Wednesday, March 11, 2020 will always be remembered as a defining moment in the history of UW-Madison, for this was the day a pandemic resulted in an unprecedented move to online instruction and partial shutdown of residence halls. The days that followed since have seen increased closures and expanded restrictions, both by the university and the state of Wisconsin.
All of a sudden, COVID-19 went from being something that dominated the news but seemed far away, to something that now dominates our thoughts in every waking moment and feels very real.
It is inescapable.
The announcement regarding residence halls probably hit students like me the hardest. As an international freshman living in a residence hall, I knew traveling anywhere at this point of time would put me at greater risk of contracting disease. Thankfully, the university granted me an exemption to stay on campus — an option which proved to be even more crucial when my country of residence closed off its borders to non-citizen residents like me.
So here I am today, with a roof over my head and access to enough food to get by. I am not drowning in chaos because the university stepped in when my family was helpless.
But all is not well — after all, I am still in the midst of a pandemic and in near isolation. The silence is deafening.
As someone who seldom socializes, this felt like a dream scenario for the first few days, but it soon became apparent I am only human, a social creature that needs some human interaction to live a wholesome life. My friends — being as nice as ever — offered their time and even assistance if need be, easing some of the weight off my shoulders. As I thanked my lucky stars for the friends I’ve somehow managed to make, I couldn’t help but think of the shift in our collective lifestyles caused by COVID-19. This pandemic brought out the best and worst in the human race, and spring break gave me a great opportunity to inspect it all.
The pandemic seems to have put our existing social constructs under the spotlight, with a focus on what we lack and what needs to be purged.
Considering my personal experiences with friends and looking at countless social media posts directing attention to local businesses and folks desperately in need of help, it seems we are currently closer to an ideal human society than normal. It is indeed unfortunate a pandemic serves as a catalyst for values like unity, resilience and compassion, but that is reality. Funds are being set up for students in need and bipartisan solutions are being agreed upon, where there would ordinarily have been firm pushback, as partisan politics would reign supreme.
There exist heartwarming stories from all around the world — of people singing songs in unison during periods of quarantine, setting up networks of volunteers who can help the elderly shop for necessities and the creation of the term “caremongering” — which nearly brought tears to my eyes when I came across them. Such stories feel like a breath of fresh air, considering not only the current crisis but recent history as a whole.
These stories are a true representation of the concept of Ubuntu, a Xhosa word which simply means “humanity” but actually refers to the universal bond that connects all humans. It is the philosophy of “I am because we are.” Perhaps the spread of coronavirus serves as a great example of how we are all affected by the actions of one another. Indeed, even the seemingly selfish prioritization of our own lives over others’ proves to save lives, because we are interconnected.
While the above stories demonstrate the concept of Ubuntu and its positive effects on an interconnected human race, there have been a few blood-boiling stories that demonstrate the vilest of human traits. Familiar tales of people stockpiling essentials is a reactionary response to a pandemic — it is wrong and absurd but not entirely nonsensical.
But when stockpiling is done with an intent of profiteering from a very real global crisis, we see the lowest form of human.
The story of two Tennessee brothers buying almost 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, with intent to resell at inflated prices highlights the insane levels of greed and deceit that exist in society. The existence of such traits in human society ensures at least part of our society values the economy more than lives, and wealth more than the welfare of fellow humans.
Greed is a natural human trait which will be impossible to expel from society in entirety, but a ‘purge’ of greed can definitely still be done, by ensuring concepts like Ubuntu — and not an endless pursuit of capital at the expense of the vulnerable — act as our guiding principle.
Without a doubt, our society needs more compassion and kindness and less greed, but what we do and don’t need isn't the only thing this pandemic has exposed. The effects of COVID-19 have predictably been felt by certain groups of society more than others. The virus has made socioeconomic disparities all the more apparent.
The rising spread of the disease has resulted in very clear guidelines being laid out for which kinds of patients are eligible for testing. The guidelines prioritize people who show symptoms and/or have been in contact with an infected person or travelled to an area with sustained community spread. Such guidelines act as a means to make up for an inadequate number of testing kits, but help potentially save those who need saving most.
But when stories emerge of celebrities and sports personalities being tested despite being asymptomatic, it makes me feel uneasy. On one hand, early detection and quarantine is great for everyone in close proximity with affected celebrities, but on the other hand, this is unfair to people without money and fame who struggle to get tested.
The effect of COVID-19 on local businesses and workers living paycheck to paycheck is devastating. For instance, Isthmus — Madison’s local, free alt-weekly newspaper — announced a shutdown for an “undetermined period of time.” The pandemic has resulted in several minimum wage workers being laid off or furloughed, as travel and entertainment industries are hit hardest.
Perhaps disasters of this magnitude would always hit such groups the hardest, but the fact that a section of society lives life forever hanging perilously off a precipice highlights a deficiency in our society, where we are not able to adequately provide for all our fellow humans.
The outbreak will pass, especially when people unite in solidarity to battle an unprecedented threat to our lives. The outbreak will pass, if we make responsible choices, separating fact from fiction and taking decisive — not unnecessary — action.
Once it does pass, we have got some soul-searching to do regarding where we go from here and what we learn from this.
While pandemic preparedness is an obvious lesson to learn, some things are just not in our control. But we can learn lessons related to the function of society, because our individual efforts and behavior can affect existing social constructs, and positive social constructs ensure we can tame any challengers that come our way.
Will we actually end up learning such lessons from the coronavirus outbreak? Only time will tell, but I certainly hope we do — our future depends on this.
Anupras is a freshman studying Computer Science. Do you think we as a human race will learn life-changing lessons from this outbreak? Or will the dominating and discriminatory systems in place remain? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anupras Mohapatra is a former opinion editor for The Daily Cardinal and currently serves on the Editorial Board. He is a senior double majoring in Computer Science and Journalism.