The Next Virus will not be biological

“It’s so hard to stay together
Passing through revolving doors
We need someone to talk to
And someone to sweep the floors”
Neil Peart, 1984

Our lives have changed forever. Even as I write those words, they sound hyperbolic, but they aren’t. Anyone who believes that this virus is like a bad snowstorm, that the snow will melt and the sun will come out is in the same dreamy denial that I have been in.

“Social distancing” has become a the only real advice health officials have for us, which may be well advised, but is also a strange and ironic acceleration of a societal trend that has been in motion for many years. “Social distancing” is now a condition, no — a “prescription” — that we have been enacting since before news came out of China that there was an extremely contagious virus spreading quickly through their population, so we should be masters of It now.

I am NOT saying that social distancing is BAD. It’s necessary. It’s just that the idea of it has triggered an epiphany that —

Our reliance on technology instead of one another. Our continued and accelerated political division. Our ideological intolerance. Our racism. Our misogyny and homophobia. Our anti-intellectualism. Our fear of change. And our economic disparity, rooted in selfishness have been ripping us apart for decades.

This new virus is only a physical manifestation of an old unnamed spiritual disease that has infected us for years.

There is no cure for the new coronavirus, no treatment for COVID-19, and a vaccine is a ways off. Medical officials are telling us that we must let the virus run its course. Our lives have become the backstory of every post-apocalyptic disaster movie and/or dystopian novel that we have seen or read. But, there is a treatment for the distance that has grown between us all. But, unlike the coronavirus, we can’t let this other dis-ease run it’s course.

Yesterday, I was “pretending” that my son, Connor, and I were “retreating” from a mass-disaster when we drove up here to the ski house that we rent each Winter with family friends, as if we were characters in some movie. When we said goodbye to my wife and older son at home in Massachusetts, I thought we were actually going skiing in New Hampshire. But, less than one day later, the ski resorts are closed, and I am faced with nothing but the reality that I live in this ramshackle world, and that this is a disaster. Turns out, that even though I was pretending, it was a form of denial, not a joke.

After skiing yesterday, there was still some daylight left, so Connor and I went for a drive into the mountains. We passed through little villages, their modest but proud houses, probably built in the 1950’s, had peeling paint and rotting siding. Rusting pickup trucks, sank beside them into the grey late Winter valleys of March. Above these villages, on the sides of mountains stood huge, newly constructed yet mostly empty, second homes, the ski houses that the two of us have often dreamed about.

Connor saw through his own greed and a feeling contrast rose in him. We failed to resist the impulse to Zillow those houses. Bt, with gratitude, he stopped, and gave words to his recognition that though we did not own a 3,000 sf ski “house,” we had so much more than most people have.

“We are lucky aren’t we?”

Last night, in my final attempt to fortify my denial that this virus was not as — catastrophic as it is, I took Connor out to a popular, local restaurant, called Moat for something to eat, when I should have been in line at the little grocery store here in town, waiting for my turn to buy whatever supplies were left. Moat was packed, like usual, which made us feel better about things. It seemed like nothing bad was happening. In retrospect, going there was a bad idea.

As we ate dinner, we sketched out a crazy plan to invite friends and family up here to hang out, watch movies, eat bad food, backcountry ski and fly-fish for trout in the snowy mountains, waiting for school and work to restart, while riding out the storm. I did not think we were fantasizing about having a pandemic party, but maybe we were.

Now it’s morning, and I am wondering if we should hunker down here or go home. I do know this though, this virus will either bring us all closer together or tear the existing fabric of our collective wound so wide that no sutures will stretch across the widening chasm.

The spiritual disease that infects us is more insidious and more dangerous than this virus. The treatments for the distance that we have allowed to grow between us are compassion, hope and faith. The vaccine is care, and the cure is love. If we can see that we are lucky, the way Connor did as we drove through that little village in the mountains, and then reach out to each other, we might survive this pandemic and the next one, too.

“The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you
I know it makes no difference
To what you’re going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you.”
Neil Peart 1984

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John Brown

John Brown

Clinical Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts and host of Teacher Talk.