwarranted but, at least for now, I’m sticking with it.