REALITY BITES

SIT BACK

RELAX

UNPLUG

Search
  • Monica Harris

Is There A Silver Lining To Coronavirus?

Updated: Apr 22

This crisis gives us a chance to ask ourselves if the way we move through the world makes sense



If you’re like me, you’ve spent the past few weeks in a daze. Numb. Here, but not really here. After watching CNN and realizing our lives may be changing a lot more soon — that two weeks at home may end up being two months —  you might find yourself asking, “Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve this?”

As crazy as it may sound, I think we may be getting exactly what we deserve. I also think its an opportunity we should be taking advantage of.

What’s happening now is affecting nearly every human being on the planet on some level. The experience is so universal that it almost feels cosmic. In our lifetimes, nothing like this has ever happened before. The only thing that comes close is a world war, and we haven’t even seen one of those in 80 years.


Many of us may also have a sense that even when things get back to “normal” — once we can greet friends without “social distancing,” once we can buy a 6-pack of Charmin without worrying if more will be on shelves next week — our lives will still be changed forever on a completely unknowable, but fundamental level.


Because that’s what pandemics are: societal game-changers. These changes have often been dramatic and obvious. Bubonic plague dealt the death blow to the Roman Empire and ushered in the Dark Ages, the Black Death raised the living standards of survivors and led to the decline of serfdom, and smallpox allowed Europeans to colonize and develop the Americas with relative ease.


But pandemics have also affected us in less obvious ways. They’ve stopped us in our tracks, forcing us to pause and pay closer attention to ourselves and our world.


When theaters closed in 1590, William Shakespeare took advantage of his quarantine downtime to try his hand at poetry while penning Macbeth and King Lear. When Cambridge University sent students home during the Great Plague in London in 1665, Sir Isaac Newton “unlock[ed] a fundamental law of physics” while lounging under an apple tree. And Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the classic The Decameron while sequestered in the Tuscan countryside during the Black Death.


Fast-forward to the 21st century, when another microscopic organism has once again knocked humanity off its feet.


Driven from our offices and businesses and trapped in our homes, COVID-19 has taken hundreds of millions of people out of commission, thrusting us from lives in perpetual motion. But like time spent recovering from surgery or a broken leg, this crisis has given us a chance to do something we almost never have the space to do.

Think.

Many of us have probably done a lot of micro-level thinking since this crisis erupted. Coming to terms with the fragility of life. Appreciating little things we used to take for granted. Realizing that if this emergency goes on for too long our food supplies (and our sanity) will be tested.


This pandemic has also given us a rare opportunity to do some “big picture” thinking, to assess how our world works and ask ourselves if it makes sense.


In the U.S., it’s provided renewed urgency to the need to reform the country’s embarrassingly feeble health care system. The crisis has forced us to ask: should private, for-profit insurance companies continue to control access to the vital services we all need?


It’s also highlighted the downsides of globalization. A shortage of testing components manufactured abroad has hobbled the effort to control the spread of the virus in the U.S., and Americans have discovered how much they rely on China for drugs and medicines. We can’t help but wonder: why is the health care system of the world’s “richest” nation so dependent on other countries to treat its own citizens?



But there’s one “big picture” issue this crisis has highlighted that we havent given as much thought to because we’ve been fixated on COVID-19’s alarming infection rate and the rising death tally. It’s the elephant in the room we’ve mostly ignored because we’ve lived with it for so long we don’t notice it anymore.


Coronavirus has shown us that our lives completely hinge on what happens to the economy. In fact, at this point more people are probably worried about being the victim of an impending economic implosion than being killed by this virus.



The calls and texts started coming in from friends only a week after schools closed and business began shuttering.

“Really struggling here…my agency is going under.”

“We’re hanging in, but we’re pretty sure one of us is going to get laid off.”

“If this goes on for another week, I’m done.”

We’ve seen headlines about months-long lockdowns in China and Italy. We’ve read stories about how life has become unrecognizable for those confined to tight quarters, and now we in the U.S. are facing the same trials. We know what’s happening with the sick and dying; we see the grim pictures of hospitals under siege.

But we rarely hear about how people are coping financially in long-term lockdown. How are the healthy and living supporting themselves? Do we even care? Does it even matter?


Let’s face it. Money isn’t a sexy topic.

It’s the one thing we all have in common, want more of, and spend most of our waking hours chasing, yet ironically we don’t feel comfortable talking about. If we’re running low on money, we’re ashamed to admit it; if we earn more than our friends and family, we don’t mention it.


We’re intimidated by the details of money. We have a vague understanding of how the economy works, and we know debt isn’t a good thing. But that’s as far as we’re willing to go.

I think this crisis is inviting us to go deeper. I think it’s our wake up call to pay attention to how much money controls our lives.

The Coronavirus lockdown has shown us that money doesn’t just determine whether doctors and nurses get masks, tests, and equipment they need to treat the sick and dying; the flow of money also severely impacts the lives of the vast majority of people who never get sick.


The flow of money determines:

  • whether small businesses close their doors, sending tens of millions into unemployment

  • whether those of us who lose our jobs can still afford health care we’ll need if we get COVID-19, or something much worse

  • whether we’ll have to choose between feeding our family or keeping a roof over our heads

  • whether those of us living on the thinnest margins will be forced from our homes and onto the street


In other words, the flow of money determines who among us will live and who will die.



I think this crisis is inviting us to go deeper. I think it’s our wake up call to pay attention to how much money controls our lives.


Before this pandemic started shutting down businesses, most Americans were “just a paycheck away from financial disaster.” They were hanging by a thread — and now that thread is snapping. Layoffs are surging across the U.S., with as many as 4.6 million people already having lost their jobs due to the lockdown, and it's estimated that unemployment could go as high as 20%. Moreover, job loss takes a serious mental toll. A study by University of Oxford researchers found “more than 10,000 ‘economic suicides’ associated with the [2008] recession across the U.S., Canada and Europe.

How long will it be before we hear news of the first lockdown-related suicides?

Doctors speculate that the U.S. may be in lockdown for months to contain the spread of COVID-19. This is a disaster scenario, mentally and financially, for people hanging by a thread. In fact, there is growing evidence that the lockdown will cause a global recession that will likely kill more people than the virus, itself.

Think about what this means.

The disruption of the flow of money is a MUCH greater threat to humanity than a virus or disease. What does that say about the world we live in?

Yes, money has always been a critical element in our lives, but it hasn’t been distributed this inequitably in more than 100 years: 1% of families own 40% of wealth in the U.S., 3 men are worth more than 160 million Americans combined, and by 2030 the richest 1% will own two-thirds of all global wealth.

Why should the survival of billions of people be so dependent on money that only a few have?


Ultimately, our dependency on money may even keep us from effectively fighting a more deadly pandemic. Because people with no cushion are terrified by the prospect of lockdowns that would be “financially crushing.” This is why non-essential businesses around the country have refused orders to close. They know if they shut their doors, they may never re-open.

This means that if something truly nasty goes airborne and requires a lengthier lockdown, we’re in serious trouble. Because people hanging by a thread would rather risk getting infected and spreading infection than being broke.


Because being broke is worse than being dead.



The disruption of the flow of money is a MUCH greater threat to humanity than a virus or disease. What does that say about the world we live in?


In his book “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” Frank M. Snowden writes that outbreaks like Coronavirus “hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are…they also reflect our relationships with the environment — the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds.”

I think this pandemic is giving us a rare opportunity to stop, look into the mirror, and ask ourselves how we feel about the environment we’ve created.

Because people in a civilized society shouldn’t be dependent upon an economy that leaves most of us fighting for our lives if it stops “running” for a week. Our efforts to contain a virus that threatens 2% of the population shouldn’t jeopardize the existence of the other 98%.

We need to change our environment, and now is our chance to make it happen. This is our time to start educating ourselves.

Let’s not be afraid to talk about money.

Let’s not be afraid to learn about how our economy works and demand that our government reduce our dependency on something that’s getting harder for most of us to get our hands on. Because a crisis worse than COVID-19 is coming. And when it does, our lives shouldn’t hang in the balance the moment markets collapse and businesses disappear.

We deserve to live in a world that gives us financial space to breathe so we can successfully navigate any crisis together.

We deserve to live in a world where people aren’t more terrified of an empty bank account than a life-threatening virus or disease.