The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted human civilization on Earth. Many have died. Many more have fallen sick. Even more have lost their livelihoods, their jobs, their businesses, their most treasured activities. Almost all have lost much of their savings. Some have lost their minds. It seems callous to the point of sadism to suggest that some good might still come of this, and yet our language is peppered with aphorisms that express the importance of looking for ways to turn every situation to advantage:
“Always look on the bright side.”
“It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good.”
“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”
There are, of course, cynical and selfish applications of such advice: some people have made a profit by hoarding toilet paper and selling it for exorbitant prices; others by selling snake-oil remedies as COVID cures. Abusive spouses took this opportunity to torture their partners and children.
However, certain kinds of adversity truly do bring out the best in some people, and this pandemic is that kind of adversity. “Random acts of kindness” have reached the level of heroism all over the world. Most people have a renewed spirit of cooperation for the common good. Many feel some pride in our resilience.
But we miss our jobs, our lost wealth, our comforts, our pleasures and our indulgences. Most people just want life to go back to the way it was a year ago, with the economy in a booming state of perpetual growth and almost no restrictions on personal freedom — at least compared to now. Sure, there were a few problems, like anthropic global climate change, mass incarceration, systemic racism and intolerance, exuberant ignorance, corruption, war, half the nation’s wealth in the hands of the three richest people… all those little problems that we’ve learned to ignore or tolerate in order to have a good time. But they were either Somebody Else’s Problem [thank you, Douglas Adams!] or over the horizon of our awareness — they could all wait while we had fun.
Well, now the fun is on hold until further notice, while our attention is hostage to COVID-19. Maybe we can stop and think about the future in terms other than “getting back to normal”. When things are going smoothly for us, we abhor change; when they aren’t, we may be more willing to think “outside the box”. Let’s do:
The Earth hasn’t been so healthy in many decades. Skies are clear over Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing and New York. Highways are clear for essential transportation. No one is feeling guilty about flying to distant vacation spots or taking cruises. Perhaps this would be a good time to think of more environmentally friendly modes of transportation, like dirigibles or modern sailing ships.
Robots & Jobs
Since the invention of power looms in the 18th Century, people have been losing their jobs to automation and complaining bitterly about it. In the 21st Century the machines have been taught to behave “intelligently” and the new boogeyman is the robot that can not only clean your house and build your car but also drive your car — probably better than you can. Today a huge number of people have lost their jobs — usually because those jobs, by their very nature, make physical distancing difficult or impossible, and so have been shut down. Many such jobs could be done by robots, and perhaps should be done by robots, if they would do them at least as well and more economically. But that would put people out of work! Well, they already are out of work. But they would lose their income! Well, their income is presently being supplemented by what amounts to a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI). This situation is meant to be temporary, but what if it became permanent? What if the people who were doing jobs that would be better done by robots had a chance to train for better jobs while the robots took over their old ones? If the robots really did them better, “productivity” would go up and the government would collect more taxes to continue the GMI.
Alienation from Ignorance
In recent years it seems that ignorance has been proudly embraced by a huge segment of the population. Those on the Right Wing actively scorn the “effete intellectual snobs” and “science nerds”; those on the Left Wing fall prey to folk remedies, mysticism and conspiracy theories of their own. As COVID-19 burns through the population, many are discovering the price of ignorance. While this is no guarantee that they will disavow their commitment to it, perhaps it will motivate at least a few more people to think critically, especially about their own beliefs.
Making Government Trustworthy
Few Americans trusted their government in 2019, and with good cause. But cynicism is a form of laziness, inasmuch as it excuses not bothering to try. All governments attract corruption and lies; wishing they were better does absolutely no good. Without trust, no social contract can ever work; but trustworthiness is never an accident or a creation of inspired leaders. It must be laboriously maintained by a determined electorate willing to furnish the “eternal vigilance” that liberty demands. COVID-19 has greatly clarified the difference between government that serves the people’s interest and government that serves only its own. Perhaps we can preserve and nourish the lessons learned from these ordeals.
No Existential Crisis should ever go to waste.
Perhaps we should just play the hand we’ve been dealt.