Four Paradoxes of the Coronavirus
…and why only letting go might let us win the fight in the end.
by Tim Leberecht
A friend of mine who works as a conflict mediator once told me about a social experiment, or rather, a simulation he ran at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Convening about 100 politicians, business, and civil society leaders, he explained the rules of the game: an unknown threat, an alien or a pandemic, was going to destroy humankind, unless they, the world leaders, unilaterally agreed on a new world constitution for all Earthlings. He then challenged them to take this game seriously and come up together with a joint charter in just three hours. However, the leaders failed to deliver. They went on detours or ended up in heated debates, even shouting matches, over different constituencies and their rights. But they could not agree on a joint charter at the end of the three hours. It was a sobering experience, my friend told me.
1. The enemy is us.
I was reminded of this story in light of Peter Diamandis’ tweet arguing that COVID-19 presents the first time that all of humankind faces a common enemy — and the huge opportunity this presents to mobilize the best of our talents.
How will our leaders, how will we as individuals, fare in the real world? We have a common enemy now, but the enemy is also very much us: both because we are the transmitters of the disease, but also because it us our very own behavior that will ultimately decide our fate. We are currently living in humankind’s most significant social experiment, the biggest-ever change management program, with 7.8 billion participants, and its outcome is literally in our hands. Will this forced behavior change make us alter our thinking because we have to? Will we treat each other differently afterwards?
The challenge is: the enemy is also the other. Today, my wife told me of a woman who walked towards her on the sidewalk in Berlin, and as she approached, she crossed herself and then pulled her scarf up to cover her face (of course, she could have also just switched to the other side of the street). This might be an extreme example, but these days we are all suspicious of one another and the space we each claim in public. Examples of COVID-19-related xenophobia and racism have been well-documented around the world, as the other, in fact, every other, is now not just symbolically but actually a potential threat.
Secondly, the virus may be the great social protocol leveler, but it is not the great social equalizer; rather, it aggravates existing inequalities. Those who are already vulnerable — low-income families, gig economy workers, artists, and small shop owners, to name just a few — are being even more exposed, more frail. Let alone the sick and elderly. And yet, in many cities, even in high-risk countries like Germany or the US, certain groups of people still appear to be in denial of the pandemic and unwilling to comply with social distancing, throwing corona parties and hanging out in groups — young people, even older people, are collectively ignoring advice. Their reckless behavior puts other vulnerable populations at great risk, and it may further the generational and social divides. Will we ever forgive each other? Will we ever trust each other again? Or can we rise to the challenge, find more common ground, and restore trust in ourselves, the other, and our societies?
2. We are confined but overwhelmed.
These are paradoxical times. Deep mistrust is accompanied by an outpouring of empathy and compassion. Physical distancing, strangely, may actually lead us to more social intimacy. Self-isolation is mirrored by a feeling of collective loneliness that can make us feel less lonely.
A friend of mine told me he’s been strangely happy over the past few days, and it’s a sentiment I hear from other people in my network, too, who are ashamed that they are secretly enjoying the new essentialism and pristine clarity of their life — because they can afford to. “Romanticizing the quarantine is the new hobby of the privileged,” I read somewhere. True. But what else can we do? And while helping those who need help, why not also see the positives within all this misery if that’s a viable way to mentally survive for those of us whose economic survival is not at stake?
Another paradox is the stark contrast between the sudden emptiness of our calendars, the ennui of vast amounts of unstructured time, and the cognitive and emotional overload we’re experiencing. The pandemic is entirely incomprehensible, and was yet utterly expectable. In pop culture and science, we had collectively imagined it as the ultimate nightmare. And now it’s unimaginable. We’ve seen something like this before, and yet we’ve never seen anything like this before. There are no words for it. There are too many words for it.
Trying to make sense of it all, we either stare at a blank page for hours or struggle to catch up with the staccato of the minute-by-minute salvos of social media fact, fiction, and folklore. Everybody’s weighing in, has smart things to say, agendas to push, products to market, good deeds to promote, feelings to share, videos to post that add to the cacophony of a species that simply cannot shut up, even when it’s told to do so. It is much easier to express our humanity than to be human these days.
We are congregating on Facebook again, forums, groups, and initiatives are launched, and it feels nostalgic somehow, reminding us of the heydays of the early internet, while also apocalyptic: chatty and suffocated, beautifully naïve and hypocritical at once.
3. The future has a future again.
We constantly read and hear about the suffering of ill people, medical practitioners who have to make agonizingly painful decisions over life and death, and workers trying to cope with severe or existential economic hardship. In self-isolation we are forced to spend time with our smallest social nucleus, and not the least, ourselves. We are being confronted with the essence of our life choices, relationships, and careers, and some of us are recognizing that the stories we’ve told ourselves for so many years are lies.
We’re all grounded now, and we’re embarrassed about our routines that seem like mindless excesses in hindsight, about our self-actualization needs and ego-trips into more conscious ways of living that suddenly appear irresponsible or even malicious, when in fact, we blatantly ignored all along what was in plain sight right in front of us.
This is a moment of truth — for many of us in an immediate, physical or material way, for others, more metaphorically, but either way, the truth is here to stay.
It will take time to make sense of it and articulate it, even though some are already embarking on post-mortem projections of what the world will look like once this storm has passed. Yuval Noah Harari wrote a brilliant big-picture “The world after coronavirus” piece in the Financial Times, MIT scholar Otto Scharmer pondered the “Eight Emerging Lessons from Coronavirus to Climate Action,” and many others are inviting us to think ahead. It is not surprising and certainly helpful, and I envy those who can offer clear outlooks at this point. With the past obsolete, the present both so confining and so expansive, only the future remains as the last resort, and futurists are suddenly in high demand again.
4. To win, we have to stop resisting.
One thing I know for sure though is that one way or the other, at the personal, organizational, or societal level, the story of the coronavirus crisis is a story of resistance: first resistance to recognizing the threat, then resistance to grasping the scope and scale of the pandemic, resistance to giving up our habits and conventions, resistance to believing that this is really happening, resistance to embracing this new reality as the new normal, and even now, resistance to accepting the consequences. At any point along the way, resistance, born out of our myopic belief in our own perceptions, patterns, and norms, was the main obstacle, when surrender would have been the better option. We can only win the fight against the virus if we accept the loss, if we stop resisting the magnitude of change imposed on us, if we give up our way of life. We can’t have it both ways, we can’t have it our way.
It is indeed a great humbling, a great humiliation, and we deserve it. Instead of rushing to conclusions, perhaps we should take time to let everything sink in. We must stay inside for a while, physically and spiritually. Esther Blázquez Blanco, a facilitator and coach, told me that what we all need to learn now is to sit still in our rooms and just listen. It’s simple, she told me: listening is like love; it means paying attention to someone or something without expecting anything in return.
As we are weathering the storm, it’s a hard lesson but one worth heeding.
This article first appeared on the Journal of Beautiful Business.