Even in Our Isolation, COVID-19 Reminds Us That We Are One

It’s frightening to see just how fragile our societal ecosystem is. But we have the chance to prove how resilient it is, too.

March 20, 2020

Christy Cusick hands out free school lunches to children and their parents at Olympic Hills Elementary School in Seattle where public schools are providing carry-out meals to students during lunch hours.

Karen Ducey/Getty Images

To write something coherent about the ways that our shared reality has changed over the past week feels impossible—partially because the changes have been so massive in scale, but also because they keep coming, day by day, even hour by hour. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every single system on which human beings rely for basic stability: medical, financial, commercial, logistical, educational, physical; the list goes on and on.

The most important thing we can do right now is to practice social distancing. Epidemiologists and other public health experts tell us, with compelling evidence, that done well, physically separating ourselves from one another could slow the spread of infection so that fewer people need treatment at any given moment, preventing an influx of patients that would overwhelm our hospitals and medical personnel.

An irony of the current situation is that even as we ramp up our social distancing, up to and including partial self-isolation or full-on sheltering in place, the fact of our basic interconnectedness has never been so plain. I’m not just referring to how COVID-19’s communicability now makes us keep mental tallies of everyone with whom we’ve shared space, or even just a door handle, for the past 14 days. I mean our interdependence. Someday in the future, when we’re recounting the ways that the 2020 pandemic changed everything, this one will be at or near the very top of the list: It made us understand just how much we rely on other people for the gift of everyday life, and how much other people rely on us.

Times Square, New York, during the pandemic.

Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

We—and by we I mean billions of people across the entire planet, from world leaders down to you and your next-door neighbors—are simultaneously being called on to slow the transmission of a deadly virus; tend to the sickest among us and get them the care that they desperately need; prevent our financial markets from crashing and our economies from collapsing; keep our disjointed supply chains and imperiled businesses running; look after our family members, dependents, and friends in order to make sure they’re safe; and improvise entirely new ways of educating and watching over our children.

The disruption of so many systems at once has exposed the fallacy behind the philosophy of rugged individualism that props up America’s sense of itself. It turns out that, yes, we really do need each other—and we’ve never needed each other more than we do right now. And while we rightfully think of doctors, nurses, teachers, and first responders as heroes, we’re now realizing that our definition of hero must also include those in our communities whose work so often goes unheralded. I’m talking about the people out there who are proving to be our keepers during this crisis: the supermarket and drugstore employees who are keeping our shelves stocked and prescriptions filled; the staffers who are keeping our nursing homes and senior centers running; the sanitation workers and transit employees and postal workers and building superintendents and others who are quietly preventing our civic infrastructure from falling apart while we anxiously wait for the rate of COVID-19 infections to subside.

A worker wheels a cart of cleaning supplies in the subway system that connects Capitol buildings in Washington, D.C.

Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In the meantime, as the pandemic continues to spread and the economy contracts, we’re all being made aware of just how much we’re needed, too, no matter our daily occupation. As I type these words, there are reports that hundreds of thousands of Americans have already been laid off from their jobs or lost their chief source of income in just the past few days. It’s been estimated that up to a million U.S. jobs could simply disappear by the end of this month—and three million by this summer. After getting off to a late start, President Trump and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., appear to be taking actions designed to ameliorate some of this pain. But official aid in the form of industry bailouts or stimulus packages or government checks won’t, all by itself, be enough to carry us through the next dark chapter of American history. Our collective survival and recovery will also require unofficial aid in the form of customers finding new and different ways of supporting their local businesses, especially the independently owned ones. It will require employers, lenders, and landlords displaying maximum flexibility and understanding. And—crucially—it will require neighbors routinely checking in on, and looking out for, one another.

Deb Colbert and Ken Doughty embrace as they gather to sing and dance at a safe distance from their neighbors in Gloucester, Massachusetts, inspired by scenes in Italy and Boston.

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Here’s the good news: We can, and will, get through this. But only if we acknowledge that human society is an ecosystem that’s every bit as fragile—or every bit as resilient—as any ecosystem we might find in an ocean, forest, desert, or wetland. To bolster our communities through strong, symbiotic relationships, we can’t simply compete; we have to cooperate. We can’t simply stock up; we have to share.

And though we perhaps have never felt more vulnerable individually, it’s also true that we’ve never had a better opportunity to show ourselves—and one another—what it means to be a member of the human family.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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