Ideasroom

Covid-19: What we can learn about ourselves

Covid-19 is not the same for everyone - and has the power to expose and deepen cracks in our social compact

There are two ways to look at images of the streets and piazzas of Venice emptied by panic about Covid-19. These two perspectives reveal a moral fissure in our society that stymies our collective response to the coronavirus. 

We face many challenges that impose unequal burdens. 

There are sections of society that view climate change as something that won’t much affect them and then there are people for whom desertification, fires and flooding spell ruination. People who suspect climate change might not really be so bad for them would nonetheless mostly prefer that it not happen. But talk of giving up luxuries tends to weaken our resolve. Too many carbon-spewing technologies are just plain fun. 

There’s currently a range of estimates of your chances of dying if infected by Covid-19. The director-general of the World Health Organization has recently suggested a figure of 3.4 percent. A Guardian explainer countered that your odds of dying if infected are “probably about or a bit less than 1 percent”. What is clear is that deaths are disproportionately selected from those who are older or have some pre-existing condition such as respiratory disease or diabetes. 

For the young, fit and healthy, the empty Venetian piazzas look like a wonderful opportunity to see St Mark’s Square liberated from hordes of tourists – if only you could arrange a flight. 

Suppose you do pick up a Covid-19 infection. There is a good chance you’ll be entirely asymptomatic. If not, your symptoms could be mild. You probably just want to get it over with, promptly recover, and be free to proceed with your coronavirus-fortified immune system. For you, it’s the waiting to get the coronavirus that is the killer, at least psychologically.

I recently heard someone express that view, together with annoyance about an anticipated holiday cancellation, to a group that included people who didn’t seem quite so excited about this unexpected opportunity to avoid queuing for gondolas.

Interesting because they belonged to a demographic that, in other circumstances, is well known in sight-seeing in places like Venice. They were retired people, some of whom I suspect had the conditions – including heart disease and respiratory illnesses – that suggest a poorer prognosis from infection by coronavirus. 

I could imagine them speculating, “If you’re young, fit and healthy and therefore confident your odds of surviving are considerably better than one to 3.4 percent then what are my odds?” Perhaps they were thinking, “Given what my GP said about the functioning of my lungs last check-up, what would my odds of surviving have to be to produce an overall risk of somewhere between one and 3.4 percent?” 

There’s a difference here from other threatened pandemics. The overt horribleness of Ebola means even the young, fit and healthy get the message about the utmost importance of avoiding contact with blood from a person infected with the virus. There’s no “meh” about Ebola.

Covid-19, like climate change, is a stressor that has the power to expose and deepen cracks in our social compact. 

We hope that soon there will be a vaccine that can be promptly distributed, allowing the speedy resumption of trips to Rome and Caribbean cruises. But as we wait, we should remind ourselves that we are all in this together. A trip to Rome combined with an entirely asymptomatic Covid-19 infection may be fine for you but not so good for some who hug you on your return. The Coliseum isn’t going away. 

There’s a bonus, too, from a successful collective response to the coronavirus – it should make us more confident we won’t be flummoxed by the next entirely unexpected disease outbreak.

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