One month ago, I had no idea what was about to happen. I was spending time with my family, going to work, exercising, playing in a band. I was living my relatively privileged life, with its normal ups and downs and mundane stresses. I was aware of the coronavirus and COVID-19, of course, and had some low level of concern. But the crisis, like those of SARS and MERS in recent decades, seemed like it was something for other people in other places to worry about. I had sympathy, but not empathy, for those people because I didn’t see my own situation in theirs.
In the following weeks, the crisis remained remote for me, like many Americans. That started to change the evening of March 11. That was when the NBA shut down, Tom Hanks announced his diagnosis, and my job asked us to work from home for the foreseeable future. That was the moment when the crisis started to become real, and that crystalized for me in the next two days, as the state of Illinois announced the closure of all schools for at least two weeks. In the next several days, Oak Park announced shelter-in-place. The crisis moved from something that others elsewhere are dealing with to something real for me.
We have no idea what comes next. What is undeniable is that this virus, like any crisis, is putting a strain on our systems, and it is in times of strain that you see the true nature of those systems. Are we a society that provides medical care for all of our people? Or do we leave everyone’s medical care to the choices of their employers and to their own level of wealth? Are we a society that provides sick leave for all people, so that they can care for themselves and their loved ones and slow the spread of disease? Or do we allow each company to decide on sick leave for itself, forcing some people to work when it would be better for their health and that of others for them to stay home? Are we a society that keeps our elderly members close so we can learn from and care for them as they age? Or do we shove them into nursing homes where they live near other old and sick people and where disease can quickly pass from vulnerable resident to vulnerable resident?
This crisis is already greatly affecting every one of us. And I hold in my mind and heart that many people in our nation and around the world have been and will be impacted through illness and death. But I wish we would learn that we cannot address the existential threats we face as individuals. As humans, we have evolved to exist as individuals and to live in societies. We cannot tackle COVID-19, climate change, poverty, white supremacy, and any of our other massive challenges by acting alone. We cannot choose ourselves. We must choose one another.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org