A factory worker in China dies. Residents of Seattle become ill. A man coughs in Iran while a postal worker in Italy runs a fever. These are victims of the coronavirus disease. We’re reminded again how small our world is.
If this present pandemic of the coronavirus teaches nothing else, it demonstrates how intricately interwoven the individual lives of the worldwide human family are. The spread of the disease has brought home the ancient truth that poets, political visionaries, artists and even economists attempt to convey in their work– that providence “hath made of one blood all nations for to dwell on the face of the earth.” In the last analysis, our divisions, and there are many, are mostly artificial constructs, the way parallels and meridians designate discrete sections of one entire globe. We’re all made of the same stuff, all of a piece, of one blood.
This viral infection is creating fear and suspicion worldwide. It is rare that the majority of the world population would be having the same fears, simultaneously.
As I write this column, pop-ups constantly appear on my computer with breaking news, announcing that the stock market indices have fallen dramatically or risen slightly. It’s not unlike how in hospitals where the nurses regularly monitor a patient’s temperature and blood pressure, staying alert to any significant changes. I’ll bet any nurse today has a far better shot at stabilizing the erratic blood pressures or fluctuating temperatures of her patients than stock traders have in getting market numbers back into safe parameters. We are profoundly vulnerable, economically and physically, and although continually reminded of it, we typically dismiss it. Denial has grown more difficult living in the shadow of the coronavirus.
Genesis reads how we are to “replenish the earth, and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” If indeed this is what we’re supposed to do, God threw us a curve ball. Strictly speaking, the coronavirus is not a “living thing” and so the divine rubric which appears to give us the luxury of complete dominance over our environment doesn’t work with the coronavirus. This virus is not something we are going to subdue, or a phenomenon over which we’ll have any significant dominion.
To manage the pandemic, minimizing the effects of the virus will be the major task. That will require that the world cooperate by sharing information, resources and safety measures. This also means world leaders speaking frankly to one another. Another concern the coronavirus exposed was how political posturing, in China and America has hindered timely managing the epidemic. It boggles the mind how, although we know that cooperation is the critical ingredient in solving problems of any magnitude, cooperation is the last thing, if it’s thought of at all, that is ever considered.
A curious thing happened only a few days ago when I went to have my toenails cut. I’d been to the nail salon twice before.
The salon is run by Vietnamese. Any communications I’d had with staff were always courteous but perfunctory. Language was a significant factor. While I was being tended to by a pedicurist, one of her colleagues came over to her. She had an iPhone in her hand. She tapped the pedicurist on the shoulder to gain her attention, and said something in Vietnamese. She pointed to the iPhone. They exchanged words that sounded like soft musical intonations I didn’t understand, but I sensed a hint of alarm. The woman with the iPhone, not wishing to be rude to me, showed me the face of the iPhone. I saw Johns Hopkins Hospital and two doctors speaking about new cases of the coronavirus in Maryland. The woman with the iPhone spoke English only marginally. She held three fingers up in the air and repeated the English word ‘three’ demonstrably to emphasize the number. She seemed to want to talk about it. I had trouble understanding her – and of course she had the same difficulty with me. She then smiled agreeably, turned and left the pedicurist to her task.
In the three previous occasions when using the salon’s services, I’d never before had conversations with any of the people there. Communications were token at best; ten dollars for cutting nails, thirty for pedicure, and my response to just cut; that was it. Those sparse communications constituted, except for services rendered, about all the interpersonal encounters that I had with any of the persons on staff.
This time when my nails were done and I was ready to leave, as I was paying my bill the woman with the iPhone walked toward me. She seemed eager to engage with me further. In all my visits, this was a first.
She was a petite woman, young with a pretty, childlike face. Her face seemed, not scarred exactly, but shaded lightly here and there in soft hazy blotches –– some disease? or perhaps burns that she’d sustained? I could only guess. What she wanted me to know was that there was now a fourth case and that Johns Hopkins had confirmed it. Again, she pulled out her iPhone, showed me the reporters speaking and seemed to want to comment on the information. “No good, no good” she said, as though she were pleading and looking to me for reassurance. I nodded helplessly.
In a strange way, what I would regard as the two scourges of our post-modern era driving people apart ––iPhones and a virulent virus –– were, in fact, drawing us closer. Virus contagion that would necessarily make us fear and avoid each other, and the iPhone, (which I always thought of as the devil’s workshop, keeping people from being emotionally available to each other) now converged, building a bridge between two people in a nail salon. The two forces merged to create a moment of mutuality, of humanity, between two people who had always lived in separate worlds.
In the shadow of the coronavirus I have thought about this brief encounter. I see in it something that transcends the particulars. I am a professional, a man enjoying the social capital that male ‘elites’ have in today’s world. The woman at the salon was an Asian immigrant, performing what we would regard as one of society’s more humble tasks. However briefly, we had been drawn together to share our concerns as equals around, of all things, the mutual concern everyone has: matters of our life and death.
In an ironic twist of fate, it may turn out that social media by which have been alienating each other, may now be the medium that keeps us connected until the coronavirus can be safely managed.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.