The state of the planet is crisis. Here at Columbia University in the City of New York, we are doing what educators all over America are doing, which is working to move face-to-face teaching and learning online. The courses and learning will continue, and our determination to persevere dominates. Some of us will fall victim to the coronavirus; most of us won’t, or we will catch it and get past it, but the fear we feel at this moment will never leave us. Like the cloud of dust followed by the clear blue but empty New York City sky on 9/11, this will stay in our minds and in our hearts. The world we live in is complicated and connected and this will not be the final pandemic we experience. But hopefully, the lessons of the need for preparation will stay with us. The health care “industry” will no longer consider extra hospital beds and ventilators as indicators of inefficiency, and the insurance company drive for hospital cost containment will be tempered by the need for safety. The national government’s emergency response and health capacity have been hollowed out by our decades-long and relentless effort to lower taxes. These capacities will be expanded to meet these new demands. The destruction of the World Trade Center expanded the terrorist suppression industry, and the COVID-19 crisis will expand the one we have in virus suppression.
We need the rewards and incentives of capitalism, but we need the collective community resources of a powerful and creative government. We also need honest and credible leadership. Here in New York, just as after 9/11, our government is rising to the occasion. Andrew Cuomo is providing the calm, measured, secure leadership that contrasts with the hysterical, vain, and fact-challenged voice of Donald Trump. This is a moment when we look for courage and good judgment from our leaders. Many of America’s governors are demonstrating that leadership and we can all be grateful that our federal form of government provides a degree of decentralized power to our states and localities.
America’s system of food supply is fully functioning, as is our electrical grid and the other resources we need to live well in our homes. But our health care system is buckling under the strain. The dysfunctional government in Washington will eventually manage to provide help to businesses and individuals harmed by the near lockdown we now live in. But many people, especially poor and working people are already being harmed by the economic impact of the efforts to combat this disease. The money was needed yesterday and the sense of urgency and unity I see in New York is absent in the nation’s capital. So, we must look locally for the solution to this crisis. This is a moment to notice and remember people who are likely in danger — we all know some; and reach out with food, money and emotional support. This is a time when we can take solace in the courage and compassion we see throughout our community and this is an occasion to do our best to act with courage and compassion.
Like many, I am spending many hours of my workday on Zoom meetings with colleagues trying to ensure that the complex actions of the organization I work in continue to be coordinated under conditions I never imagined. Training faculty to teach online. Working with staff to keep operations moving. Communicating with students about how to access their courses and submit their assignments. It helps that I am also learning how to teach this way myself. This enables my mind to be occupied with thoughts about how to work in this new environment, instead of worrying about whether my family or friends or my own health will fall victim to this virus.
Getting through all of this requires creating new routines, replacing valued experiences with substitutes that are typically less satisfying than the real thing, and taking stock of what we have and who we are. This is bad, but over the past few days I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s powerful book about Winston Churchill during the Blitz, and I’m finding it easy to imagine situations that are far worse than the one we are experiencing. I’m also finding it easy to imagine national leadership that is far better than the leader we have.
Like many, I’ve been spending time thinking about the world that will emerge once we are allowed out of isolation. What will be different? What lessons will we learn and how will we interpret the world we now live in. I’ve been thinking a great deal about the impact of science and technology on our lives and our need to better manage its dangers. But I’ve also been focused on better developing and utilizing scientific knowledge to combat those dangers. Research on the causes of disease and methods to cure illness has long been emphasized in our culture, but certainly, we can do more. The resources of emergency medical response must be provided and maintained. The ability to create and deconstruct temporary health care facilities needs to be increased. It is very important that we do not willfully forget this experience.
Most missed by all of us are the social interactions that are at the center of modern life. Gatherings of friends and family in good times and in bad. We know there is something important in human communication that requires live interaction. That is why we travel thousands of miles to spend a few hours in a business meeting or a few days at a professional conference. That is why we cross the planet to visit with friends and family. There are some things that are better expressed in person than on a FaceTime screen. But for now, we are grateful for those screens and the technology that enables us to see each other and hear each other at a very low cost. Of course, we are also learning, if we didn’t already know it, how real the digital divide is. We feel isolated even if we have this technology; imagine how you’d feel without it. Here in New York City, online learning is a real challenge for children without tablets and without internet service at home. When we get through this crisis, that is another problem that should command our attention.
We need to overcome divisions and come together in a single human community to combat a threat that disregards national boundaries.
Although this is an unprecedented crisis, its causes make it clear that we will see more of these in the future. That is perhaps the single most important lesson this crisis should be teaching us. It is too late to turn back. All the walls and travel bans in the world will not prevent the transport of disease from one nation to another. And while rich people may be better able to afford whatever health care modern medicine can provide, there is no inoculation that prevents this virus and there is no known cure for it. Therefore, this is a danger that wealthy people will experience along with poor people. That means that individual effort is not sufficient. We need each other. We need our community, city, state, nation and global institutions. The final lesson of this crisis is that while we are in the midst of it, assigning blame is a waste of time and effort. We need to overcome divisions and come together in a single human community to combat a threat that disregards national boundaries. When we emerge from this isolation, my hope is that we will be more willing to build and treasure that community.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.