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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Singer

Suffering in the Age of Coronavirus

It is human nature to suffer (the Buddha said that). But just because something is a reality, this does not make it easy (or fair or routine). We face suffering as individuals and as nations. Dealing with tragedy and disease is ever more challenging now in our twenty-first century cellphone internet age when so much of life is engulfed in light speed communication, rushes to judgment, and growing interpersonal intolerance.

We are seeing this play out with coronavirus. Blow by blow. Day by day. Hour by hour.

For many Chinese, the psychological scars of SARS (2002-2003) have returned with a vengeance (maybe they never went away). Face masks may be the most popular consumer item on earth at this moment. Medically, the evidence is apparently that they do not help. Emotionally, they clearly do.  For some non Chinese in other countries, fear fuels the release of increased hate and anti-Chinese racism. For everyone everywhere, the unknown leads to unease and daily upheaval. The economic impacts in China and around the world promise to be breathtaking as the spider's web unfolds. 

Will there be a more organized attempt to isolate China globally (shut down all flights, trains, and boats) as has been attempted in Central China in Hubei Province? Though I doubt either is completely feasible, would it really matter? We often have the most to fear from what is trapped inside our own minds. An evening English class in predominantly Chinese Flushing, NY, will get the next couple of weeks off because the teacher announced she/he is fearful of the virus' spread.

How will the Chinese people respond? No group is monolithic. There are Chinese who will not abide by quarantines, who will (and are) venting in online forums despite the customary diligence of Great Firewall censors, and others who will not be overly concerned. But for most Chinese, I believe they will comply with instructions to shelter in place, to trust in the government to control a situation that still seems to be steamrolling downhill. Why? Because the past forty years has seen the re-rise of China and that builds trust, because Chinese society has a millennia-long tradition of top-down societal governance, because in the face of something that is scary and dangerous and unpredictable, sometimes there is no acceptable (or desired) alternative.

My hope is that the worldwide focus be on treating those afflicted, determining the causes, developing the cures, and ultimately learning lessons for the future, all without getting caught up in cross-cultural differences, national and geopolitical tussles, economic imbroglios or the tangle of human emotion.


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