We’re Not All in This Together

When the only way to be a real community is to be apart, it quickly becomes obvious who is out for themselves.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2020 | 8 minutes (2,043 words)

Call it a dystopia, call it the apocalypse, whatever it is, the fact is, right now, we all have the capacity to kill each other. It’s not an exaggeration, it’s just a fact: We are literally holding each other’s lives in our hands. In a pandemic, every single person’s actions have the most extreme consequences for every single other person. I’m not sure how you can get more serious than that. I’m not sure how people can STILL not take that seriously.

Fuck. It’s hard to express anger without just expressing it. The second you write it down it loses that volatility. How do I convey the rage I’m feeling right now watching families continue to gather together, watching friends clandestinely meeting, laughing like they aren’t responsible for the rising death toll? Should I do it in physiological terms? Ok, I’ll list the symptoms like an illness, since that’s what we’re working with right now: Shallow breath, rapid heart rate, adrenalin. A fucking waterfall of expletives. Shaking. I’m literally shaking with rage. My face is permanently scrunched, my throat twisted, like I’m perpetually getting ready to scream — to shout and kick and yell and punch. Or maybe an analogy works better. Feral animals, threatened and fearful, can explode into bouts of wild insanity. One minute they’re calm, the next they’re thrashing and biting, their eyes bulging and unseeing, their entire body a fist. Blind rage: Uncontrolled, undirected, unstoppable.

I saw all of those unctuous half-naked bodies packed onto a sweltering beach in Australia, knowing there was a pandemic, and I thought of all the humid holes in the ground packed together in Iran, awaiting the same number of dead bodies. I saw all those stupid drunk kids in bars in the U.K. knowing there was a pandemic, and I thought of all those abandoned nursing homes in Spain full of the same number of scared seniors left to die on their own.

But I’m not feral. So I just sit here, in the most populous city in Canada, simmering. And when I walk outside, when I run on the road, and I see a park full of people, or strangers face to face, I fucking stare. And I fucking shake. And I don’t say, “What the FUCK are you doing?” Because when I’m told to stay away for everyone’s health, I do. Even if they don’t. Even if they are the 20 percent who believe this is all blown out of proportion, who have the power to sink the 80 percent of us who don’t. Even if they are the reason we went from 90 percent of coronavirus cases spread by travel to 90 percent spread by community. In an apocalypse, a stranger can be a comfort. In a pandemic, they’re nothing but a threat. The community that is left is found in the human beings who distance themselves, not for themselves alone, but for everyone else. Maybe so many people don’t get it because it’s a human paradox: That the further apart we are, the closer we become.

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Spring break revelers playing a game of “chicken” on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Florida. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The body’s response to coronavirus may vary, but the scientific community’s response to it does not: epidemiologists, medical professionals, health officials are all united behind the message that it is highly contagious, that it is more deadly than the flu and that spartan social separation measures must be taken to stop its spread and save lives. It is the politicians across the globe who are vacillating, who are for some reason the public face of a global health emergency despite their lack of health expertise. They are the ones making decisions based on politics, on economics, on everything else first, and on the health of their citizens second (if that).

Yes, the symptoms of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 — range widely. Fever and dry cough are the most common, but not in everyone and during the incubation period — up to 14 days — there can be “stealth transmission” where you unknowingly pass it on. So, no, it’s not, “just like the flu.” With the flu, which is caused by one of two versions of the influenza virus, you can get vaccinated and not potentially die. With coronavirus, you can’t because there is no vaccine. The bigger problem, the reason death is more likely, besides an apparent higher mortality rate — the latest research shows coronavirus is six times as fatal as the flu  — is because it’s also twice as contagious as the flu. In mid-March, one British doctor explained the infection rate using 10 cases — with influenza, they infect 14 others, with corona they infect 59,000 others (if you understand math, that’s 1.3^10 versus 3^10,  though the WHO now claims the second base is  more likely 2 to 2.5). Add that to people not knowing they even have it and you get why social distancing is as important as quarantining people known to be sick. Which is where flattening the curve comes in, which isn’t just some cute graph, it’s the idea that social distancing keeps the infection rate slowed down to the point that hospitals aren’t suddenly packed with every sick person at once. That’s when you start seeing triage, when there aren’t enough ventilators, so patients who might have had a chance under normal circumstances, die because of lack of access, because of overcrowding. It’s not a coincidence that the leading Italian sentiment was “business as usual” and the country now faces 16,000 deaths and counting.

But it’s hard to shout at those boys I saw riding their bikes together through my neighborhood the other night like it was an episode of Stranger Things, when I know that parents are collectively throwing their hands up in the air — “boys will be boys” — and that, even worse, elderly parents are still hanging out just as carelessly (as one friend told a New Yorker writer, “They just won’t fucking listen to me. I’m going to kill them before covid does.”) It’s hard to warn people not to go to work when the essential businesses left open, where I am anyway, include car dealerships and construction sites. The most widespread misinterpretation of coronavirus seems to be that of individualization — that your choice affects you alone. This goes for the old people who think they’ve lived long enough (but what about everyone in their retirement home they’ll infect?), the parents who think their kids will be fine (but what about everyone their kid infects?), the people who don’t want their civil rights infringed upon (but what about everyone else’s?), not to mention all the people who are hoarding groceries and jamming delivery wait times (what are immobile people supposed to do?). And it’s the dissenters that are decisive here, not the people they disagree with — the so-called “virus rebels” who once flouted lockdowns, the corona parties and #covidiots trending on Twitter, the people talking about a mutating virus like it’s equivalent to a terrorist attack. They are determining the future.

“You are not an island in this, you are part of a broader community, you are part of transmission chains, if you get infected you are making this much more complicated and you are putting people in danger, not just yourself.” Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said this in a TIME story published on March 20 in response to young people not taking coronavirus seriously. I can almost see him removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes in exasperation as he says it. It’s the same tone that a growing number of politicians and officials have adopted as the virus has continued to spread: like we’re all school children who have to be told how to wipe our own asses. It reminds me of the disgusted look Kevin Costner gives Whitney Houston when her character puts her life at risk for the nth time in The Bodyguard: “The people who hire me, they don’t have to be convinced to save their own lives.”

Those of us who don’t have to be convinced remain isolated in our homes, some of us (including me) literally alone. The solitude we have been forced into physically, becomes more deeply alienating when we realize that the way some people are acting does not account for the rest of us. Leave it to a tech dude not to allow this to harsh his mellow.  On March 17, Thomas Schulz, a San Francisco-area product designer tweeted:

As much as I want to join in with the 290,000 other people who liked this tweet, it’s more than a little disingenuous for a man who is part of the one industry — the one that invites Amazon and Zoom and Netflix into our isolation — that is doing better than ever right now to accuse the human beings it continuously exploits of being the problem. The alienation of CEOs like Jeff Bezos from the ecosystem is one of the reasons we are in this mess in the first place. Yes, Venice’s canals are running clear because boats are not kicking up the dirt, yes, elephants are comfortable enough to fall asleep in a tea field in India, yes, air pollution has been reduced across the world. But these changes are superficial, temporary. Our historical and sweeping disturbance of our ecosystem is the source of the current climate crisis and the increasing occurrence of disasters — likely even this pandemic.

The response to coronavirus is the time lapse response to the climate. The same avaricious few responsible for risking earth’s health, have risked the health of human beings across the globe by refusing to put them above politics and the economy. Instead of questioning a corrupt system that privileges the bodies of the rich and famous, America’s president quipped, “perhaps that’s been the story of life.” The same mentality considers it more palatable to sacrifice the elderly than to interrogate a status quo so broken that it now literally has a body count. Society’s growing fissures have exposed how vulnerable we have always been, it’s just that now our leaders are being forced to treat us ethically — to provide free health services, to expand unemployment benefits, to suspend eviction. But to frame a system as immutable, outside of an extreme crisis like this, is to shirk responsibility and imply that individual actions don’t matter, when cumulatively they are what makes the world what it is. Little wonder that the earth’s — in Werner Herzog’s words — “monumental indifference” towards us is so often reflected in our monumental indifference towards it and towards each other.

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The funny part about this whole thing is that I’ve never had as many warm encounters with strangers in my neighborhood in my life. It’s usually women, usually about my age. We are both running, or walking at the end of the day, or she’s pushing a stroller. And we clock each other — both aware of the 2-meters-apart rule — and as we get closer and closer together we do that kind of confused side step thing you do when neither of you knows which way to go, then we laugh and end up going in opposite directions. This is what I mean when I say the further apart we are, the closer we become. There’s a connection in the disconnection, a shared humanity, an unspoken agreement that we are looking out for ourselves and for each other. When that distance is not kept, that bond is broken. It reminds me of that line from Albert Camus’ The Plague, which has been trotted out by countless critics (I never said I was better than them) as some kind of guide. “This whole thing is not about heroism,” one of the doctors says. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.