By Dr Bill Webster

I believe we will look back on the COVID 19 pandemic, like we did after 9/11, as a time when the world as we knew it changed. The world will go on, of course, but how we see that world will be transformed.

These are strange and scary times, and in such times people act scared and strange, which is hardly surprising considering everything seems to change daily.

If you remember the old BBC comedy “Dad’s Army”, (check it out on YouTube!) Corporal Jones in times of crisis would run around shouting, “DON’T PANIC … DON”T PANIC!!” I think even good old Jonesy would have changed his tune in this situation, because we have certainly seen panic in our midst, which is a basic reaction when your world is altered.

We need to understand that pandemics and other crises don’t just attack frailties in the human body; they also exploit weaknesses in human nature and society. It’s not just a matter of dealing with a virus too small to see; we are dealing with hurdles often too big to recognise and discern. 

What we are seeing is a conflict between individualism and collective co-operative behaviour; between the goal of independent security and welfare and the concept of the common good.

Many local stores have been reminiscent of scenes from a disaster movie, with people hoarding masks, soap and sanitizer, food, bottled water, chocolate and other products, leaving store shelves cleared and empty, and even fights breaking out over basic everyday items.

Even more sadly, we have observed some stock piling necessary items, then trying to gouge people by selling them at exorbitant prices. Others have even perpetrated “scams” selling phoney masks, decontaminating services, and even fake test kits, which is downright wicked and harmful.

How can we understand this behaviour? Many culprits are aware that this is a stupid and selfish thing to do. But in their minds, if you can’t trust other people to share, then selfish behaviour makes emotional sense even when it is irrational and even detrimental.

If we subscribe to a world economy that rewards blind self-interest while making self-sacrifice or philanthropy unaffordable, it’s not surprising that some start acting like “it’s everyone for themselves”.

Albert Camus once wrote, “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.” The examples above show this statement not entirely accurate. What a crisis actually tends to do is reveal “true character”, including its incongruities and inconsistencies.

On one hand we see people wrestling each other over the last rolls of toilet paper. But on the other, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is broadcasting recordings from his house, and quarantined Sicilians are playing music together from their high-rise balconies. The media is now reporting many acts of kindness, generosity and community that more often rises to the fore in times of crisis.

We are all in this together, and it is together that we will overcome the challenge. I truly believe that history will record, as it did after 9/11, the many ways in which people came together and supported one another. I believe there is more good in people than malevolence, especially in times of crisis.

People make strange choices when they are afraid. At the root of every anxiety is the fear of not being able to control things. Right now, as I write, the situation seems out of control. But as the Serenity Prayer wisely puts it, we have to differentiate between the things we cannot change and the things we can change. So, what can we control and what can’t we?? While we may not be able change the circumstances we are in we can decide what we are going to DO about them.

From a practical perspective:

Understand that people who aren’t used to the concept of common good don’t know what to do in the face of a common threat—except to panic. Some would rather die than be seriously inconvenienced.

Spare a thought for those individuals (doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, funeral directors and other frontline workers and their families) who are under tremendous risk to their own health and well-being to serve others who desperately need help.

Call a senior citizen who is shut in, or someone in quarantine in a nursing home or care facilities where the days are long and lonely.

We have to practice trust. Our biggest problems as a species are going to be the problems we can’t solve without trusting each other to do the right thing.

We have to be gentle with each other. Ask your neighbours how they’re doing or what they need .. or even what their names are!

Many believe this coronavirus is a dry (or maybe a “very damp”) run for disasters to come. WE know there will be more pandemics in the future. This is a stress test of our capacity to cope with world-scale disasters, and probably this time we are going to pass the test. We will get through this, albeit not without suffering, sacrifice and for many, much sadness.

This will be awful before it is over, and then it will end, and when it does, we’ll have built up our resistance to a virus, and our resilience to crisis. And maybe we will have learned that we are all in this together.

In the words of Kitty O’Meara:

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.

And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

Stay safe and healthy everyone.