Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

COVID-19 and Its Discontents

Does COVID-19 have a Message for Us? And If So, What is It?

There have been many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not all of them necessarily have to do with specifics of the novel coronavirus nor even with its immediate bodily effects on us. There has of course been the economic fallout, which has led to massive unemployment for many, who have been impacted by the closing of many businesses and change in the nature of commerce in these days. Yet for certain sectors of the economy, COVID-19 has been an income bonanza: online businesses, streaming services, home delivery operations and the like have thrived exponentially.

There are also the social consequences that have flowed from the need to socially distance and remain separate from many of our loved ones and friends whose contact with us almost overnight became dangerous and the desire to kiss, hug or even shake hands with them now seems at times to be considered not only malevolent but at worst a death wish. Our enforced isolation, our working or learning from home, and our search for new and “safer” ways to interact with others has made us redefine loneliness and human contact.

Spikes in depression, other sicknesses that go untreated because people are afraid to go to the overburdened hospitals or doctors’ offices, a new appreciation for those who deliver to our door or who service our needs, and a realization of a changing social order and the consequences of how we now live have also been part of the aftereffects of this contemporary plague. And of course, there are the ubiquitous political influences, both of those who claim to be fighting the pandemic and see it in its enormity and those who want to resist its reality and perceive it as a passing and ultimately insignificant event that they refuse to respect or even acknowledge, an attitude that bleeds over into their attitudes towards those who disagree with them. These differences, moreover, have been exacerbated by social media and other electronic sources of information that people spend more time looking and listening to because they are everywhere, including where we are alone, and this magnifies their impact and creates an echo chamber in which competing ‘truths’ provide alternative ‘facts,’ such that in the end we often cannot differentiate between real and fake.

Above all else, the pandemic and its politics have led not only to people experiencing different realities but at times exploding in conflict over this, first in words and then in deeds – even if by doing so they only serve to spread not only hatred but also the virus. During all of this, many if not nearly all nations have watched the numbers of infected and dying increase, coming in waves that have spread across the globe – and like all viruses they have mutated and become ever more virulent. Thus, what is among perhaps the most frightening consequences is that the more people who get the virus, the more likely new mutations develop, each one in its Darwinian evolution seeking to be more successful in reproducing itself and able to avoid its demise.

In response, humanity and particularly its scientists have been strikingly resourceful and successful in developing vaccines – though not always distributing them or even persuading people to take them when they become available. The vaccines have also turned into a political issue and a matter of some conflict, as the selfishness of humanity seems to trump its ability to be united against this pandemic, and we see inequities among nations and within them over who will get it first as well as over who should or should not be protected by it. And all this brings me to my point.

I’ve pondered as to whether there is some overarching lesson about humanity to be learned from this pandemic and its consequences – or to put it in terms my religious brothers and sisters as well as those nationalists who like to think God supports all their actions in this land: what is the Almighty telling us with this plague that has been put upon us?

Paradoxically, the science has much to tell us in an answer to this. It tells us the vaccines can protect us from COVID-19 in its current state, but as long as the virus is circulating and infecting more and more people, mutations will evolve, and they will ultimately become resistant to our vaccines and even to the antibodies developed by those of us who have been infected and recovered. Unless we are all protected, none of us will be truly protected. We clearly need herd immunity and that will need to be near ninety percent, worldwide. We cannot, therefore, as some here have argued, let our neighbors in the Palestinian domains, or those across national borders fend for themselves, or let the poor or impoverished countries worry about themselves while we richer ones see to our own vaccination and health. The virus ignores those kinds of motives or distinctions – and even a landlocked cordoned off Gaza can get the virus and spread it. If you ignore it, it will come – from faraway China or nearby Palestine.

So, I think the message is clear. We are one world, one species – as so many have for years argued. God (or if you prefer Mother Nature) sent us this pandemic to remind us of that and to emphasize that we either help one another survive or we shall all perish. It’s not a new message; it’s come before in the form of climate change, the discovery of and need to dismantle weapons of mass destruction, and of course in Scriptures. But we have ignored it. The pandemic reminds us in the most unmistakable way that we do so at our peril.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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