Pandemics & The Death Of Compassion

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As things appear now, the world is looking at 2 to 3 months of extreme disruption from the COVID-19 virus. Schools, government offices, factories, and restaurants will be largely shut down. People will attempt to stay 6 feet or more away from all other people for fear of contracting the coronavirus.

Coronavirus US Map
Image credit: CDC

On one level, it is a little like getting the day off from school because of a blizzard. But on another level, it means tearing a gaping hole in the social fabric that binds us all together. Among other things, this pandemic will make it abundantly clear just how much we have have come to depend on each other in the world of commerce in the era of globalization.

Nothing is made in America, or Canada, or Europe, or the UK, or China, or Japan anymore. All manufactured goods are made from components sourced from dozens of companies located all around the globe. If our supply chains are broken, commerce will come to a screeching halt, putting tens of thousands, if not millions of people out of work.

Social Stress & Compassion

If you are a salaried employee with a good company health plan, that could be an inconvenience. If you are an hourly worker with few resources other than your weekly paycheck, the result could be catastrophic. Many Americans have less than $400 in savings available to them. For them, living paycheck to paycheck is not just an amusing expression, it could be the difference between life and death — or suddenly being homeless.

When social norms come under stress, human beings can begin acting in a most inhumane manner. Writing in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks talks about prior times when disease and pestilence visited agony and death on humanity. He refers his readers to the writings of Giovanni Boccaccio, who describes in his book The Decameron what happened in Florence, Italy in 1348 during The Plague.

“Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met … nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”

After an epidemic decimated London in 1665, Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year. In it, he reports, “This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others. … The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.”

Brooks writes, “Fear drives people in these moments, but so does shame, caused by the brutal things that have to be done to slow the spread of the disease. In all pandemics, people are forced to make the decisions that doctors in Italy are now forced to make — withholding care from some of those who are suffering and leaving them to their fate.

In the US, gun sales have surged in the past two weeks as panicky people seek to gain control over lives that are spinning out of control. Larry Hyatt, owner of one of the country’s largest gun shops in Charlotte, North Carolina, tells The Guardian, “This is only the second time in my 61 years of business that we’ve seen anything like this,” he said, adding that the first occasion was the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012.

“We are experiencing a massive rush to buy guns and ammunition as people feel the need to protect themselves and their families,” he says. The biggest demand is for AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles. Asked why he thought the spike was happening, Hyatt offered this opinion, “Financial meltdown, pandemic, crime, politics … you throw it all into the pot, and you have one hell of a mess.” Indeed.

David Liu, a gun dealer outside Los Angeles,tells The Trace that xenophobia is part of the reason for the surge in gun sales. It should be noted that the alleged president of the United States made a point during a recent address to the nation of saying the COVID-19 virus began in China, referring to it repeatedly as a ‘foreign virus.” Liu says people of Asian descent “are panicking because they don’t feel secure. They worry about a riot or maybe that people will start to target the Chinese.”

The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 claimed 675,000 American lives — almost 15 times more than America’s war dead in World War I. Yet America has virtually no collective memory of the event. One reason may because few Americans volunteered to help at a time when health care organizations were begging for assistance.

In a book entitled The Great Influenza, John M. Barry reported that the head of emergency aid in Philadelphia pleaded for help to take care of sick children. Nobody answered. “Hundreds of women … had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy. … Nothing seems to rouse them now. … There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back,” the director of the organization said at the time.

Creating Vulnerability

In the US today, a process of social filtering is taking place, as employers large and small struggle to decide which workers will continue to be compensated while offices are closed and which will simply be left to fend for themselves.

Jacob Remes is a history professor at New York University who studies disasters. Several years ago, he talked with Julia Carrie Wong of The Guardian about homelessness. “What the category of disaster does is sort people into worthy poor and unworthy poor. In America, if you are made homeless by a hurricane, you are considered ‘worthy’ and are (usually) eligible for public relief or support. But if you are homeless due to job loss or eviction, you are generally viewed as ‘unworthy’ – and scorned by politicians as a sponge on the system.

Just last week, as Congress was debating how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to decide whether to make testing free for all Americans, it also looked at expanding unemployment insurance, Medicaid funding, and access to general nutrition programs like SNAP. The putative president let it be known he disapproved of the proposed package because it contained “too many goodies.” His enablers label the bill part of a “radical left wing agenda.” But that didn’t stop Trump from promising massive government support for his pals in the cruise line industry. Just today the airlines went sucking up to the administration asking for a $50 billion bailout while many Americans can’t find out how to be tested for the virus or can’t afford a test in any event.

Coronavirus is now creating a new division — between the worthy sick and the unworthy sick — Remes says. “Because there is suddenly more generosity during a disaster, there’s also a lot more policing to make sure that the ‘bad poor’ don’t get any benefit. Disasters really show both the positive and the negative things that we have built into society, because they demonstrate who is vulnerable and who is less vulnerable,” Remes told Wong last week. “And vulnerability is socially created.”

Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Crown

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald John Trump has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Bret Stephens, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote recently “As a matter of politics…’s hard to think of a mechanism so uniquely well suited for exposing the hubris, ignorance, prejudice, mendacity and catastrophic self-regard of the president who is supposed to lead us through this crisis.”

He adds, “The coronavirus has exposed the falsehood of so many notions Trump’s base holds about the presidency: that experts are unnecessary; that hunches are a substitute for knowledge; that competence in administration is overrated; that every criticism is a hoax; and that everything that happens in Washington is B.S. Above all, it has devastated the conceit that having an epic narcissist in the White House is a riskless proposition at a time of extreme risk.

“It should not have had to take a deadly virus to expose this presidency for what it is. But it’s fitting that it has. A man who thinks he can twist every truth to suit his needs has at last discovered that he cannot twist the truths of nature and of one of nature.”

He likens the pandemic to the Greek goddess Nemesis, who bestowed rewards for noble acts and punishments for evil doings. In this case, COVID-19 is Trump’s punishment for the sin of hubris. Compassion is something he utterly lacks. The tragedy is so many innocents will suffer because of his stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance because they are deemed unworthy of assistance in their hour of need.

A Harbinger

A report last month by Infectious Disease Special Edition says, “The effects of climate change will alter the epidemiology of infectious diseases, threatening to unleash new microbes and change the characteristics of human immunity, according to experts at Johns Hopkins.” In other words, COVID-19 may be just the beginning of an onslaught of new diseases that people have little or no immunity to.

The present situation makes it clear how important it will be for nations to work together to confront such threats and how unlikely they are to actually do so. The coronavirus could be Trump’s Nemesis, but it could also be a harbinger of more frequent and more dangerous infections to come. Ecce, humanitas.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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