Coronavirus threat should unite people
Yes, the most shrill still see the Covid-19 pandemic through their narrow tribal lenses. The closed angry minds of the right-wing in the US are spouting predictable nonsense about how 'they' are being attacked by political enemies.
What an extraordinary opportunity this frightening global pandemic gives us, to remember a deep human truth forgotten in a world torn by so many tribal divisions. The group that matters most now is the tribe of all of us. SARS-CoV-2 could care less what party we're in, or where we live, or our race or religion or gender or any of the other affiliations with which we normally identify. The virus seeks human DNA in which to replicate and it doesn't care whose. Which puts all of us at risk.the SAME risk.
And we are all at risk now. Climate change threatens everyone, but most of us still think that threat is yet to come. Not Covid-19. That disease is among us all, now, or soon will be. We are all personally threatened, currently, by the same bogeyman. Across modern human history, there has rarely been such a confluence of circumstances, both physical and emotional. Over its course, the disease will sicken millions, and kill hundreds of thousands. But it will also spark the "We're all in this together" social altruism that is an instinctive part of how we social animals help ourselves, and our species, survive.
That has already begun. Begrudgingly, and not without sacrifice, people from Wuhan to Milan to Seattle are accepting being quarantined. In Tehran and Seoul and New Rochelle and everywhere else the virus has begun to spread, people are adjusting their lives to "social distancing"; everything from not leaving home or going to school or work, to shaking hands when we greet each other, to avoiding crowded settings, to working from home (if we can), to business and school closures, to literally standing a few feet further apart when we interact with each other. There are costs to all these constraints. But that's the point. We are all (most of us anyway) willing to accept those costs in the name of the greater common good. That is the very definition of social altruism, giving up personal resources to benefit the larger group we're a part of. Which we do because we instinctively understand that we all benefit in a world that works that way.
It's even more moving to realise that many of us are accepting these costs without even realising the immediate public health reason benefit of social distancing. The goal is to slow the rate at which the disease is spreading, so there isn't such a sudden huge demand for critical care from hospitals that some people who are really sick can't get the care they need. Many people I've talked with in recent days, say they generally understand that social distancing helps slow the spread of the virus, but don't recognise this specific benefit, which does not actually benefit most of us directly. They just accept social distancing because it feels like the right thing to do.because we each instinctively recognise that we're all in this together.
It is encouraging too to see how most of us accept the need to help those who can't afford the costs of social distancing. In Italy and France and Germany and South Korea and the US, we (most of us) accept that our tax dollars should help cover the lost wages and the health care for the uninsured and the missed school lunches for inner-city kids.because all those people are part of our human tribe, too, and we understand that a world that works this way at times like this is a safer world for all of us.
Yes, the most shrill still see the Covid-19 pandemic through their narrow tribal lenses. The closed angry minds of the right-wing in the US are spouting predictable nonsense about how 'they' are being attacked not by the disease but by their political enemies, who are allegedly hyping fear of the disease to attack President Donald Trump.
Note how some attendees of the recent CPAC meeting in Washington - leaders of the conservative movement - are self-quarantining after contacting an attendee who subsequently reported he had the virus. They represent what millions of people around the world are doing; setting aside tribal affiliations in the name of the greater common good. They are implicitly acknowledging and reinforcing what we all understand, that beyond all those other affiliations, we are all in it together; the pandemic, and the global community.
Climate change threatens us all, for example, but doesn't feel as imminent or personally threatening. And it has been polarised into a tribal totem, so the very phrase will remain trigger language for some. We haven't entirely put our other group identities aside.
But the millions who will be sickened by this pandemic, and the hundreds of thousands who will be killed - human beings, regardless of where they live, what they look like, or what their values are - will be a clear if painful reminder that in the big picture, we are all members of the same tribe. The social altruism beginning to spread will remind us that we can at least sometimes transcend our differences in the name of contributing to a world that, by making it safer for others, we make safer for ourselves.
So perhaps this shared threat can help us remember as we go forward to call on this capacity to solve our biggest shared problems, when other divisions threaten to tear our societies apart.
- Psychology Today
- David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard University Extension School