I did not think much of the outbreak in China, although a small worry and concern started to manifest. While the reports on the spread of the Covid-19 virus started to come in, my thoughts turned to my friends in Italy, the country that was struck the hardest at that moment. I talked with my friend Lucas in Firenze, he was anxious, wanting to get out of there, but not able to. In my mind the problem was still not close to me except through relations to people in places that were afflicted. A week later the situation is developing to a point where most European countries are in lockdown. The Czech Republic where I live put in heavy restriction, and I am now isolated with my dog in Pardubice. For how long, we don’t know.
This has not happened to me so clearly before. I cannot remember being in this mindset, in which I am concerned about people I know and care about in a different location, caring about their predicament in a lockdown, and swiftly being in that same predicament myself. Catastrophes usually occur “over there” and stay “over there”. But what is “personal life” anyway, in case my concern for others would not be personal, but rather projected to be somewhere else (over there) and concern somebody else (them)? Concern cannot be about geography or location, the people who I care about are cared for by me, wherever they are. Neither does it make sense to say that I would only care about people who I share some kind of predicament with. Strictly taken that would mean that nobody would care about anybody ever, since our experiences are never exactly the same. However, the situation that felt like something that was far away and not primarily my personal concern, now has become a shared predicament.
It really feels like we suddenly share the vey same concerns about the effects of the virus, and we share a similar form of life, by being isolated in our homes, not being able to meet each other. Peculiar paradox: by being isolated almost universally, I feel that we finally share something. This sharedness is morally complicated, it discloses all kinds of both base and graceful features of our moral life and it makes us rethink our concepts of closeness and isolation. It is a unique transition, when a predicament that I perceived to be concerning the life of others far away, very suddenly becomes also my own.
A specifically cruel psychological mechanism is to start a comparison: At least I am better off than those in China and Italy even though some of them are people I care about. When the lockdown hit my town of Pardubice this frame of mind was still present, at least I am better off with a house next to the park in which I can walk and look at the trees, than the people in the 70’s high-rise buildings across the river.
This crisis does not give us much room for this nasty way of comparing experiences (being better off), since it hits us quite universally, in this circumstance it seems futile to hold on to being better off. The whole psychological strategy is revealed for what it is, a base defense mechanism. The ego trying to convince me that this is still not my problem, at least not to the same extent that it is somebody else’s. What goes lost in this reaction is a sense of community, an understanding of experience as shared between us.
A more resourceful reaction is that of solidarity, sharing this crisis and showing our ability to stand together before unknown and frightening developments. The lockdown seems void of meaning until we contextualize it and understand that we are isolating ourselves for the good of all. Acknowledging the context does not resolve the small inconveniences of seclusion, or even the bigger challenges of feeling anxiety and loneliness, or the fear for one’s health and the health of those we care about. But it gives it a background of meaning to fall back on. There actually is a meaning to this, and the meaning is that we act (or refrain from acting) on behalf of community, not on behalf of ourselves.
This is of course what we mostly do, for better or worse. Even to act selfishly in this situation is to act on the behalf of the community, just in a malevolent way. And the malevolence consists of a blindness—a resistance toward acknowledging—the communal aspects of our experience and our actions. We have grown to view experiences as personal and separated from each other, which feeds the base reaction. But we have also grown to acknowledge the joint nature of experience.