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BERNSTEIN: This pandemic, its irony can teach us lessons


Column: Mind You

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays.
Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays.

If the pandemic has taught me anything useful, it is to appreciate irony. While I do not buy into the supernatural concept of fate, the universe, it seems, has a tendency to wink at those who look it in the face. 

Discoveries are made at the brink of hopelessness, people spend countless hours in pursuit of a goal to find that they never really wanted it in the first place and the best way to ensure something gets done is to have someone else declare it impossible.

What, then, is the great irony of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis?

I think we have all heard some version of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” proverb. When I ask my friends and family what they think it would take to unify the human race — or even the people of a single nation like the United States — the joking response is often “alien invaders.” 

But as humorous as such a response may be, I do believe that most people accept it as fact: that only a enemy common to the entire world could inspire camaraderie across national borders and political divides, because only then would all of humanity belong to the same “ingroup.” Only then could we all work together towards the same goal: dodging annihilation at the existential scale.

Well, that alien invader has come, in every way but the literal. COVID-19 threatens the international community at a grander scale than any other disease in recent history. It infects indiscriminately. Its death rate is high enough to be alarming while low enough that it does not interfere with its own spread. 

In an age where traveling across the globe is a day’s journey, we were bound to encounter a pathogen which refused containment. Now that the virus is upon us, we have a prime opportunity to prove that, when our entire species faces the same enemy, we can come together and come out stronger.

And yet, ironically, still we squabble.

Not only has COVID-19 not brought us closer together, but it has also, in many respects, further pushed us apart. Yes, many local communities have shown resilience and unity, but at a national and international scale, discourse could not be more vitriolic. 

Within the U.S. alone, unrest over the virus and the government’s response to it has culminated in protests against state lockdowns, discrimination against Asian Americans and conspiracy theories pinning blame for the virus on wealthy public figures. Such phenomena are not indicative of a citizenry eager to work together against a pandemic. They are symptoms of a populace suspicious of each other, of the government, of health experts and of the rich. They are symptoms of desperation and frustration.

I am not saying that all of this suspicion is totally unwarranted. Although I am a proponent of state lockdowns, I empathize (as I think we all do) with those who find themselves in financially untenable positions due to this crisis. Although I avidly support the medical community, I understand the distrust surrounding pharmaceutical corporations, even if this is no excuse for distrusting health experts in a time of crisis. 

Although I find the conspiracy theories accusing wealthy individuals of purposely instigating the pandemic to be ridiculous, that does not mean that I think that the public has no reason to be wary of the rich. But we must make a distinction between constructive conversations and emotion-laden tirades. 

Let us focus our emotional reserves on showing compassion towards others and keep the factual arguments dispassionate and truth-seeking, especially as we approach a time when state governments will have to make serious decisions about lifting restrictions. This is a time for pragmatism and problem-solving, not ideology.

In other words, even when we do overcome this pandemic (and I am hopeful that we will), we will still have failed the “alien invader” test. We will not have the luxury of saying that we judged ourselves accurately in thinking that we could unify behind a common enemy or that we handled the pandemic as well as we could have. At least, that is the path we seem to be taking. 

And if we continue on that path, we will have to take a good, hard look at our country, its institutions and the state of its public discourse when the dust clears.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays. 

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