Friday, April 24, 2020

COVID 19 and altruism

How many times over the last five weeks have you heard the statement--in numerous variations--"We're all in this together."  Or "We can get through this together."  Or "We are acting as one"?  From Justin Trudeau, every Canadian public health officer, even advertisers as various as Bank of Montreal, Toyota, and Staples.  We were told, again and again, that even if we didn't fear catching the virus, it was our task to reduce the number of vectors through which COVID 19 could reach the vulnerable.  As we look at the heartbreaking, lonely deaths occurring in long term care facilities, elders dying without their families around them, families losing a chance to say a loving goodbye--we realize that we didn't do enough--or that we hadn't closed down soon enough, that there wasn't enough testing done, or that some policies around long term care facilities worked again our best intentions.  Yet most of us tried to accomplish this very abstract task of protecting others.

At the same time, I would also venture that many of you have reached out to people you don't connect with often enough.  I've been having the richest, most meaningful "phone dates" with a couple of young women who live alone and whom I suspected could use some 'company.'  My sister Karen and I have been sending more emails asking "How are you?"  Even as Bill and I go on our physical distancing late afternoon walks, it seems incumbent upon us to holler out "Hello!" to the very people we are trying to avoid.  The tragic deaths in Nova Scotia (the only way for me to write about something as hugely incomprehensible is in the simplest way possible) only emphasized how reaching out in times of loss is just something we do.  Here is the central irony to the physical distancing COVID 19 has made necessary:  it has brought us together.

Like you, I've been doing a lot of reading and re-reading, though I found that fiction or poetry with too much angst was unbearable.  I admit I re-read the first two Dorothy Sayers Peter Wimsey novels--it was like going on a picnic or drinking hot milk at bedtime.  I read Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and re-read Michael Ondaatje's deeply moving Warlight, which was both perfect for its nostalgic tone and for the way it captures what happens to human stories when history intervenes in our intimate and daily lives.  This is what history has done to us:  it has asked what happens to each of us when our small desires get caught up in history's mangle.  Despite the differences between Warlight's plot and the plots of our daily lives, it is a wonderful study of our helplessness in the face of forces we can't quite comprehend.  But one of the most helpful books I've been reading, and one I would highly recommend, was George Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage.  It is a hopeful book, and some of its thinking about how we can improve our civic and political lives meshes wonderfully with what I suspect you have been thinking about.

Because I'm sure there are some elements of your quarantined life--elements of our collectively quarantined lives--that you would like to be part of your lives after the pandemic is over.  The quiet of the streets and your ability to heard birdsong.  (We have a robin that begins to sing at 4:15 a.m.--don't ask.)  People from Italy, India, China, NYC are wondering how they can keep the air clear of car and industrial exhaust, and Milan is creating miles of bicycle and pedestrian lanes as we speak.  I ran into a woman--no, I didn't:  we were six feet apart--who first asked where she could get garlic powder, then where she would find the jars of chopped garlic, and then sought me out, my expertise revealed, to ask where she could find condensed milk.  She was going to bake and she was trying new recipes.  Walmart has apparently been keeping track of the trends in their sales.  There was a week when hair dye sold like hot cakes.  Then the sale of yeast rose over 600%.  A headline in the New York Times read "COVID 19 is making millions of Americans healthier." You've got it:  we're baking and cooking at home, and it's good for our spirits, good for celebrating with our family, and often good for our nutrition. If you're feeling guilty about the baking you have done or the baking you have consumed, here's the surprising fact:  almost anything you make has less salt and sugar than any fast food on the planet.

Anyone trying to work from home and take care of small children has my deepest respect.  Anyone home schooling similarly has my respect.  But how many of us are finding that more time spent with the people we love, less time shopping and running around to lessons and sporting events has been a balm?  I suspect the very nature of time has changed for many of us, and that going back to the old rush-rush seems foolish.  We've been given a chance to recalibrate what matters.  Amongst all the death, we've been given a quiet chance to consider what the good life is.  It's the people we love.  It's time to be reflective and to focus on things that matter to us, not on the things that matter to our jobs or our lives as consumers.

Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage was written in 2017, yet sheds important light on this moment.  Here's the startling fact that is the foundation of his plea for creating a better world out of the one we are living in.  The thing that distinguishes humans from the planet's other creatures is our altruism:  "We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies."  This very human trait shows up as early as fourteenth months, when babies will hand another child something that's out of reach.  At two, we begin to share.

In a sense, COVID 19 is a test of our altruism.  The ultimate test was whether we'd be willing to shelter in place while the virus ravaged our communities because it was so abstract.  Our altruism largely sheltered others, but only fourteen days later.  Yet there are other tests as well.  Will governments find ways to protect the vulnerable?  We've come to recognize that the people who stock shelves and clean buildings and drive trucks and say "Stay safe!" after we've checked out at the grocery store are hugely important to our safety and well being.  Will we transform that recognition into a living wage?  Many of the ads I have seen on TV take time to thank front lines workers, right after the doctors and nurses, but I wonder if they will take action after the economy bounces back and push governments to increase the minimum wage?  Will we be willing to contribute to that wage, or will we complain that after COVID 19 everything seems a little more expensive?  The homeless are particularly vulnerable:  will we find better ways to house them?

I had planned to write about a couple more things:  how cultural institutions have given us free access to art--how Stratford is making Shakespeare available via YouTube, how museums are creating virtual tours, how concerts and book launches have gone online.  In the context of Neoliberal economics, culture should just be part of the market.  If it's really valuable, we'll pay for it.  But COVID 19 has shown how central it is to human thriving.  I see creativity happening everywhere, from my favourite restaurant's shift from serving meals to delivering them to homes, to the creation of an art gallery for a pet guinea pig or the various hearts that make their way into windows.  We've had time to discover how joyful creativity is, how it is part of our well-being.  We've also created communities in inventive ways.  But this post got long enough, so I'm going to save Monbiot's urgent thoughts about community and my thoughts about creativity and community in the time of COVID 19 for next week.  In the meantime, please share your thoughts about what changes COVID 19 has brought to your life that you'd like to see remain.  Just add them to the Facebook comments.

The photograph at the top was taken by my daughter, Veronica Geminder, as part of an Instagram project on photographs illustrating our COVID 19 isolation.  Here's what she says about it:  "The photo is a visual metaphor for the way that the isolation of the pandemic has made us turn inwards towards simple and solitary pleasures (tea and cake eaten on old, pretty china) while the outside world and the company that would require a second plate and cup are present in our minds but are physically inaccessible except through objects that both connect and divide."  Veronica is really skilled at using reflections so convey multiple realities, as you might have seen in our book of poems and photographs, Visible Cities.  So check out the reflections in the teapot.  Can you find the photographer?

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