What has happened here is objective. A virus spread from China to countries all over the world. First to the Philippines, then to Italy and Iran, the rest of Eurasia and beyond. While many of those countries have succeeded in flattening the curve, there are new epicenters across the globe, in the United States, Brazil, and India. States like Florida and Arizona are dealing with more virulent outbreaks than many countries.
In response, markets have crashed. People have been laid off. Millions are stuck in their homes. Politicians such as the president of Brazil and the prime minister of the United Kingdom have tested positive. The government of Iran appears shaky. People are bored, restless, worried.
This is all very bad, yes? No. It is what it is. It is objective. What was just listed above was simply information, the Stoics would say. Context, opinion, judgement decides what we call it. But again, think of the pain and suffering—how could you not call it bad? Well, it is not bad compared to smallpox, which killed 400,000 Europeans every year of the 18th century. It’s not bad compared to what we would have faced in 2003 if SARS had reached the scale that COVID-19 has.
More important, the jury is still out on what all this will mean. If this brings nations together, if we grow stronger for this, then what? As David Brooks has written, this pandemic highlights and hits modern society in all the places it has grown weakest. What if we learn from that? What if this is a transformative event that makes us better, that forces us to learn, that means we take real steps to protect and serve future generations? What if it actually does drain that government swamp, and leaders of real virtue and character emerge in their place?
Remember what Seneca said: A wise man dyes events with his own color. We shouldn’t just look for the helpers, as we’ve talked about before, we can be the help. We can make good out of this. The pandemic is objective—not up to us. But what we do in response? The meaning and change and progress that comes out of it? That’s on us.
That’s on you.