Restrictions that were imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 are starting to be relaxed in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. For many places, the next chapter of this pandemic is beginning. As we enter a new stage of this extraordinary moment in human history, it is worthwhile to reflect on the lessons we have learned – or relearned – about what it means to be human.
Prohibitions on gatherings have reminded us that we are innately social creatures. Our desire to spend time with one another is no accident, and it transcends culture or custom. Aristotle had it right: man is by nature a social animal. As valuable as technology has been in allowing us to stay connected during these socially distant times, we recognize that it is no substitute for being together, in person. The ease with which we can normally be present with others – be it through an Uber ride across town or a flight across the world – makes it easy to forget that relationship is far more than a pleasant aspect of life. Relationship is a basic human need and a key ingredient to human flourishing. We are made for it.
The distress caused by loss of work goes beyond financial security for individuals and families, important as that matter is. Work is imbued with a dignity, especially if we consider our work to be a calling. Brian Dickson, the former Chief Justice of Canada, described work as “one of the most fundamental aspects in a person’s life, providing the individual with a means of financial support and, as importantly, a contributory role in society.” He viewed work as “an essential component” of a person’s “sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being.” The economic toll of COVID-19, which we are only beginning to grasp, resoundingly confirms these statements on the deeper meaning of work in our lives.
COVID-19 has revealed our recognition that human life is a good that has no price tag. In a situation that has created severe financial burdens on healthcare systems and government coffers, we have intuitively – and rightly – spared no expense to save lives. We have tragically witnessed, however, that our recognition of human life as an intrinsic good has blind spots. The deadly outbreaks of COVID-19 at long-term care facilities have laid bare that we are failing our elderly, one of the most vulnerable segments of society. We must transform this reality.
This pandemic is, perhaps most importantly, a stark reminder of our common humanity. COVID-19 takes no notice of nationality, race, culture, or religion. It deals only in the currency of human nature. If we perceive each other first and foremost through lenses such as nationality and race, we risk devaluing our common human condition. This is not to belittle laudable efforts to banish injustice and marginalization that occurs where these and other lenses are weaponized. But it seems fair to say that our modern world has somehow obscured our fundamental shared identity as human beings and the universal dignity embedded within it.
Our equal treatment by the virus invites us to rediscover that far more unites than divides humankind. The enormous challenges posed by this pandemic have offered us an opportunity to pull together and, in so doing, reinvigorate civic solidarity and the human family. This itself has been a challenge, as we are tempted to be selfish in a crisis. While selfishness has made appearances, we have witnessed a far stronger current of compassion and generosity. The courage and dedication of healthcare and other frontline workers is nothing short of heroic. Besides saving lives every day, they instill hope in us that this battle will be won.
Social distancing and staying at home have saved lives and helped chart a return to normalcy. As certain sectors of society begin to re-open in ways that aim to avoid an unmanageable resurgence of the virus, following the guidance of public health experts continues to be crucial.
This is not simply about obeying civic authorities. We have come to appreciate, to the extent we did not appreciate it before, that the suffering of others – in our home, next door, or on the other side of the world – matters to us. We inhabit this world, together. We are not isolated atoms or islands, even in periods of self-isolation. We all, in a somewhat mysterious way, belong to each other. This pandemic has, quite literally, driven these realities home.