Thirty-five years ago, I worked in a mailroom at a company outside New York City. It was a busy job, but it afforded wonderfully long breaks twice a day where employees would drink coffee and chit-chat. On one particular morning, one of my co-workers was reading one of the tabloids and told us of an article that suggested mosquitoes could spread AIDS. The apocalypse was upon us, he exclaimed, and tossed the paper on the table. I read the story and, indeed, the people quoted were concerned about the possibility of the spread of AIDS by insect bites, but the scientists quoted were dubious. I mentioned that part of the story to my co-worker, and he erupted.
“You don’t know!” he said. “Scientists don’t know anything about this disease!”
He wasn’t the only one to share that sentiment. A pair of White House lawyers, when tasked with writing a briefing memo on AIDS for then President Ronald Reagan, explicitly stated: “There is much to commend the view that we should assume AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact, as is true with many viruses, until it is demonstrated that it cannot be, and no scientist has said AIDS definitely cannot be so transmitted.”
As it turned out, they were wrong. AIDS is a blood-borne virus that can’t be transmitted casually, but the truth didn’t stop Americans in the mid-80s to succumbing to their worst fears and helping usher a dark period of discrimination and prejudice. These were smart, responsible Americans. My co-worker went on to be a police officer, and one of the authors of the AIDS memo went on to become the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
So, here we are again. The world is gripped in terror over something that has exceeded the comprehension of the smartest human beings, and the greater population has been given the green light to freak out.
Don’t misunderstand me. COVID-19 is a deadly, incredibly contagious disease that has killed hundreds of thousands and crippled the world economy. All measures should be taken to prevent the spread of this modern plague.
What I don’t understand is the polarizing fear and hostility expressed by so many during this crisis. Just take a stroll through some of the comments on social media. Try walking through a supermarket with a mask on. Or, try walking through a supermarket without one. Wearing a mask in one recent trip to the store, I was exposed to two kinds of people: A mask-wearing group furious when I broke six-foot social distancing boundary, and a group apparently disgusted with people wearing masks, stepping over the line with abandon. I had one unmasked guy talk to me a foot away from my face, absolutely delighting in breaking my personal space, and what bugged me the most was not the possibility of catching the coronavirus but the apparent passive-aggressive glee the act spawned.
People are tense and for good reason. But, do you think losing your senses and letting your worst instincts get the better of you is going to carry you through this crisis? What happened to “keep calm and carry on” or “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?”
Even the smartest among us are not immune to their fears getting to them. I know this successful communications professional who is a master at compiling data to help companies strategically position for the future. His way of working through this crisis was to crunch the data to get a picture of what things are going to look like in the coming weeks. And, guess what? It isn’t pretty.
Here’s what I do know: No matter what the future holds, people rely on mutual aid to get through the worst times. It’s why our primordial forefathers huddled by the fires and why communities were built and currently sustain us.
Several years ago, I wrote in The Observer about the Japanese ideal of community called keiyakuko and how that spirit helped towns and villages wiped off the map by the tsunami of 2011 pull together and survive until help arrived. I challenge Suffield to take measure of its keiyakuko in preparation of difficult times to come. Those times are now.
I’m not going to judge the people who taunt, mock or bully people online. I’m not going to condemn the ones that hoard basic necessities like toilet paper as a hedge against the apocalypse. I’m not going to reprimand those who use this crisis as fodder in pointless political discussions.
Instead, I’m going to ask you to help when and where you can help, even if it’s only once, and try to remember, that you are not alone in these trials.
We are all in this together, even if we have to stay six feet apart in public.