What are we learning from the coronavirus?
Through the massive turbulence and trials that COVID-19 is presenting, what are we learning?
These reflections are not conclusions but suppositions, tentative and incomplete because we are in the middle of something really big. I offer them in a spirit of collaboration and encourage readers to add to the list, or modify it, or elaborate on it, because this is a ferociously dynamic period of human learning — not about the virus, but about the global economy, the state of civil society, and about the human condition.
■ We are learning that our thoroughly globalized economy is also thoroughly porous and interconnected. Information and misinformation travel at the speed of the internet; viruses travel at the speed of planes, trains, ships, and automobiles. We are learning that our reliance on travel carries with it not just business transactions, the sharing of knowledge, cultures, and ideas, but also the serious risks. Perhaps, on the other side of this, people will choose to travel more purposefully.
■ We are learning that humans are essentially social creatures and that social distancing is simply and completely foreign to our nature. It is not good for us. It produces anxiety, sadness, and depression. From Ancient Greek to African philosophies, thinkers have elaborated on our social nature as that which makes us human; the Bantu term “Ubuntu” refers to humanity, the meaning of which can be translated as “I am because we are.”
■ For all our propensity to focus on social ills, we are learning that, in fact, we do have a global civil society. People the world over, for the most part, are doing what they are asked, not by rule of martial law but just because it is the right thing to do. Curtailing personal freedoms for the common good is the definition of civil society, and we are seeing it in practice.
■ We are also learning that, even in the context of globalization, nations matter. Nations can mobilize coordinated action in ways that no international body can. Nationalism can be highly corrosive, but cohesive, well-governed nations can be a source of solidarity and collective will to do important things.
■ We are learning that humans are creatures that make plans. Maybe this is what is most essentially human: we plan. We have ideas, visions, and aspirations for our future, individually, as organizations, and as nations. We pursue them with great vigor and passion.
■ And yet this pandemic has been an aweinspiring lesson in humility. We are learning that, plan as we might, we are subject to forces we cannot control and these forces smash plans beneath their feet like giants walking among ants. Is it more cruel or less that this virus has no intentions? It is doing nothing on purpose, which is to say it is utterly indifferent to the havoc it is wreaking on our plans.
■ We are learning that science and expertise matter and that science progresses through unfettered exchange of research, data, and ideas. Even as there are movements to close borders, scientists have been sharing their work to solve problems irrespective of national boundaries. What can we learn from the global culture of scientific research that might help us collaborate more effectively in other areas?
■ We are learning that nature is utterly indifferent to our troubles and still radiantly beautiful. Spring has arrived, the birds are going about their business, and the sun rises and sets daily with all of its majesty. We should reflect on the irony that this disease that is quelling human activity is, therefore, helping nature flourish.
■ Throughout the entire educational system, from pre-K through university, so essential for the reproduction of civil society mentioned above, we are learning that online learning is a poor substitute for the classroom, the studio, and the lab. It does not have the rigor, accountability, engagement or depth of the learning that takes place in the context of human relationships. We have a nation of students who are telling us that they simply do not learn as much or as wellat a computer screen.
The problem with dystopian science fiction is that it sometimes comes true. This pandemic has created stress on every social, economic and political system in historic proportions. We are in the midst of learning hard lessons, but also good lessons, with great urgency. We would do well to take note of them.