21 Questions for 2020: #10

#10. COVID-19 is trying to tell us something. What is the message in that virus-shaped, ever-replicating bottle?

Much like climate disruption or computer viruses, the rapid global spread of COVID-19 is showing us just how interconnected we are. What happens anywhere in the world, to any of us, concerns all of us, everywhere. 

Like heat waves, viruses do not discriminate, although it is true that the most vulnerable will always be disproportionately affected. On Earth these days, this means not only poor humans, but also all non-humans. 

I have been thinking about the bats and the pangolins, which are suspected of being the initial carriers of COVID-19. They have been suffering lately—bat populations have been crashing worldwide (along with the insects they depend on), and the poor pangolins, which look something like golden armadillos, have been hunted practically to extinction by the Chinese. COVID-19 is making it clear that what happens to other species matters to all of us. Their suffering will come back to haunt us too. 

Pangolin

Within the human realm, COVID-19 is teaching us the hard way about the dangers of outsourcing manufacturing supply chains to faraway countries. When the Chinese got sick, their health crisis reverberated around the world and hit global investors especially hard. Corporate executives had imagined that they could profit endlessly from reliance on “cheap” labor, and turned a blind eye to the effect this has had on the American working class. The opioid crisis and ever-rising suicide rates bore witness to the despair in America’s abandoned manufacturing communities. 

COVID-19 is showing corporate chieftains and investors that in the age of climate disruption and pandemics, exploiting some people and neglecting others is a losing strategy. Local resilience and self-sufficiency is essential, and will pay a “happiness dividend” as it puts people back to meaningful work in their own communities. 

COVID-19 is shining a light on the tattered state of the American social safety net. People are at the mercy of the health insurance industry, which can and often does bankrupt sick people with inflated health bills. The number of workers in the part-time gig economy, from adjunct professors to Uber drivers, continues to swell, and not only are these people less likely to be insured, they rarely have paid sick leave or any job security. COVID-19 is making it clear how this sorry state of affairs for millions of Americans affects all of us. 

COVID-19 is also weighing in on the question of air travel, forcing us to recognize that just because we can hop on a plane does not mean we should. Burgeoning air traffic is not only spreading pathogens around the globe, it’s also a key driver of climate disruption. But we now have technology that makes it quite possible to travel virtually. Though I can’t imagine that virtual reality will ever be able to match real live experiences, there are many cases where face-to-face interactions could be accomplished via video-conference. Many global gatherings could take place online. COVID-19 is urgently suggesting we reconsider the benefits of armchair traveling.

In my own field, higher education, the coronavirus is pushing faculty to think more creatively about how to deliver course content and evaluate student work online. While MOOCs (massive online courses) have not worked so well, it’s possible that smaller groups of students, under the attentive guidance of faculty, could learn just fine online. In fact for some students, it might even be better that way. 

Classrooms are often fraught, anxiety-inducing spaces, and the whole experience of living on-campus has in many ways lost its allure for young people—not to mention being very expensive. If we reconfigured education so that most content was delivered online, students could meet in person to focus on social skill-building, like how to deliver an effective presentation, or how to have a respectful, dynamic discussion. Or simply to have some old-fashioned fun together!

If there is a bright side to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: we are being pushed to become much more thoughtful about how we live and work together on our crowded planet. COVID-19 is forcing us to recognize that there is no way humans can flourish in a world where so many animals are abused and suffering; so many people are exploited, sick and unhappy; and where the Earth herself is over-crowded, contaminated, diseased and dying. 

In this interconnected world, what we do to others (whether other humans or other species and the natural world) will come back to us in spades. COVID-19 is telling us loud and clear: It’s time to clean up our act. 

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