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Photo by Jovis Aloor

The Pandemic is a Mirror

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By: Paul Andrews

It’s been 4,320 days since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Some days count for double and there’s a 2020 multiple to factor in, by my measure. That is a lot of days where one is left with much to ponder. How can I bake the best sourdough? What bike trail should I take this weekend? Can I really afford to build a tiger sanctuary of my own? That’s a glimpse of the small stuff we’ve all had cross our minds. But I’ve been fixated on something larger and more existential since the summer. What does the global pandemic say about us as western society?

The answer should alarm us all.

Few things have grabbed my attention in the Very Online world of Twitter like one tweet from May. Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur tweeted that the “pandemic holds up a mirror”. I share the same sentiment, that the pandemic tells us about who we are. It serves as a mirror showing a reflection of society at large. It shows us what we believe, what we are willing to sacrifice, and how we behave. And there isn’t much to be proud of.

Now, people across western society don’t all hold the same beliefs. But those who hold office could be fairly assessed as representing at least some portion of society’s values. Those values have been placed in front of the pandemic’s mirror, and the image staring back at us is not pretty. Donald Trump’s Republican Party in the US is perhaps the most fatal example of beliefs that are thoroughly in contradiction to many problems faced today. If you fundamentally believe that government cannot and should not solve problems, then you’ll have total incompetence in addressing a pandemic. The result in the US has been the highest caseload and death toll in the world.

The other side of the spectrum’s beliefs have negatively impacted efforts to address the pandemic as well, though important to note at not nearly the same degree. When the US and Australia froze travel from China in February, Canada’s Health Minister addressed calls for similar action as “the spread of misinformation and fear across Canadian society", even going as far to say border closures “can create harm.” Well, borders were closed just over a month later as it was Covid-19, rather than misinformation and fear, that was creating harm and taking Canadians’ lives at an alarming rate.

These were some of the political errors caused by beliefs in western society. And it’s not just politicians that hold them. Some people believe it is their right to not wear a mask and disobey public health guidelines so that they can save the economy (cue heroic, angelic music). Others balk at the suggestion of lockdowns as the only way to stop uncontrolled spread of the virus. “Give me open nightclubs, AND give that person death from Covid!” could be a bumper sticker out there (Etsy search, anyone?).

An unwillingness to sacrifice is the foundation for many of those with anti public health beliefs. I want to be clear that I’m not claiming that people who have lost jobs, are raising families while working from home, or battling the virus on the front-lines are not sacrificing. The problem lies with those individuals resistant to sacrifice and unwilling to do what it takes, so that others won’t have to do the above. The pandemic has revealed more unwillingness in western society to accept and tolerate sacrifice than previously imagined.

It has also prompted more sacrifice than previously experienced in our society, for that matter. Comparison to how our societies once endured world wars and economic depressions are simple, but illuminating. Women said goodbye to their loved ones forever, while they maintained family life and war efforts at home. Men literally laid down their lives. Families lost savings, income, and all luxuries during depressions with not so much as a penny of government support. These people made the ultimate sacrifice and faced challenges we cannot fully comprehend. Yet today there are people in our society aggressively resistant to life without large social gatherings for about a year? It’s an embarrassment. I’m ashamed of what the pandemic has revealed about us.

Governments represent our wants in this respect too. Some jurisdictions opened indoor public gatherings prone to spark exponential spread of the virus in the name of the economy (cue heroic, angelic music). The ones that did, including my home province Ontario, have battled difficult to contain second waves. Who could have possibly seen that coming?

I am drawn to one conclusion when pondering why people are unwilling to sacrifice, and want governments to lead accordingly. Western society is simply hedonistic.

The pandemic has cast a reflection back at us that shows we are much more focused on our own experience of fun, pleasure, and consumption than previously evident. We want to behave hedonistically and avoid any barriers to doing so. It’s exciting during normal life, but fatal during a pandemic. Again, I’m ashamed that the pandemic has revealed a near-insatiable appetite for this lifestyle.

Now, I’m not trying to cast shame or guilt towards society. We’re all complicit in some way (unless you’re reading this from a Caribbean island vacation, then you’re very complicit), because we’re a part of society together. That the Covid-19 pandemic reveals something about all of us isn’t inherently a problem. It’s what we do with that reflection that matters. If we can change some of our beliefs, our ability to sacrifice, and how we behave, then we’ll be better for it. We can collectively solve this problem and others to come.

We just need to take a look in the mirror while we can, because the next crisis might shatter what is left to stare back.

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