The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down. I don’t need to elaborate on that. It is an unprecedented episode in human history that, though unfortunate, should allow us to learn some lessons, especially in western countries. The lockdowns, the way our lives have changed, the “new normal” as they call it now… Should give us some insights on things that we could do better from now on… Kind of like a blank slate.
However, I am afraid we won’t learn anything from this apocalyptic scenario. Why? Because we are human. We are experts in avoiding self-criticism and blaming others. Fear and denial still work better than science, reason and love.
In western societies, we are also –let’s face it– too spoiled to compromise certain aspects of our lifestyles when necessity arises. Our societies have become inflexible out of exposure to commodities.
disclaimer: this is probably one of the harsher posts I have written in a long time, but I think it is about time we start considering how our decisions and the decisions of our leaders and governments matter.
Viruses don’t have nationalities
Crises bring out the worst of all of us. At the beginning of the pandemic, when it was focused on mainland China and was starting to spread around the world, there was a racist wave all over the world against Chinese people.
In my home country, Spain, many Chinese residents suffered from discriminating comments to physical aggressions. I unfortunately have Chinese friends that have been the target of cruel jokes and being insulted solely because they were Chinese… or looked Asian, anyway…
In other countries, the situation was even worse. Trump calling the COVID-19 virus “The Chinese virus” did not help the Asian American community in the US.
But of course it’s not like Chinese are the victims here. When some regions started to claim that the pandemic was “under control”, racism against African communities –which has always existed in China– exploded in different parts of the country. So now the Chinese, who had complained weeks ago about the xenophobic treatment they were subject to, were now doing the same to people from Nigeria or Kenya.
It’s not about ME it’s about US
When I go outside for a walk or to do the groceries, I put my face mask on, and make sure to wear it correctly all the time. I don’t have symptoms, even though I sneeze every now and then due to my multiple allergies. However, I do it because if everybody did the same, we would greatly hinder the spread of the disease.
However, most people are not wearing their masks correctly. Past week, the government of Bulgaria, among other measures, made it mandatory to wear a face mask when staying outside. For most Bulgarians, however, it is just a hassle, something they need to wear just in case they see the police.
So people just wear it under their chin, or hanging from one of their ears.
And that is sad. They are missing the whole point. Something that Asians know. It is not about me. I don’t wear a mask to protect myself. If someone infected coughs directly at me, chances are I will get infected too. No. We do it to protect others. It’s about us. Fighting this together.
Wear the f*****g mask
In Europe and other western countries (especially in North America), we have developed a strong feeling of individualism. That’s great to make sure our societies respect our liberties and rights, and prevents the appearance of authoritarian regimes (more common in Asia). In Europe we also have a stronger(ish) sense of privacy that’s absent in other societies and keeps the data-hungry corporations under control.
But this individualism comes at a price. We don’t understand the importance of protecting others. Of wearing our face mask when we talk to a friend or pass close to a stranger on the street. We still see it as a disrespect or simply a hassle.
The coronavirus pandemic caught us off-guard, crying because we cannot go to our favorite sushi restaurant. I think we all spoiled brats should stop complaining and give thanks for what we have 😊.
We have a lot to learn in that sense. So stop thinking about yourself for a little while, wear the f******g mask, and make a salad or a dish of pasta at home. You will be ok.
We CAN stop climate change
That is actually a quite shocking realization. Scientists and ecologists have been warning us for years (if not decades) about the necessity of doing something to stop climate change, but we have resigned to the fact that it is unavoidable. Apart from some well-meaning summits and nice political gestures –which have achieved nothing if you look at the big picture– we have done nothing to stop it. Nothing real.
But a few weeks of lockdown and economic activity shutdown have been enough to drastically reduce pollution levels in all major cities of the world. This includes cities such as New Delhi, whose inhabitants have not seen a blue sky for years.
Of course, I know shutting down factories and banning cars from roads is not sustainable. But it’s been decades since we are facing this problem. Shouldn’t we have made something already? If we truly believe this is a real, urgent problem, and I think nobody, except the most fanatic negationists (Trump, Bolsonaro, etc) would deny this, we would have by now. Electric cars, sustainable energy, new production procedures… we CAN do it.
So let’s be honest here, it is not that we CAN’T stop climate change, it is simply that we don’t WANT to. There’s no political will. And as Greta says, the current and future generations will judge the politicians of today for this… But what’s the point of blaming anyone once it is too late?
Some days ago, oil prices went negative. That means some traders were paying buyers to get the oil out of their hands. They simply have no place to store it any longer. I would love us to learn this important lesson: our consumption can change the world. Our choices can prevent climate change… But I am afraid we won’t.
Health is more important than wealth
My home country, Spain, has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Italy is one of the others. Why? Because we denied the pandemic until it blew up in our faces. We did not want to hurt the tourism industry.
In February, days before the pandemic broke loose in Italy, Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Democratic Party downplayed the threat, posting a picture on instagram stating: “Let’s not lose our habits, we can’t stop Milan and Italy”. Some days later, he tested positive, and Italy entered in one of the worst chapters of his recent history.
The same happened in Spain. This time, also influenced by political and ideological aspects.
Earlier this month, even as confirmed cases of coronavirus rose in Spain, Sánchez allowed thousands to attend soccer games and even permitted a 120,000-strong feminist rally in Madrid to proceed. The Spanish capital has now become the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, the world’s fourth largest.
For Italy, COVID-19 was “that sickness that was happening in China”. Spain showed the same level of stupidity, or even more, because Italy is too close to argue that it was an exotic virus affecting some Asian country.
Even now, with “only” four hundred deaths a day (please, consider that number carefully, that is four hundred people dying every single day), local governments like the Canary Islands are asking the Spanish PM to lift the restrictions on the islands earlier.
I know, tourism is their first (and only) source of income. Spain and Italy are mainly touristic countries. Economy is important. I am a business owner and I understand the need to get things back to normal soon, but it seems to me some people are forgetting the most important thing: saving lives.
History has shown us that it also saves the economy. During the (wrongly called) Spanish flu pandemic, cities and regions that applied stricter social distancing measures recovered faster. That means that, ironically, countries that prioritize wealth over health will suffer a bigger economic impact.
The United States of America, currently the hotspot of the coronavirus pandemic, is a prime example of this. Topping the charts in both infections and death toll, all they seem to care about is when and how to reopen the states to reduce the economic impact, instead of how to contain the spread of the virus.
Science is there to help us
The main problem of Spain and Italy, apart from their dependence on tourism, is the incompetence of their politicians. In the case of the United States, the problem is even worse. Trump is (in)famous for denying climate change, repeatedly despising science and scientists, and lately even advising people to inject (or even drink?) disinfectant as a cure to COVID-19.
I cannot even imagine a European prime minister saying something like that. Thankfully, a large part of the American society is educated enough to ignore the words of Mr. Trump. But the problem is that the US is the land of creationism and modern anti-vaccines movements. A country where a global pandemic causes people to hoard guns instead of toilet paper. So when someone as Trump says things like that, it does matter.
Bolsonaro is another sad example of what happens when a fanatic illiterate gets to a position of power. The similarities between the responses of both politicians to the coronavirus crisis are scary. From belittling the virus, to encouraging anti-lockdown rallies, to their absolutely weird claims against any logic or scientific reasoning.
And the problem here is that lives are at stake. Denying climate change today will have an effect tomorrow, but in this crisis, the effects are almost immediate. Science is here to help us. It is the XXI century. Shouldn’t we choose our leaders more wisely?
(On a related note, I really hope this crisis will show the anti-vaccines movement the consequences of not having a vaccine for a potentially lethal virus.)
Authoritarian regimes feed on fear, and democracies become weaker
Nobody believes the numbers of China. I don’t either. They are, after all, an authoritarian regime famous for their control of information, both online and offline. But something is clear: their response to the pandemic was better because they could apply stricter measures immediately.
It is scary how easily the Chinese population accepted one of the most Black Mirror-esque social control technologies of the XXI century: an app with a QR code that assign health color codes to the citizens to fight the pandemic, while additionally collecting and sharing a whole lot of information with the authorities.
While that’s unsurprising given China’s dictatorial record, I am worried that fear is encouraging citizens to accept similar measures in western countries. Hungary is a perturbing example. One European nation dangerously slipping into authoritarian territory. Even in my home country, a recent slip of the tongue of a police commander suggested that the government is censoring any criticism on their handling of the crisis.
I’m all about shutting down fake news, especially when they can be harmful for the society or the public health. But a strong line needs to be drawn to prevent governments to use their power to censor or manipulate information.
Another unsettling example: Google and Apple are preparing an app, supposedly to help track coronavirus cases and protect people, that will be installed automatically –without the user consent– on all our devices. If that does not sound alarming to you… well, you live in a brighter world than I.
Do I believe a vulnerability affecting these apps or the underlying infrastructure may leak our data to third parties? Hell yeah! It has happened in the past and will happen again. Do I think Apple and Google may use this information for evil purposes or share it with the US government if asked to? Well, of course. I have worked in IT security for more than six years. That’s simply a reality.
I really, really hope Europe will hinder the plans of these tech giants. And I would like us to learn this lesson and protect our democracies, rights and privacy. We can fight the virus without giving them up.
We just need to enjoy the small things
Today I went for a walk with my partner. We prepared some snacks and walked for hours. After eating our sandwiches, we grabbed a coffee to go from a local shop, after making sure it was safe (local merchants take hygiene measures quite seriously here), and kept on walking until we found a place under the trees to hide from the sun just a little bit and enjoy our coffees.
We were outside five hours. We had a great conversation, laughed and enjoyed our frugal meal. The coffee felt like a privilege after weeks of staying indoors. The exercise also made me feel great.
We had become so used to going to restaurants, cafes and pubs that we had started to forget that we don’t really need any of those things. We just need the small things. A little bit of sunlight, a nice conversation, a refreshing walk… I had a extremely stoic moment today and promised myself I will try to be less spoiled in the future and enjoy the little things more.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed our world and our lives. In a way, is an experimental playground that has taken mankind out of its comfort zone. This poses an excellent opportunity to learn some lessons that, I am afraid, we won’t learn. In this article, I discussed many of them.
Don’t hesitate to share your points of view in the comments below!