At the time of writing, humanity finds itself in the crisis of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. It is the second half of March 2020. Situation worldwide changes by the hour. Most news reports are dedicated to giving updates on the numbers of those who got ill and those who died in various countries. One reads and hears about statistics, struggling healthcare systems, dismal economic outlook, bankruptcies, layoffs, increasingly stern lockdown and social distancing measures, and such similar developments. In the last couple of months, almost everyone has learned about the importance of “flattening the curve” (an expression that has a good chance of becoming colloquial in our lives). Even those who were in the stage of denial the longest are now joining the growing crowd of those who are trying to face reality the way they can. An increasingly isolated reality.
No doubt, this is not the first crisis humanity has faced and it is by far not the worst (just think about the Black Death of the 14th century, for instance). Sure, in terms of technological and medical advances nowadays we are much better placed to be able to deal with such a situation. However, there is one crucial aspect that is arguably unique to our present crisis – the vastness of humanity in isolation. To use the words of the “We Are” song as performed by Ana Johnsson: “We’ve never been so many and we’ve never been so alone”. Although the song is more than 15 years old, its message can feel surprisingly fitting both to the current situation and the potential mid to long-term implications of humanity in isolation. Despite the likely effectiveness of this measure in our efforts to “flatten the curve”, limit the spread of the illness and allow our healthcare systems to cope with cases that do indeed require medical assistance, it is nonetheless worth meditating on the potential consequences or, at least, influences that this measure may have not only on our economies but, hopefully equally importantly, on our humanity as something many consider essential to the very nature of being a human.
It is said that people are not meant to be alone. We are social creatures. We need our “tribe”, whatever that means in each individual case. Isolation, therefore, is one of the things hitting us at the deepest core of our species. Historically, sentencing someone to exile was often seen worse than death. Lengthy solitary confinement of an inmate is a severe punishment. The idea of being stranded somewhere on your own, separate from your fellow humans is an altogether depressing prospect. Yet, here we are, in the modern times of self-isolation and lockdown. Social distancing sounds easy at first and some may even enjoy long-wished-for time alone. But after a while, we realize that all the digital communication in the world cannot compensate for, let alone substitute, the sense of genuine togetherness. This is the first blow our humanity has to face at the moment, the first test of that essential quality that humanizes us.
We are implored to stay calm and reasonable. This is, indeed, vital. Especially at times of crisis. We understand it and agree with it, and for a while, we can pull ourselves together. However, it is also evident that such a crisis takes a toll on our self-control and challenges the endurance of our characters. Is my duty of a responsible person greater towards my family or the society at large? If there is someone close to me on the other side of the city, the country, the continent, do I stay at home in the requested self-isolation or do I try my best to be with that person? It is an enormously difficult conflict for our humanity. If someone we care for needs us, surely we have to be there for them. In fact, we need that ourselves. Particularly during hard times. Currently, however, such completely natural human behaviour poses a risk of spreading the illness. Suddenly, being a decent person means staying at home as much as possible, isolating yourself from others, including those you care for. Sure, there are exceptions. But that’s the problem – they are exceptions. Since this is so strongly against our human nature, countries are forced to implement lockdown measures and close borders. Going to check on your relatives abroad gets more and more difficult. For now, many understand the need for such harsh measures. Yet, the feeling of uneasiness grows. The very thing that humanizes us is requested to be put on hold. Since we are not only rational but also emotional beings, this is a no small request. This is one more blow our humanity has to face, another test of that essential quality that humanizes us. There may be more as we should never forget about the so-called “unknown unknowns” that can pop up completely unexpectedly. Let us not fool ourselves into the illusion of complete control.
While writing this and thinking about how the global isolation of humanity will play out, a police car slowly passes through the streets outside. I know it because I hear a loud voice broadcasting the same message through a speaker several times per day. It tells that we should stay at home following the new regulation, that compliance is monitored and that violators will be persecuted. I tell myself – this is for our own good. I know, I understand. Yet, at the same time, I cannot shake off this increasingly disturbing feeling. Where does reasonable self-isolation for the sake of common good end and the total control vs every-man-for-himself attitude start? If I am in any kind of a union – be it a personal, social, economic or political one – and have to realize that it works well only during “good weather conditions”, will I still consider it valuable? Or will I decide that I am better off without it and isolate myself even further from anything allegedly uniting? Will our globalized world become more local again leaving most of the “personal freedoms” for the virtual reality as a new escape for humanity? Will we notice if or when the “cure” becomes worse than the “disease”?
If humanity must stay in isolation for a relatively short time, most probably we can handle it. After all, we are an adaptable species. However, global isolation on such a massive scale is an unprecedented experience. What we are going through is much, much tougher than it may seem. Not only for our political, social, welfare or economic systems. These all function as long as humanity “functions”. Therefore, if the core of our nature – our humanity – takes an unpredictable turn influenced by the blows of its widespread isolation, everything else in our societies will be put into question. How do we want to remember the current times in the future? How do we want others to look back at these times in the even more distant future? Let’s stay healthy and let’s stay human.