I have been living in Northern Italy over the last few months and have watched from the front rows as the Coronavirus – COVID19 – arrived and rapidly took over the day-to-day functioning of an entire country. There is no question that it has been a difficult and challenging time for everyone, filled with uncertainty, disappointment, hardship, worry and loss. And it will continue to be that way not just here in Italy but around the world, now and into the foreseeable future, as we all grapple with what COVID19 means individually and to society as we know it.

In watching this play out since early January, one of the things that has most alarmed me about the impact of COVID19 is what it might do to our connection, our common sense of “us”, the social fabric that binds us together, already frayed and torn by rising tribalism and nationalism over the last few years. As both panic and the virus spread, I find myself repeatedly questioning: will our human connection forge or fracture under the force of this global pandemic?

Having recently lived through both Guatemala’s deadly Volcano Fuego eruption in 2018 and the Australian bushfires in 2019 I have become familiar with what it feels like when our home and loved ones – the place and people that gives us a sense of safety and security – are threatened. While those two events were undoubtedly a time of tragic loss and suffering, they also represent times that served to rekindle my faith in humanity and the strength of the human spirit. The outpouring of altruism, solidarity and generosity in those crises was unparalleled, and the bonds of friendship and community that were forged in the intensity of the moment meant that we emerged on the other side together, stronger, more resilient.

Yet as I watch the spread of COVID19 first of all across Italy then around the world, I know this time to be different and those differences are concerning. Unlike the two events I mentioned previously, COVID19 is not some external, easily identifiable threat. It is invisible, intangible, and it could be anywhere. We do not know who will infect us, or whether we may infect our loved ones, and the most effective way to stop the spread is by isolating ourselves from others. And so like a spy in our midst COVID19 begins to undermine trust and erode community – the very currency of social capital, which we need most in times like. And unlike other disasters we cannot go out and support those on the front lines, but must remain at home, “sheltering in place”, hopeless and helpless.

It is also worth noting that the prolonged state of uncertainty and anxiety that people are facing as a result of this pandemic not only tries our souls, but it also has an impact on our brain chemistry. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are flooding our systems, our defences are constantly triggered, and the age-old fight or flight mechanisms kick in which further impacts our ability for social cohesion.

It is in this context that I find myself wondering: will we fall together or fall apart in the face of this global human threat? It is true that amidst the anxiety here in Italy people have been finding ways to show solidarity, singing from the balconies and rooftops in Rome and Milan. Yet at the same time I hear other stories of people hoarding, fighting for supplies, or prioritizing business over saving lives. It could go either way. What is clear to me is that if our social fabric is to withstand this shock, if we are to emerge together, stronger and more resilient then it will require a proactive, conscientious effort from us all.

We must fight our instincts to close off and protect our own and look outward, with understanding and kindness.

We must remember to look beyond ourselves to those more vulnerable and isolated, and find ways to offer support.

We must find ways to build trust and connection, despite physical separation.

And we must remember that you cannot catch the COVID19 through a smile.

If we work together, united by the spirit of our collective humanity we can rise to the challenge. We can meet the risks and overcome, and we can find ways to embrace the new opportunities that are presenting themselves. In the words of Gene Kranz, lead flight director on Apollo 13, “I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” (Thanks to Gretchen Schmelzer for sharing that inspiration in this recent post, which I encourage you all to read).

 

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