Alone, I Feel More Connected Than Ever

The public response to COVID-19 revived my trust in human nature

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

In January, my friend Itsik and I had a mini-fight via email about how the public responds — or fails to respond — to the looming threat of climate change. We disagreed a bit on whether individual people have a moral responsibility to take steps to mitigate .

Itsik was dismayed by how little his friends and coworkers were willing to alter their lives in order to help the environment. I was inclined to give everyone a pass for their inaction, because small, personal steps seemed to matter so little.

“I’m so frustrated by this super pervasive thing I see all over leftie, progressive spaces,” Itsik wrote, “of emphasizing over and over that it’s too late for individual choices around the environment to matter. I still don’t see how that fact absolves us of any responsibility to look at what we could do differently.”

I told Itsik I understood why people felt dejected and powerless in the fight against climate change. It’s challenging, time-consuming, and expensive to make eco-friendly choices. Most of us are too busy and stressed (and often, too poor) to make responsible consumer choices all the time. Even if I do commit to an entire lifetime of “green” behavior, it could all be undone by the actions any random billionaire takes in a single day.

“I get it, this is a problem that can’t be solved by individual choices,” Istik replied. “But my point is this is the only issue I can think of where people actively discourage each other from taking steps to address it.”

Itsik had a point that I couldn’t deny. When it comes to most social problems, left-leaning, progressive people push for change both large and small. We encourage individuals to vote, but we also push for voter registration laws and Gerrymandering to be reformed so that voting will be easier. We aim to educate the masses on issues like racism and transphobia, but we also recognize we need to disrupt tiny instances of bigotry when we encounter them in our neighborhoods and families. Even if a step is too small to fix the problem, we see it as generally worthwhile.

Why was climate change any different from these issues? Why is it that when you talk about the individual need to reduce waste, left-leaning people will shrug, proclaim “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” and turn back to their plastic burrito bowls? Why do we tell people they have a personal responsibility to confront racism, but act like it’s okay for them to burn as much gasoline as they like? So many of us have mocked the bans on plastic straws and disposable bags, as if such measures make zero difference. Yet we’d never say a small, kind act done in the service of a stranger is useless. Why?

Itsik and I went back and forth on this for a while. He argued that society needed to do more to educate people and encourage them to behave in ecologically sound ways. I claimed it would be near impossible to motivate people to alter their lives, because corporations and the federal government were doing next to nothing to forestall the disaster.

I walked away from the conversation certain I was right. Big problems need big solutions. You can’t expect individual people to fix it. Which is actually a way of saying you can’t trust people to do the right thing. I really believed wide-scale social change couldn’t start from the ground up.

Then COVID-19 hit the United States. And I was so happy to discover I was wrong.

I am astonished by how rapidly and selflessly the people around me have rallied to slow the spread of COVID-19. Long before any of us were legally required to, my friends and neighbors started isolating themselves. Local theaters and bars cancelled performances in order to reduce crowding before it was legally mandated. Coffee shops reduced their capacities; restaurants in my neighborhood started offering free meals to out-of-work employees and their families; church services shifted online.

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

While the federal government was still downplaying the severity of the pandemic, states and cities jumped into action. I live in Chicago, and the response by our Mayor and Governor has been impressive and reassuring. Social distancing was encouraged on March 11th. Bars and dine-in restaurants were shuttered on the 16th. Shelter-in-place orders were issued statewide last Saturday, quickly following the tone set by states that were hit far more harshly by the virus, such as California and New York.

I’m proud that my city and state responded more agilely than others. The public all for social distancing has really paid off. Illinois received an “A” grade in its response to social distancing measures; on average people have reduced their public movement by at least 40%.

Far more than that, I’m moved by how individual people have stepped up to help one another. Before any of these legal measures were taken, my neighbors were already getting online to share resources and organize mutual aid networks. People have been generous and proactive about donating to the GoFundMe’s and Patreons of out-of-work artists, bartenders, and servers. Entertainers have been creating livestream shows to raise money for charity.

In my own department, faculty and staff have spent hours supporting teachers who are adapting classes to a digital format for the first time. A coworker and I decided to spend our weekend providing free webinars about online education to stressed-out educators across the country. None of this felt like a pain, or a sacrifice. It felt gratifying to have a purpose, a small way to help.

COVID-19 is a massive, terrifying problem that none of us ought to be responsible for fixing. Yet we are taking small steps to fix it every day. We’re staying inside. We’re critically engaging with information and sharing worthwhile, trustworthy resources. We’re placing loving but firm pressure on friends and family members who refuse to socially distance. We are giving our time, our money, and our attention to this crisis, and finding that feels much better than trying to hide.

This swift, expansive response rose up in a matter of days, and took effect long before the government required any of it. Indeed, we’re all going above and beyond what is required of us, giving as much of ourselves as we can — because we recognize, some of us for the first time ever, that small choices really do make a difference.

I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I had heard about how people come together in moments of panic and turmoil; I’d read the romanticized accounts of how selfless people were during The Great Depression, the World Wars and various national disasters. But the only national disaster in my memory is 9–11, and that event inspired jingoism and greed, not compassion.

I’m a Millennial. I was born under Reagan and entered adulthood under George W. Bush. I’ve basically never trusted leadership. I’ve usually experienced mass political movements as menacing and hateful, not prosocial. I’ve watched for decades as people in my country have resisted political reforms, pooh-poohed climate change, and thumbed their noses at growing income inequality.

A photo of me burning an American flag, as part of a performance in 2017.

Donald Trump was just the final nail in the coffin. My belief in America was dead long before that. I didn’t have hope that humanity was ever going to climb its way out of the pit it had dug. I just focused on helping my close friends and family survive. Thriving never felt like an option.

But now I’m wondering if that was all wrong. Maybe people were capable of change this whole time. Maybe human beings aren’t selfish, short-sighted, or apathetic — except when our governments force us to be. On good days, I’m starting to believe we can continue living this way forever, never going back to the emotionally sequestered, self-protective way of life that got us into this mess.

Like climate change, COVID-19 began as a mostly abstract fear. Like climate change, the virus was horrifying to think about, and we knew serious damage was inevitable. The news presented us with dozens of apocalyptic-seeming projections of how the COVID-19 disaster might play out, just as they have done with climate change. Yet individual people started making responsible, altruistic choices to address COVID-19, despite having spent years doing comparatively little to address climate change. Why?

I think the difference is that with the Coronavirus, people felt empowered to make a meaningful choice. As the virus spread, fear ramped up, but so did knowledge about which steps a person could take to minimize disaster. The news coverage of worst-case scenarios such as Italy filled people with terror, but the response of countries like South Korea and Taiwan provided crucial, motivating counter-examples. In countries where people took the pandemic seriously, thousands of lives were spared. It was clear that personal actions mattered.

Though each of us was overwhelmed by the onslaught of bad news about COVID-19, we also knew where to look for advice about how to respond. The steps we needed to take were clear, and feasible, and we knew everyone else was also doing them. Stay inside. Wash your hands. Deliver groceries to elderly people around you. Keep at least six feet away.

Instead of paralyzing us with anxiety, we felt called us to action. Most of us gladly answered that call, and found solace in the fact that there were elements of this massive problem we could actually control.

Now that we all realize that our collective actions can improve the world, there is no going back to jaded disaffection. We realize now that we don’t have to throw our hands up with resignation. We can take the steps as a community that we wish the federal government would take for us.

We can resist the forces that would see some of us die for the sake of the economy. We can reject the idea that our professional lives and productivity ought to define who we are. And we can continue to live responsible, small existences that are interdependent and slow — and learn to see that slowness as life-sustaining and beautiful rather than confining.

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