March 23, 2020

A week ago this virus was fodder for beer-themed memes. Now it’s given us a proper kick in the pants. It has exposed a painful truth: our civilisation is not permanent, we are not untouchable, and we do not have as much power as we like to think.

Like any other civilisation we will disappear, and a few thousand years from now, there will be a new civilisation, and we will be thought of as a blip. A very stupid blip.

We have accomplished a lot. Perhaps too much. We have built a society so full of abundance that we have lost sight of what matters.

Some of us — those who view themselves as “political” — are relentlessly squabbling online, fighting for political purity rather than policy change. Others have made a decision to focus on their pronouns and sad selfies. By doing so they are signalling the opposite of that which they wish to convey; rather than suffering from a myriad of problems, trials and tribulations, and endless oppressions, they suffer nothing at all. They have so much privilege, they have been forced to invent problems, for the sole purpose of strong arming the world into paying attention to them.

Last week, “non-binary” singer Sam Smith posted a series of photos on Instagram, titled, “Stages of a quarantine meltdown”. The apparently distraught celebrity had staged a visual breakdown, having been contained to his mansion for four days. And what do we do in the midst of a global crisis, when there’s no opportunity to go out in ballgown and sparkly lip gloss? We fake cry, take a selfie, and post it on the internet for likes.

It turns out we have all been worrying about the wrong things all along. We are more likely to be taken out by the flu than a terrorist attack or, God forbid, an accidental “he-ing” of a “they.” This should be an opportunity for a community to take a good look at itself. There are a number of lessons we could learn from this pandemic. Yet based on my observations, to date, I suspect we will absorb none of it.

A key message is surely that we do not have as much control as we would like to think. We cannot control the circumstances of our lives (and death) in many ways. We can make good choices, try our best to take care of our health but, at the end of the day, the economy could crash, and you could lose everything; or a virus could jump from a bat to a human, wreaking havoc.

This is not to say that we should resort to hedonism — Well, we’re all going to die, we may as well devolve into a writhing orgy of narcissistic gluttony and depravity. It is only to suggest we stop trying to control the things we cannot and start to try to take hold of the things we can.

Here are some things that you cannot control: how others view you; how others treat you; how others behave around you; and what others think. Here are some things you can control: how you behave; how you treat others; how you respond to those around you; how you react; and how you analyse situations, systems, and people.

How do you respond to challenging times? Faced with isolation for a number of weeks? What choices do you make, knowing that they can have a major impact on all of our futures? What do you focus on, what do you prioritise, how do you treat those around you? What policies and actions are you supporting and advocating, with this new and frightening reality check? These are the important things, right now.

And here is what I’ve seen, in terms of human response to a global pandemic: swathes of financially privileged people buying up all of the groceries and toilet paper, leaving nothing for those who cannot afford to drop $400 on meat to store in a deep freezer they don’t own, because they also don’t own a house.

I see groups of people striding casually around my neighbourhood in Vancouver, in vast numbers, looking like amused tourists, thrilled at the image of themselves out on a Thursday afternoon (!!), in leggings (!!), carrying a badminton racquet (!!). Look at us! Drinking beers on our front lawns with the neighbours! How cute we are. #Quarantinelife.

“GO HOME, YOU FOOLS,” I want to shout at them. Three days into a state-ordered social distancing, and these people can’t manage to find ways to amuse themselves at home.

I’ve also heard endless whining about the challenges of working from home, as though the blessing of not having to put on pants and join the daily commute on a germ-ridden bus has gone completely over the heads of these unimaginative cogs.

Complaining that you have been released from the chain tying you to an office, five days a week, eight hours a day, and no longer have to suffer cubicle life is a privilege only the dull and mentally insufficient could manage. Meanwhile, countless people have no employment at all, with no future prospects, and no knowledge of how badly this situation will devastate their industries and opportunities for survival.

Of all of this, the under-40s have been the worst. A stream of mental-health-themed posts have flooded my social media feeds: how to cope with “symptoms of cabin fever”? What of my anxiety?! How can I fill my time, now that an external force is no longer dictating the parameters of my life? The lack of self-sufficiency astounds me, as someone who spends every day alone in her small apartment, trying to learn as much as I can, produce quality work, and take care of my health — physical, emotional, and mental.

I feel blessed, every day, by my freedom, despite not owning a home or having any savings or financial security to speak of. Why are so many unable to manage being alone with their own selves and minds? Why are capable human beings so incapable of productivity, when left to their own devices? The panic in the face of a little adversity troubles me.

I do understand that many, many people will suffer terribly from this outbreak. And that many of us are actually, really, alone. We are social creatures, so this is nothing to scoff at. But my point is that it is also impermanent, and it is something we will get through.

What the world will look like when we recover from this will depend so much on the choices we make as individuals, right now — as well as the decisions made by our government. And instead of doing the bleeding obvious — staying home, strictly distancing ourselves from others, and thinking of the community beyond our own families and desires — we are hanging out at the park with our friends and their kids, and behaving as though the true threat to our lives lies on our couches, as if to re-watch The Sopranos or read a book will send us into a pit of depression, so dark we cannot reemerge.

On Friday’s episode of “Making Sense,” Sam Harris explained that “this is an emergency in which the most effective contribution you can make, to your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others, is to stay home”. And those of us who can — who are privileged to be able to work from home; who are not the grocery store clerks, the healthcare workers, the bus drivers — are not. Those of us in a position to be considerate of others, are choosing not to be.

Humans, for all their genius and capability, appear to be rather useless, unable to take direction, unwilling to make rational choices, and unfit for a level of hardship that is nothing compared to what their ancestors suffered. “Stay home,” should not be a hard ask. Do not hoard food, toilet paper or hand sanitiser, as it is unnecessary and harmful, should not be either.

“Be mindful, be grateful, be considerate, be strong and be creative” are some other achievable asks I would add.

If you can’t count your blessings during a time like this, perhaps you don’t deserve those blessings at all. And if you cannot view this pandemic as a reminder of what is valuable and important in life, and an opportunity to consider a better social and economic model, perhaps you don’t deserve those things either.

We are lucky to be such over-privileged narcissists, but that luck is wasted on us: the greedy, self-interested masses, clinging to things that are not real, material only until they slip away, and you are left with nothing but a weak and uninspired mind; a fake anxiety disorder (resolvable not through lengthy self-indulgent social media posts, but by going for a walk) and a closet full of toilet paper.