Evanston RoundTable, April 2, 2020
It’s hard to imagine anything good coming from the Coronavirus. It’s a disaster of the first order, killing people by the thousands, shutting down the world economy, changing the way we live—maybe forever.
But there’s an upside to everything. As they say, one door closes and another opens. What can we find of value in the current crisis?
For one thing, it affects everyone. We all suffer—to greater or lesser degrees—and we all pull together. There is a mood of sacrificing for the greater good, doing our civic duty, and a palpable sense that the partisan differences that have so poisoned our politics for so many years have given way, at least in part, at least temporarily, to a kind of communal solidarity.
It is important to recognize those who sacrifice the most. Health-care workers are on the front line, putting their lives at risk to provide testing and therapy. We give thanks for their courage and skills. There are also the less-recognized heroes, doing the essential if mundane jobs day in and day out: mail carriers, pharmacists, garbage men, airport workers, police and fire personnel, paramedics, truck and delivery drivers and others who work in trying jobs and sometimes risky circumstances. Thank you.
Communities are banding together to help the most vulnerable. In Rogers Park, a “Community Response Team” consisting of volunteer hotline operators and delivery drivers has formed to “help those in self-isolation receive assistance during the outbreak,” reports Block Club Chicago. In our Evanston neighborhood younger families have volunteered to shop and otherwise help the elderly and infirm. And the Evanston Community Foundation has launched a fund to create “a unified philanthropic response” in the face of the pandemic.
Don’t neglect to check in with friends and family. “Are you OK? Is there anything we can do?” Good questions to ask any time, but especially now, providing some comfort and security in the face of fear and uncertainty.
Meanwhile, a curious peace descends on our communities. Everyone hunkers down at home or goes for long walks. Outside, people greet each other with exaggerated courtesy and concern—from a safe distance. Our block is starting a weekly “Six at 6,” when people step out at 6 p.m. to say hi and compare notes, keeping at a minimum six feet apart.
The roads are quiet, downtowns eerily deserted. It is like the weekly sabbath, an enforced idleness that brings people under one roof together in a way they almost never are. The lost art of conversation is making a comeback, as are family card and board games. Sweet.
This is a good time to think about helping others less fortunate. As my niece, Ali Begoun, co-director of L’Chaim Center, observes: “One small act of kindness can tip the scales. If a tiny virus of 125 nanometers can send the entire world into chaos, who are we to say that one act of kindness can’t tip the scales toward a good verdict? Never underestimate the power we have to influence and change the world through our own actions…Do your best to refrain from gossip or hurtful speech. Reach out to the vulnerable.” Great advice.
When conversation and inspiration flag, we still have our devices! Northwestern has an online media library from which one can watch wonderful student and faculty performances, as well as master classes and lectures. We can also visit art museums and listen to great music and Ted Talks online. We can play chess, Scrabble and the latest games. Great books can be downloaded for free or next to nothing. Every night I call my grandson and we read Harry Potter on FaceTime.
We can also read about past epidemics, pandemics and plagues, going back to Bocaccio’s “The Decameron,” Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” Camus’ “The Plague,” Roth’s “Nemesis” and Saramago’s “Blindness.” We may think this current pandemic is unprecedented, until we learn the Spanish flu that swept the globe a century ago killed more people than World War I. Read all about it, as the newsies used to say.
Who would want to? Isn’t real life scary enough? A recent blog post on The Vulture addressed the comforting aspect of watching movies and reading books about other pandemics: “The fictional version lets us feel some small piece of what the real version could feel like,” writes Kathryn VanArendonk. “And then, because it’s a story, it gives viewers the comfort of turning the fear into an arc. Yes, characters in Contagion feel helpless, and yes, some of them get sick and die. But the story doesn’t end with death. [Spoiler alert:] It ends with the discovery of a vaccine, and the world slowly putting itself back together. As a parallel to the real world right now, that’s a specific kind of comforting reminder that coronavirus will not cause the apocalypse. Even if the resolution is bleak, stories tend to give meaning to the feeling of helplessness, and to find characters who do have some agency.”
There’s also the sense that the pandemic can bring out the best in our character. In “The Plague” Camus writes, “…what we learn in times of pestilence is that there are more things to admire in men than to despise…By refusing to bow down to pestilence, they strive their utmost to be healers.”
Ironically, there is also healing on a planetary scale, an upside of the enforced shutdown. “Levels of air pollutants and warming gases over some cities and regions are showing significant drops as coronavirus impacts work and travel,” the BBC reported. “Researchers in New York told the BBC their early results showed carbon monoxide mainly from cars had been reduced by nearly 50% compared with last year. Emissions of the planet-heating gas CO2 have also fallen sharply.”
The fact that the environment so quickly responded to the global slowdown suggests a possible template for reducing CO2 emissions in the future, and may encourage governments and the public to more readily accept clean-up remediation.
If nothing else, there’s the prosaic “to-do” list, which we are ordinarily too busy to attend to: clean the house, read the books, start a blog or memoir. It’s also a good time to pick up the phone and catch up with old friends and distant family.
Of course, the pandemic will finally pass—all things do, the good and the bad. Imagine the joy when we finally get back to normal, return to work, send the kids back to school, resume group activities, go to ballgames, visit museums, go to bars and take in ballets and concerts. Let us hope that upside comes sooner rather than later.