May 25, 2020

COVID Made Us Kinder

The last two weeks of March were when COVID devoured the nation. It totally consumed the consciousness of practically everything. It was exhausting, a full-time job just to keep up with it and watch it develop via the news. The country was overwhelmed by an invisible tidal wave that brought disease and death.

It completely overwhelmed the healthcare systems of New York. We had heard of what had happened in Italy, the sudden wave of mass death. It sounded like a science fiction horror story. It was hard to believe it really happened. And then COVID unleashed its fury on New York. It was stunning and disorienting. It felt as if the world changed at that moment.

Days stretched out till they felt like weeks. So much was packed into each day that it felt like an extended period. But underneath the horror, in spite of it and even because of it in a way, we also saw something else happen. People evolved. As concentrated as the time was, as heavily weighted with events as each day was, events also exerted influence on people. We were experiencing something new, something with a greater magnitude than we had ever imagined. And it couldn’t help but cause changes in people.

Fortunately for the most part the changes I saw in people’s attitudes and behaviors were positive. The great thing about disasters is that people help each other. In the middle of all the horrors, it’s the natural inclination of human beings to help each other. That’s how we’ve been such a successful species, in spite of our flaws that sometimes seem self-destructive enough to cancel out all we’ve accomplished. Human beings are among the most social animals. Our greatest accomplishments were possible only through a high degree of cooperation. In this case, when COVID burst onto the scene, I saw an elevated level of compassion and caring in people in general.

People started adopting the safety precautions, social distancing. Masks started to appear. When people kept their distance from you in a grocery store or on the street it was a gesture of respect and care. Even while driving in my car on the highway I sensed a new level of awareness and courtesy among drivers. They seemed to be social distancing even in their cars on the highway.

Everything changed almost instantly. Social distancing recommendations evolved into shelter-in-place orders. Nearly everyone was staying home most of the time. Suddenly Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah were doing their night-time comedy shows from their homes. Stores were closed, except for those offering basic necessities. Everything changed practically overnight.

But while all these frightening, deadly things were playing out, the basic change in people seemed to be toward more care and concern for each other. Social media evolved to a whole new level of importance. An elderly lady I was in communication with said the “the miracle of social media” made it possible for her to stay in close touch with remote family members in spite of the pandemic.

Since the initial reaction, which was a wave of compassion and concern of people for their fellow humans there has been a counter-reaction, a politically driven reaction against any change, people asserting that it violates their rights to have to wear a mask when going into a store. But these are politically driven and funded by those who most want to go back to the previous normal that fit their needs so perfectly.

We don’t know how much the next normal will resemble the previous normal. But this has been too powerful a disruption to pass unnoticed and leave the world exactly as it was before the pandemic. We’re starting to move back toward a more normal level of activity. But I believe people have changed. We’ll see how much the change is sustained. I think people are kinder and more compassionate, both to each other and to the rest of nature.

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