Hope in the Time of Coronavirus

Six feet used to be the perfect distance to justify avoiding or ignoring a fellow human. Now we’re all shouting across streets, singing from our balconies, longing for a trip to the grocery store in a desperate search for a connection. What if Coronavirus was the tragedy our society needed?

Let’s make one thing clear: the Coronavirus is first and foremost an absolute tragedy. It’s ending people’s lives, it’s breaking people’s hearts, it’s turning our hospitals into war zones and our medical professionals into entrenched soldiers, it’s destroying bank accounts and hopes of a better future for a lot of people. I’m not a political representative and I’m not a health care professional, I don’t run a billion dollar hedge fund or a multinational corporation, therefore I can’t do anything about any of these issues… except maybe that last one.

The coronavirus is having a bigger impact on the world than any of the other “I-know-exactly-where-I-was-when-that-happened” moments of my lifetime (35 years, split between France and the United States). I can only think of three occasions when I saw citizens truly come together nationwide. In France after we won the soccer World Cup for the first time in 1998 — irrelevant here, but this is true and truth matters — in the United States after 9/11, and again in France after the terrorist attacks of November 2015. I was 16 when the planes hit the towers and from that point on, I always assumed terrorism would be the war of my generation. Neither of these horrifying events left me feeling even an ounce of hope: nothing good could come out of skyscrapers collapsing or concert-goers getting shot from behind. Yet, even though more people have already died from this virus than both these events combined, this moment feels different, and I can’t help but wake up every morning to this controversial feeling that there’s something positive around the corner.

Both in Europe and in America, this global crisis is being compared to the World Wars of the 20th century. I’m personally wary of calling it a war, except for the medical professionals on the front line, although I understand the rhetoric. Because if my great grand-parents were digging trenches and my grand-parents were hiding in remote houses in the French countryside, I am asked to sit at home, work on my laptop, endure my children’s tantrums and have access to gazillions of hours of content once said children are asleep. So if we’re going to compare this to a World War, we should be clear: this is the tamest World War our generation could have hoped for. And we should be really grateful for that. Because World Wars push the reset button. And the case can be made that our world desperately needed a reset. Not only because of the rise of populism, individualism, and unbearable economical disparity, but also because: global warming. That’s why in the middle of my guilt for not becoming a doctor or a nurse, in the middle of my guilt when I lose patience with my son, in the middle of my guilt for complaining when it’s raining all day so I can’t go out in my backyard, I’m feeling a decent amount of hope these days, which also brings its own share of guilt.

I’m feeling hopeful because there’s a scenario where we realize on the other side of this crisis that it seeped into the membranes of our society the awakening we all needed to actually make the world a better place (and potentially save it.)

Realization #1: We can survive with less.

After the second warmest winter on record, Planet Earth is taking a massive breather. Satellite imagery is showing that very clearly. Of course it’s not going to dramatically alter the path we’re on. Planes will be taking off again and factories will eventually be restarted, but we will hopefully come out of this with the realization that environmentally-friendly changes to our lifestyle and economy, like zero-waste cooking, walking or teleconferencing, are not as unbearable as we would have thought. At the same time, we are also reminded of how vulnerable our bodies are, no matter the strength of our bank account or the level of our corporate title, inviting us to refocus on what truly matters at the end of the day: a glass of wine and, you know, family and stuff! All jokes aside, a reconnection of the People to simplicity and ingenuity, which we’re seeing a lot of these days, can be the single most important factor in a successful flattening of the temperature-rising curve.

Realization #2: We needed a warning shot.

We can consider ourselves warned: EVERYTHING can be turned upside down in 48 hours. We often hear the advice that we should not take anything for granted, to which most of us nod and move on. Now EVERYONE alive has a very clear example of what that means, burnt into their psyche. If this was a drill from Planet Earth, most of us can consider ourselves lucky. She gave us a virus that can be destroyed with soap and that spares large spans of the population.

Realization #3: Yes, we can come together.

With very few exceptions, we’re witnessing the whole world unite in a way that only Alien invasion movies had imagined. The simple fact of knowing now that this coming together is possible is a reassurance for the climate change fight coming ahead. Even the news-cycle-manipulator-in-chief can’t spin this one and probably won’t be able to get away with his utterly incompetent response and selfish actions. Nothing else in the past three years has been able to do that.

Realization #4: We desperately need one another.

And finally, we are feeling in our bones how much we need one another. We are reminded what Society with a capital S means, and how it is an essential part of our survival as a species, and thriving as individuals. Our generation has developed truly impossible behaviors over the past decades: staring at our phones when others are talking to us, sending emails to people who are sitting 5 feet away, ordering everything and anything on Amazon instead of walking or driving 10 minutes to our local store, watching movies on our couch instead of going out and sharing them with other people. There’s nothing more human than to want what we can’t have and so of course right now, we all want the things we didn’t take advantage of when we were able to. Let’s hope we can remember that. Let’s hope that this renewed sense of belonging can overcome the fear of each other that will also come out of this. Because isolation and increased screen time have made us less empathetic toward each other and more anxious within ourselves — the perfect recipe for division.

This is going to make me sound insane and unbelievably selfish since I am in the medically safe age-group that also has the time to see their 401K bounce back, but this crisis has sometimes felt to me like a relief. Because like many of my fellow millennials and those who follow, I have been dreading a crisis at the level of a World War for many years. We don’t say it out loud often, but many of us have been having the quiet sense that we, as a society, were all running toward a cliff. And without a whole lot of warning, we reached one. We’re still falling, but we all jumped together and we can already see the path to a landing. Once we do land, we can only hope we don’t reach another cliff for a very long time. And if we are doomed to anyway because, you know, global warming, I find comfort in the idea that the crisis we’re experiencing right now is teaching us some very valuable lessons to better handle the next one.

So to my fellow millennials and Gen Z-ers, let’s all stay home, let’s protect our boomers we so often mock or blame, they’re the ones taking the hit right now. And to all the medical professionals in the US, in France and across the globe: thank you, best of luck, and I’m so, so, so sorry I can’t help you like my great-grand parents and my grand-parents did in their time.

MS

Matthieu Silberstein is a filmmaker, an author, a French immigrant and a father. matthieusilberstein.com

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