The spring of 2020 will obviously be remembered for the Covid-19 disease pandemic, caused by a coronavirus which originated in Wuhan, China. But it will be remembered also for the ways in which people from all walks of life reacted to it. The pandemic, and more importantly, the reaction to the pandemic, brought out the best in many people, a sense of almost British humor in others, and the worst, unfortunately, in too many people.
When humans are faced with imminent death, a downgrade of their level on Maslow’s hierarchy, and breakdown of the rule of law, they react in ways that both show their true nature and, in many cases, that are driven by mass hysteria or mob groupthink. During the Holocaust of WWII, an epic tragedy by any human measure, the blatant attempt to commit genocide on groups of people (primarily Jews, but others as well) caused some humans to take heroic measure to try to mitigate the killing of innocents in large and small ways. Oskar Schindler, and the Japanese counterpart to Schindler, Chiune Sugihara are examples of people who took personal risk, risking the loss of their and their family’s lives, to try to save innocent Jews and others fleeing the Nazi and Soviet genocidal atrocities. For these people, being faced with an unprecedented (in our time) abomination such as the Holocaust brought out the best in them, their true humanity. For others, as an example a Polish town where the residents murdered in cold blood the Jewish families living there (including newborn babies), when they had been socializing with them and their children were playing together just weeks before, the Holocaust brought out their darkest, most inhuman side. They became animals with no humanity to remind them that what they were doing was as wrong as it could be.
To a lesser extent (since to compare the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic with the Holocaust is different by an order of magnitude that must be recognized by all) the pandemic has allowed people to show their true colors, for better and worse. We have doctors and medical workers volunteering to work back to back shifts for weeks on end to try to stem the suffering and save the lives of the infected. We have companies turning all of their resources towards making masks, ventilators, hand sanitizer to try to ensure there are adequate supplies for everyone. People have volunteered to make masks for medical workers. Regular people order gift certificates from local restaurants to support their community. People who are deathly afraid of the virus continue to work, sometimes because they can’t afford to quit, but sometimes from a sense of duty and obligation..
Then there are those who see, with an almost British sense of gallows humor, the irony of having our world changed overnight. Suddenly finding ourselves struggling to find toilet paper, homeschooling our children, fighting boredom when trapped in small apartments, or breaking the law if we leave our houses without whatever counts as a valid reason in that particular city and state have become the topics of countless facebook memes and jokes.
And finally, the pandemic brought out the worst in people, in the form of petty tyrants and little monsters who used the sudden lockdown and replacement of rule of law with “martial-law light” to let their worst impulses come forth. These are the politicians who instituted senseless lockdown rules like allowing someone to go to Walmart to buy food, but not walk one aisle over to buy seeds to grow their own food. The cops who decided a man tossing a ball to his daughter in a park, completely abiding with the lockdown rules, needed to be handcuffed and detained to make an example of him. The people who suddenly decided they wanted to be informers like the network employed by the Stazi and called in police reports for people not walking 6 feet apart or going to a beach or park, even if they were social distancing. The people who openly, via memes or comments on social media, or quietly to themselves, wished that people who protested the petty tyrants and completely random and changing rules would catch the virus and die, so that they could smugly tell themselves that they were right and virtuous. People embraced the trope of caring more about “lives” than “the economy” despite the obvious and long term harm that comes from placing 200 million people under house arrest and not allowing them to earn a living. The governor of Michigan who described anyone who protested her lockdown as “racists and misogynists.”. The Michigan attorney general who stripped the license of an elderly barber who committed the crime of continuing to cut hair, instead of waiting until a judge held a hearing for the barber. The incessant fear mongering of politicians who, despite the fatality rate and threat of the virus being exponentially less than the original models predicted, threaten martial law to enforce stay at home orders and voting by mail.
Robert Kennedy said “But history will judge you, and as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, in the extent to which you have used your gifts and talents to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow men.” How much have the petty tyrants and little monsters lightened and enriched the lives of their fellow men, by taking away all of their freedoms and their ability to feed themselves and their families? This will be viewed as the greatest overreaction in modern history, and the way in which we, individually and collectively, behaved will hopefully not be forgotten soon.