Editorial: Coronavirus enables a less tribal, more ingenious America. Let’s not backslide

Tribune Content Agency

Once again humanity is humbled, this time not by fire, earthquake or tornado. Instead a wee creature our naked eye cannot see commandeers the Earth — yet another killer reminder that many forces dwarf us cocky-to-a-fault mortals. So we learn anew that in nature we’re but temporary components of perpetual systems much bigger than ourselves.

For most of us, the less than draconian demand is that we stay secluded — incarcerated at home with our loved ones. We know teenagers who dutifully avoid their early-to-rise parents by sleeping from 3 a.m. until the crack of 2 p.m. There being no immunity to family frictions in tight quarters, social distancing at times necessitates spousal distancing — like teenagers, a survivable inconvenience.

Meanwhile the contagion, as if with a mind of its own, searches for fresh human hosts. For those among us who contract the disease COVID-19, as we see in daily news coverage, the effects range from discomfort to oxygen starvation to harrowing death.

Whatever our individual fates as this ghastly pandemic unspools, each of us can find solace in the ways that millions of Americans are responding. Less than one week into a stay-home mandate, the concern people are showing for one another is evident and, we hope, long lasting.


There always will be outliers — arrogant me-firsters who refuse to conform to new rules. And the criminals who strafe Chicago streets shall always be with us. Our focus instead is on the vast majority of citizens abruptly awakened to the urgent needs of the less fortunate souls around them.

In their stoicism, their generosity to one another and their astonishing patience with the restrictions that now dictate their lives, these next-door heroes evoke author Sebastian Junger’s account of World War II London during the Blitz. The peril then was more vivid, even if today’s peril kills just as indiscriminately, just as impersonally. He writes of Londoners’ voluntary subservience to constraints as they resisted a shared enemy: “ … the crowd policed themselves according to unwritten rules that made life bearable for complete strangers jammed shoulder to shoulder” on cold, wet floors.

Today, by contrast, we live an inverted exercise that seeks to keep us apart. Yet a similar ethos of We’re-all-in-this-together is rewriting our social contract. We see the random acts of kindness everywhere — the impromptu willingness of strangers to inconvenience themselves for one another by hauling packages, the household fostering of forlorn shelter animals, the drop-offs of food for first responders whose midshift lunch joints are closed.

Our earliest metrics for quantifying these good acts, like the parable of the Blitz, come from the U.K.: An age-of-pandemic survey of 2,000 Britons finds sharp percentage increases of those who have conversed with neighbors they had hardly known before, who regularly check on older relatives and friends, who now grocery shop for people unable to leave home.


If some people cope by rebuilding frayed social bonds, others cope by rising to a challenge: How can I surmount this episode’s limitations, small and large?

Consider the many residents of metropolitan Chicago and other cities who’ve put teddy (and other) bears in front windows. For neighborhood parents dealing with cooped-up kids, this small gift encourages “bear hunting” — family strolls with little people waving to ursine creatures indoors.

Or consider the Zooming of America — the rapid (we won’t say viral) adoption of video conferencing from Zoom and other providers online. As if a starter pistol sounded, social distancing suddenly has provoked millions of work colleagues and their customers, teachers and their students, 4-year-olds and their cousins, to rely daily on meetup software that has long existed but that many people hadn’t embraced.

Look with admiration at the workarounds. The innovations. The ingenious solutions.

None of us wants a public health crisis. But crises do make us smarter.


This emergent altruism, these reinventions of our routine protocols, speaks to a welcome togetherness. Welcome, but unfamiliar.

For two-plus decades we Americans have divided ourselves, more avidly than we had before, into tribes. Suddenly we find ourselves, yes, all in something together. The phrase “safe spaces” abruptly refers less to protecting frail egos than to sheltering one another from deathly danger.

In a few weeks, as during emergencies past, we’ve become a more serious, more other-oriented people. The optimist who celebrates this knows it’s early, that this vast mutual aid society is as novel today as is the coronavirus.

The optimist knows that our generosity of spirit could perish dramatically if more hardship brings rebellion. Or it could perish gradually if we let ourselves succumb to coronavirus fatigue. To sacrifice fatigue.

So how do we nurture this nascent communal spirit? How do we help it endure after this viral rampage breathes its last?


This moment that demands a united America disrupts many people’s focus on identity uber alles. Like any rogue act of nature, this pandemic ignores our self-sequestering by political, ethnic, cultural or intellectual tribe. During the recent decades that would tolerate such luxury, many among us let pride turn to righteousness, and righteousness to grievance against Those Others. From our fortresses we’ve signaled our own moral virtue — and sought to impose it on others. They are, after all the enemy. We cannot rest until they submit.

Encountering a city, a state or a nation that subordinates the greater good to such self-indulgence, any shrewd virus eager to replicate itself would smile. It knows it can thrive in a realm where people put their individual interests or their group first. It cannot, though, survive in a wildly diverse populace that unites to starve it of fresh prey.

Watching so many strangers feed, shelter and protect one another — and watching public officials enforce wartime limits on all of us — this little coronavirus has to be displeased.

For many Americans, this is the first time they’ve encountered a government-issued call to duty. Generations that endured the Great Depression, wars and the menace of international terrorism have been here before.

Each time, though, those generations watched America backslide.


Like the other great forces of nature, every pandemic subsides. Then what?

If Americans want to preserve our suddenly less tribal, more ingenious, other-oriented communities, we can do that. How? Paradoxically, each of us has to keep nurturing this communal spirit … one by one.

In thousands of small, daily decisions, each of those Americans who lives to tell of this disaster will decide how to treat one another. Will decide, that is, whether to revert to our tribes, or make this spirit endure.

The pessimist says we’ll soon be back to incessant squabbling. That pandemic? History. It’s an election year! My tribe must prevail!

The optimist we mentioned above knows that the pessimist will be proved right — unless, one by one, we demand better of ourselves. Not only in this crisis, but in the months and years ahead.


©2020 Chicago Tribune

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