“Have you heard? That new virus is spreading like crazy in Wuhan, China. That seems just awful.” 

“Oh gosh, now there are tons of cases in Italy and Iran. I heard it came from a bat or something like that. How terrifying. Thank goodness there are only a few cases here.”

“It exploded in New York, and cases are increasing across Europe. Close the borders.”

“New York is the epicenter of coronavirus in the U.S. I feel sorry for them. Good thing we are safe out here in Texas. Or Lusaka. Or Windhoek. Or in Lagos or Delhi or Mexico City  or _____ [add your country] for that matter.”

“Close the borders quickly, we don’t want it here.”

Obviously, we all know the terrifying punchline: “there” pretty quickly became “here” for all of us in a matter of weeks.

Just as quickly, our carefully cultivated story of separateness has been squashed.

As we live through this, we have the opportunity to acknowledge a few revealed truths:

Our selfishness

First, unavoidably, we are all selfish in some important ways. Or, at least, I am.

I know that I started paying attention to, and worrying about, this coronavirus early.

I vividly remember the daily, sickening terror I was feeling in mid-February, unable to shake recurring thoughts about the risk to my family members.

The truth is, most of us only really wake up when something threatens people whose names we know: our family, our friends, our community.

Does this remind you of anything?

Second, the parallels to global warming are so glaring, it feels heavy-handed to point them out.

Global warming is a very serious threat that we all collectively face, if our response to global warming is going to be like COVID-19, where we don’t take it seriously until it is here, we will stand no chance against the consequences of global warming.

Despite all the warnings of the danger of global warming, most communities think global warming is something that is far away from us, like Wuhan is from Pretoria.

Something out there [global warming] is slowly, and continously putting us all at great risk.

The science is clear about these risks and about the steps we could take to mitigate it.

Most of us understand the problem but we ignore it.

A few powerful people deny it.

Those that are polite, and educated, are giving lip-service to how important this thing is while making virtually no sacrifices to fight it.

What have we learned in the last few months?

That most [but not all] societies are geared, politically, economically and socially, to under-prepare, under-react, and stay complacent for far too long. We say it is far away from us.

Then, when it is nearly too late, when it is near us, when it becomes real to us, we will panic, overcorrect, and bemoan the missed opportunity of having started sooner.

A thing with global warming is that no amount of screaming “close the borders!! close the borders!!” will save us.

Closing borders and isolating ourselves will not stop dangerous weather conditions. There are no borders in the sky. The weather knows no borders.

A few societies, though, learned important lessons from near misses.

They retooled and reprioritised, capitalising on shifts in attitudes to make significant shifts in resources.

They made sure that the next time they will be in a position to act and act quickly.

So what is the questions we must ask ourselves?

Will we all take the lessons we are living and apply them to the next gigantic, looming crisis on the horizon? Or will we, in our desperate desire to return to normalcy, rush headfirst into collective amnesia?

I think the answer to these questions will boil down to our willingness to look own selfishness squarely in the face, to study it without flinching.

If we could see how most of us [importantly, not front-line heroes] have responded to this crisis, how, when left unchecked, we fall prey to a massive, collective failures of imagination and empathy, effectively ignoring far-away-seeming hardships and far-off-seeming risks, might we gain the perspective to start acting differently?

Might this experience engrain in us our fundamental connection with each other?

Might it push us to set different priorities, be willing to give up a bit more, and act sooner and with much more urgency the next time around?

We have all been warned.

We all are living through this.

What will we do with this knowledge when we come out the other side?


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