Irene Rabinowitz draws an interesting parallel between the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s in her latest blog. Central to Rabinowitz’ argument is how destructive it is to dismiss the danger of certain diseases simply because you yourself, or even any loved ones, do not seem to be at risk. During the AIDS panic, people kept their anxiety at bay by repeating to each other, over and over, that the only really vulnerable group was that of gay men. By doing so, they ignored the fact that AIDS can affect everyone, and is transmitted not just via intimate contact but also through blood and breast milk. In other words, we now know that AIDS can be linked to sex, but it certainly isn’t exclusively.
Nowadays, in the first half of 2020, we are collectively facing the Coronavirus—a virus that is transmitted far more easily than AIDS. The CDC estimates that it is possible to catch it from a carrier within as much as six feet of you. As Rabinowitz says: “to hear, over and over again, that this epidemic is not something to worry about because “just” [older] people are at risk of dying, harkens back to a time when humanity was challenged to maintain empathy and compassion for those at risk. And, in many cases, failed the challenge.” In the time of the AIDS outbreak, the public put up an artificial, fear-based divide between gay men and everyone else. Now, it’s the young and healthy versus the elderly and disabled.
I want to capitalize on Rabinowitz’s argument that the divide that we now see emerging in light of the Coronavirus is not merely a repetition of what happened in the 1980s. More than a repetition of old fear and denial tactics, the Coronavirus and the discourse surrounding it is symptomatic of the level of individualism on which Western people have based their lives. The healthy and able-bodied capitalized on cheap vacations to high-risk areas because they wanted an affordable vacation above everything else. However, if a potential carrier ignores the risk of infecting other people, he or she perpetuates the harmful idea that their risks may or may not affect just them. This idea is not true, anyway. The idea that Corona is merely a “flu” for the young and healthy is patently false. Even if you would be placed in quarantine, i.e. eliminating the risk of infecting others, the virus is still capable of chronically harming the health of non-vulnerable infected people, too. Yes, you can choose to keep your “social distance” from elderly parents or even grandparents if you think you may be a carrier, but relentless egotism can still result in an infected neighbor, community member, or the person behind you in line at the grocery store. The Coronavirus is perhaps the prime embodiment of the danger of individualism: my priorities, whether they relate to work or leisure, are worth another person’s health and life, or even multiple people’s lives—after all, the virus spreads exponentially. One man’s inconvenience could literally be another man’s death.
How do we choose to act on the realization that our actions and risks do not exist in a vacuum? If we now see that the Coronavirus is symptomatic of a societal illness and not merely a physical one, what is the next step? I say: let us not repeat the life-ruining and even murderous rhetorical mistake of the 1980s: that of downplaying a potentially fatal illness by projecting it onto the vulnerable and the marginalized. Instead, let this virus, no matter how destructive it is for so many, be a facilitator of a new type of understanding of large-scale social responsibility. In the past decade, the social media revolution has taught us that there is a possibility of essentially limitless (live!) interconnections worldwide. 2020 offers us a new lesson: not only are we all interconnected, we are also deeply interdependent. Let us all do what we can to keep ourselves and each other safe as much as possible. We are literally and metaphorically responsible for the wellbeing of others, even in an age where egotism and individualism clearly reign. Maybe this lesson is not actually new. Maybe we have just forgotten it along the way. After all, John Donne (1572-1631) hit the nail on the head four-hundred years ago in his “Meditation 17”:
“No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”