Will This Pandemic Bring Positive Change?

On June 8, 2020 by Tim Newman
Scanning electron microscope image showing SARS-CoV-2
Scanning electron microscope image showing SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)

I’m the Senior News Editor for Medical News Today. This morning, I cried for the hundreds of thousands of people who have died at the hands of COVID-19. I made no attempt to pull myself together. But, as I shuddered cathartically, I questioned my motives.

We are living in strange times. We rarely leave our homes, we work from our homes, we exercise in our homes, we attend concerts and family get togethers from our homes. Our homes have become our world; media and technology are our outlet, informer, comforter, and entertainer.

As you might imagine, a medical news website is a hectic place to work during a pandemic, especially as part of the news team. I am not complaining (much), I still have a job when thousands are struggling to make ends meet.

However, it means that myself and my team think, read, and write about nothing else. Just COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2. All day. This pandemic is now my world: inside and out. I am not feeling sorry for myself; I have a garden and live with my family (who I still like, miraculously). I have a job, an income, my health. I am fine.

This pandemic has brought out the best in humanity — home concerts, new charity endeavors, kindness to neighbors near and far. Companies and governments have been forced to roll with the punches — the virus is in charge now.

Entire nations are indoors; the streets are empty, but there is a warmth between humans. Fear has bound us together. The obvious suffering of others has warmed our frosty, fake news-scarred souls. For the first time in a long time, we know that our hypothetical brothers, sisters, cousins, and aunts in countries we’ve never visited are experiencing similar fears to ourselves.

From behind my garden fence, I feel guilty relief. The suffering of others has been brought shivering into the cold light of day but, so far, myself and my family are safe.

What happens when this virus weakens and fades? How will we feel when normality skulks back? Will the warmth remain? Can we keep the camaraderie once COVID-19 has been shaken loose? Will we remember the companies who shafted their workers? Will we remember the officials who were too slow to move or willfully deceptive? I hope so. I hope we all remember. I hope the media machine covers no tracks and leaves bad actors in the limelight.

But deeper than the economic and political landscape, will we maintain our compassion for the suffering of others once the fear has been lifted from our shoulders? Human suffering does not only occur during a pandemic. 

This is something we all know, but many of us, including myself, choose to forget it. Charity tends to start and end at home. Our global cousins are too far from us in time, space, and culture to feel truly connected; until now. Now we understand the fear that disease and uncertainty brings. Can we carry this global empathy beyond COVID-19?

The others

Before you read what follows, I must state that I am not belittling the strength and ferocity of the COVID-19 pandemic; I am not attempting to “put it into perspective” — we are frightened for good reason; we should be. This is affecting us all deeply. But when the viral bellowing becomes a whisper, can we, as a species, hold onto our newfound shared empathy?

As I write this, COVID-19 has left hundreds of thousands of people dead. Today, 37.9 million people have HIV. In 2018, 770,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every 5 seconds, a child under the age of 15 dies. Most of these deaths are due to lack of access to water, sanitation, proper nutrition, or basic health services.

The WHO state that “801,000 children younger than 5 years of age perish from diarrhea” each year.

Each year, rabies causes 59,000 deaths, globally. According to the WHO, “rabies is a 100% vaccine-preventable disease.”

Scientists, politicians, businesses, the population of earth, have all scrambled to prevent disease and to plan a way around the disasters of COVID-19. Money has become available; multinational teams have striven for a common cause; generosity and understanding has become manifest in ways that I have not experienced in my lifetime. Once the dust has settled, imagine what humanity could achieve if we put our heads together more often.

Imagine if the compassion we’ve all felt within us kept frothing and bubbling. How much could we achieve if we maintained just 5% of the selflessness we have demonstrated during this pandemic?

Living through a pandemic is unusual for all of us. I hope it changes us for the better. I hope it changes society for the better. I hope that global health improves in the aftermath of this deadly storm. Only we can decide. 

Sadly, humans seem to have incredibly short memories. There has been much talk of the “new normal,” and I think we will all adjust to that very swiftly indeed. Even those of us that resist change often find ourselves adjusting with no effort at all.

As animals, we need to switch gears when the time comes. There’s no point dwelling and sulking, we need to swing with the rest of the corn or we’ll snap.

We are likely to be plunged deep into misinformation, too. Politicians and businesses who were less than genuine during the pandemic will flood our senses with misinformation, and we should be ready for that, collectively.

It is important to look for the good in humanity but, more often than not, that goodness is submerged under a layer of “as long as I’m OK.” And, yes, I do speak for myself. But I know I am not alone.

To be honest, I am not particularly hopeful.

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