COVID-19 has taught us a lot of things. The question is: How much have we actually learned?
Before the COVID-19 crisis emerged as the defining moment of our times, our nation was more divided than at any other time in its history, excepting maybe the years leading into the Civil War.
From a political and a social/cultural standpoint, the gulf between people in our nation was widening at a frightening rate, with no end or easy answers in sight.
In the initial days of the COVID-19 crisis, as the scope of what was happening began to come into focus and shutdown orders began going into place, there was a bit of a unifying feeling, much like that which existed in the days, weeks and months following 9/11. We were united in an effort to attempt to beat back this disease.
Sure, not everyone agreed. And being in disagreement doesn’t mean that we can’t still unite on the big picture. It just means that we’re not completely in agreement with all the ways in which we reach the common goals.
In this case, the common goals were to reduce infections and deaths and attempt to preserve as much as possible, so that when we emerged from this self-imposed exile the rebuilding process would be no more invasive and difficult than it needed to be.
However, over the ensuing weeks, that sense of unity began to give way as people retreated back into their corners, and it appears that the lesson we should have learned — that we have to work together to come to a better place as a people — is being lost in the noise, once again.
We’re all growing weary of the continued response. No matter your politics, religion or any other aspect of who you are, we know everyone is ready to get back to some semblance of normal life. But we can either return to a life where this division is defining or a life where we are a little better positioned to move into a better future with our divergent opinions being not a hindrance, but an aspect of our strength.
One key to this is we have to stop seeing our neighbors as caricatures — cartoon versions of the person that denies them their essential humanity while reducing them to nothing more than a central political or social belief.
The idea that a supporter of Donald Trump or an opponent of the president is a monolithic being — a person whose political beliefs completely define them, with no other aspects of their humanity being considered — is not only dangerous, but continues to contribute to the inability of our nation to thrive.
Social media, of course, contributes to this, but is not solely to blame. Just like any other computer program, social media is only capable of outputting information based on what’s input into it by humans.
But social media amplifies the cartoon character personas we’ve attached to the “other.” In the current debate, much of the discussion is on how we reopen our society, our economy, while also attempting to keep the spread of COVID-19 down and to save as many lives as possible.
In the social media sphere, often, expressing a desire to reopen the economy translates not into “I have a concern that the economic impacts are going to be damaging and we need to figure out a way to move out of the shutdowns,” but instead is often received as, “I care more about my money than peoples’ lives. I want the economy reopened and I don’t care if Granny dies in the process.”
At the same time, those expressing the idea that we must take reopening slowly are sometimes received by those on the other side, not as saying, “I want to make sure we’re safe as possible,” but instead as saying, “I don’t care about your business, job, or livelihood, or the economic impacts, I just want to stay safe.”
The reality, as in all cases, is much more complicated than just a single statement. Transforming someone in our thinking into a monster based on a single statement or action denies their humanity and reduces them into an object, most pointedly, an object of derision.
Our nation is built in such a way that each person is ideally considered to have a voice, a place at the table and a say in the direction we take as a people. That’s the great experiment at its best, something we’ve yet to experience in our more than 200 years in existence. That ideal, though often imperfectly walked out, is what once led the United States to be a leader, to be seen as the example to be followed in many ways.
And, make no mistake, there are those both within and without the borders of the United States who are encouraging our current division. They use various means to help drive these divisions, to make us lose sight of the fact that we’re all trying to get to a better place — together.
We’ve lost a bit of one of the most essential aspects of this — trust in each other — and it’s killing us slowly, from the inside. It’s ironic that, as we fight against COVID-19, a silent enemy that spreads from person to person, we’re also seeing an exponential spread of these hatreds, these divisions, that also spread like a virus from person to person, silently.
Just like in the fight against COVID, we have to take on this enemy by considering the impacts of our actions on our brothers and sisters — our neighbors. Each person is suffering in various ways through this trying time. No one person’s suffering is any less valid, though it may look different than our own.
Recognizing the essential humanity inherent in a person, especially right now, is just as important in driving us to make the right decisions on how we proceed from here.
And, when the history of this situation is written, what will it look like? Will the history books tell of the United States’ remarkable recovery and leadership of the world during this time? Or will they tell of how we missed the opportunities and took the wrong steps?
That is up to us. What choices will you make in how you deal with others today? What about tomorrow? What about on the other side of all of this? Each moment is another opportunity to sow seeds of unity, instead of seeds of division. And the harvest we reap at the end of all this — whatever our choices in this matter — will be bountiful.