If I were to characterize the COVID pandemic, I imagine I would use the word reductionist. I would almost be using that word catachrestically, since it would take a keen observer to elucidate what the COVID 19 pandemic meant, in all of its constitutive complexities. Yet, its passive existence revealed the various phenomena that made it such a jarring event. Or perhaps its reification is a result of our own negligence of the warning signs the universe tried to bring to our ever shrinking attentions.
I first learned about COVID-19 – before it was called that – in November of 2019. I seem to vividly recall listening to the radio on a weekday before work while sipping coffee. The radio program had a man from Wuhan on who was describing his mandatory stay-at-home experience because of some new virus. Then again memory is readily unreliable and the interview could have very well been in 2020. What I do remember – unreliably – was having an uneasy feeling about the whole thing.
I somehow managed to travel on a vacation to Colombia for a week and back in February, just weeks ahead of the lockdown in March. Unthinkably irresponsible in retrospect. But at the time, travelling advisories were not official. Though some recommendations were floating around. Yet somehow, I am thankful I was able to get charged ahead of what would be a remarkably challenging year. In that vein, I reflect on how reliant we are on officials and experts to guide those behaviors in normal times, let alone during a pandemic. And how quickly that trust can erode and be replaced with thoughts and arguments that are anything but cogent. Personally, I had in the past routinely checked the government of Canada travel website prior to making trip decisions. Still thinking about our current state, many who routinely relied on those and similar advisories, are routinely breaking them. I am not blaming anyone but merely reflecting. Like many out there, I certainly feel (at least partially) depleted from my familiar sense of motivation and had to dig deeper to uproot it, or find new resources. Motivation is a mysterious thing.
The COVID pandemic was reductionist. Like many out there, I feel myself longing for the more familiar social connections, and acquiescing to those less familiar virtual ones, and those contactless brushing ups against sparsely spaced strangers. Or those weary eye-contacts made in the absence of the accompanying symphony of facial expressions and completely concealed body languages. I started thinking about how much I miss a handshake; a hug. How that transmitted a lot more than just human touch; but also trust, gratitude, admiration…even love. Naturally, people will rebel. Naturally, people find comfort in other people. Or meaningless conspiracies for that matter. Though I find the former more reasonable; A more productive way of thinking, though inevitably, a disruptive behavior when the consequences are putting others at risk. The fear of the unknown pushes us to rationalize things and perhaps often the path of least resistance is an unreasonable one; A reductionist one.
The COVID pandemic was reductionist. You started thinking about who the most important 10 people to recruit into your bubble, when it had been just barely a consideration. You started realizing how 500 social media connections are more than enough, if not superfluous, for what you need to get the most out of your professional and social lives. You were forced to rely on this virtual world for connection and realized how how much of a compromise it is. How contrived and unrealistic it can be. That is almost like teaching learners empathy by having them practice it with monotone, expressionless robotic dummies; Or have them respond to images of patients making melodramatic or expressive faces. It will work for a while but it is never the same as the real thing.
The COVID pandemic was reductionist. In a snap, your previously unrestricted access to the landscape of the Amazon jungle became less Prime. Very quickly, your reservoir of Wi-Fi and cellular data started to resemble a pond more, when it used to be as endless as the sea. Very quickly, cities moved to accommodate human movement, shopping and gathering in a way that prioritized health and safety of people, before convenience for cars and commuters. Very quickly, restaurants adopted Shopify, schools Zoom, and governments mail-in ballots, much to the disliking of (some) politicians. Regulatory bodies became more efficient, jurisdictions more collaborative and essential workers more apparent. Social gaps bled through band-aide solutions and social networks swelled with “experts” repeating headlines, opinions and factoids while expending as much effort to verify them as they did to read them.
Sure the pandemic was reductionist in many ways, but that can be a positive thing. We use microscopes and assays to understand the basal processes that make up our biology, and those of other living things. We often distill organic matter to understand its components and their uses. We organize our lives using lists and steps. We arrange living and nonliving things into categories, species, and even elements that we happen to organize in a construct called the periodic table. We learn basic sciences before we move on to more specialized subjects. We often clutter our minds, bodies and social lives (physical and virtual) with phantasmagorias of wants, possessions and habits. We often reduce complex problems to arrive at better solutions. Well, in a way, COVID did just that for us. History repeats itself. And just like other sciences, or categories of knowledge, that man intrinsically wanted to pass forward to future generations, history will show whether we learned lessons or reduced them to memories of the unreliable kind.