The meaning of an epidemic

COVID-19 has caused upheaval in our lives, changing them for the worse—but also for the better. What we can take from this time?

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Tim Cuff

“The days stand like angels in blue and gold, incomprehensible,” wrote Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front. All is quiet on so many fronts now, in this strange exile. It is a forced quiet—lonely and fearful. The future is a fog of uncertainty. Decisions made by government leaders feel heavy with the gravity of unknown consequences. “What does it all mean?” I ask, and it is like dropping a stone into a deep well; I barely hear the splash.

One thing I know—and this is the central paradox of COVID-19—is that despite the isolation, we are not alone. The pandemic has brought about a sense of shared human consciousness and experience. A friend emails to say: “I find I’m beginning to tune out the politics of it and get more into the humanity of it.” Maybe this is what COVID-19 means: a referendum on humanity. A societal performance review.

For some families, retrenchment has led to reconsideration of what a healthy home life should look like. Writer and parent of two young children Stephanie Chamberlin has been coordinating New Zealand Geographic’s Together At Home activities for children. I asked her what the shutdown was revealing about family life for her and others.

“Pre-corona, I think a lot of us were stuck in a relentless grind,” she said. “We knew we wanted to slow things down, to live differently, but it was always too hard to make meaningful change. Being in lockdown has given a lot of us the headspace to re-connect with who we really are and what we want our lives to be about.”

People are also reconnecting with nature where it’s close to them. I jog beside my local creek, which winds through bushland to the sea in west Auckland, and the path is thronged with people I have never seen before. A man with two tricycle-riding toddlers in tow. A mother and daughter in easy conversation. People riding bikes and electric scooters, skateboarders, a unicyclist. I approach a single lane bridge as another runner reaches it from the far end. We stop, each beckoning the other to come through. He insists, and as I run across we smile broadly and wave as if we were old friends.

At another park I climb a branch of a 150-year-old Moreton Bay fig that dips so low it brushes the ground, and consider all that this tree has seen in a life span that will far exceed my own. Nearby I tap the rust-coloured cones of a bunya pine and marvel when a cloud of sulphur-yellow pollen puffs out into the still autumn air. One night I stand under the stars and see, high above me, a flock of godwits in a long slender V, Arctic-bound.

Is it just exercise and temporary escape from home detention that takes us into nature now? It may start there, but something else emerges. In times of personal disruption, there is enduring comfort and solace in trees and birds, running water and sturdy rock, a rainbow emblazoned on autumn clouds—or, as I saw on my creek run, a painted rainbow taped to a window as an encouragement for passersby.

Not everyone sees nature in a benign light, of course. For some, the virus is Earth taking revenge on its most troublesome species. In this framing, humans are the virus; we’re the plague. At a planetary scale, that may be true. Yet when I go to my neighbourhood parks, I don’t see a vindictive empire striking back. I sense Earth’s inextinguishable nobility and grace. I think of poet Mary Oliver’s words about a river she loved:

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice


I’d like to think there is a reconciliation going on—a temporary moratorium, perhaps leading to a long-term truce—on the pushing and shoving that industrial societies exert on the natural world, squeezing it into an ever smaller space, until it has nowhere to go but to leave the planet entirely. Perhaps when we emerge from all this we’ll remember an infallible voice singing, and be guided by gratitude for the nonhuman world, just as we are for the human kindness that is flourishing now.

Who isn’t noticing the kindness of strangers in our time of need? In Albert Camus’ suddenly relevant book The Plague, the heroic Dr Rieux says: “The only way to fight the plague is with decency.” That’s what seems to be happening with this current plague. Perhaps it will be one of the abiding memories of this time.

The little-used word comity comes to mind: courtesy, civility, kindly and considerate behaviour towards others. Can comity nudge us towards an enduring solidarity and away from the deadening individualism of modern times?

Solidarity is a word on everyone’s lips, but if it’s to mean more than a rosy emotional glow it must include asking hard questions about what we owe each other as citizens, and how do we define the common good.

Disastrous as it is, the COVID-19 upheaval presents an opportunity for imagining different social structures that embed the virtues that are surfacing in our suddenly diminished but connected world.

“Pandemics and other great crises seldom leave social and economic arrangements as they were,” writes political philosopher Michael Sandel. “What kind of economy will emerge from the crisis? Will it be one that continues to create inequalities that poison our politics and undermine any sense of national community? Or will it be one that honours the dignity of work, rewards contributions to the real economy, gives workers a meaningful voice and shares the risks of ill health and hard times?”

The pandemic has already upended the conventional view of the worth of different occupations and the roles that matter most. The essential workers are supermarket shelf stackers and checkout operators, truck drivers and couriers, rubbish collectors, cleaners, carers for the elderly. Before the pandemic, when have these workers ever been respected as essential providers?

“Beyond thanking them for their service, we should reconfigure our economy and society to accord such workers the compensation and recognition that reflects the true value of their contributions—not only in an emergency but in our everyday lives,” writes Sandel.

Can we hold on to the present mood of solidarity so as to produce more equal outcomes and a more generous understanding of the common good? Are we united only in lockdown, or can that value frame a vision of our future?

The real test, writes Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, is not the virus but the response to the virus. If societies look the same after the defeat of COVID-19, it will be an empty victory, he says. “We can expect a sequel, and not just one sequel, but many, until we reach the finale: climate catastrophe.”

It has been difficult to talk about climate during the pandemic, as if that topic is suddenly off the radar. It has seemed inappropriate to speak of the coming climate calamity when the coronavirus calamity is upon us, killing people, destroying livelihoods, shattering dreams.

On the other hand, we have struggled for decades to confront an impending disaster that will make COVID-19 seem like a walk in the park. Should we regard the pandemic as a practice run in how to make present sacrifices for future safety? Can this moment show us that our growing sense of the common good, measured as mutual agreed sacrifice for the health of our fellow humans, can be extrapolated to humans not yet born?

It would be nice to think so—although COVID-19 responses have been country by country, whereas the climate crisis cannot be solved without global synchrony. But still, the hope is that if the global community can rebound from this emergency, we can feel emboldened to tackle the next.

That may sound simplistic. It probably is. Who knows what the world will look like when this is over? What steadies me in the midst of uncertainty is the sense that as a species we’ve been here before, and that when humanity has stood on the edge of apocalypse, people have found inspiration and hope.

Four hundred years ago, when the Black Death swept through England and one in seven Londoners died, Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker saw wonder in the midst of catastrophe, and left us a line of soaring trust: “This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it.”

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