As we all know, a new and infectious disease has come to the United States; but fortunately, civilian response is limited, by official advice, to such behaviors as with which we have become familiar over the past 19 years: namely, an aversion to each other’s presence, an unreasoning fear of everyone and everything we encounter, and a wilful inability to tell the healthy from the sick, or accidental from intentional damage. The question is, therefore, When this quarantine is ended, a month or two from now, can we put aside those behaviors, until they are needed again?
At first, the answer may be affirmative: the passage of time may well smooth over the anxiety of our day, and we might be all the more willing to abandon the habits aforesaid, in response to a new assurance, when it comes, of our safety. On the other hand, old habits die hard, and many of us are already long accustomed, all our adult lives, to live thus in fear of all we meet, and regard our every fellow mortal as possessed of designs upon our lives and pleasures. Such a policy was actively urged upon the American public in the last two decades, and has been in force many times in antiquity, whenever a nation’s prestige was compromised. The Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the modern World Wars, and the infamous Inquisitions, witch-trials, and Red Scares bear witness of this inconvenient truth: each, a foul blot upon humanity’s honor, and a worse loss of prestige, than any of them were intended to avenge.
With such examples behind, and all around us, we would be well advised to take notice, and to set aside such things as ‘social distance’, ‘personal space’, and refusal to speak to strangers, as soon as we are safe in the least. This setting-aside shall not be easy: anxiety is quicklier assumed than abandoned, and once assumed, does not readily release its hold. The fear of a second assault, in whatever form, is a strong argument in favor of maintaining a footing of war, even in time of peace; and the peace-makers’ only course of action, then, is to set a watch, and let that assure the anxious. We cannot bring ourselves to let our guard entirely down; and in some cases, rightly not. But to retain our swords loose in their sheaths, our guns primed and loaded, and our warheads armed and aimed, is a demonstration of insecurity and paranoia, when the real danger is past.
Having said that: it is all the more necessary, until the medical scientists of the world say otherwise, for each and every one of us to keep our own bodies and possessions clean, and avoid large assemblies, in pandemics; less out of fear of the other, than out of compassion for those not yet infected, and whom we, for our own safety’s sake, would rather keep healthy. In an infected world, the health of every person is the protector of health in every other; and if, as in the present case, the multitude can do nothing positive for the cure, we can at least contain the spread of disease.
When, and only when the danger is past, beyond any risk of return, we must not rest upon that victory, but turn our attentions to the other direction: must take as much effort, then, to spread neighborliness and good-feeling among our fellow citizens, and thus to spread health, instead of disease, among them. For it is not wholly untrue, that health is equally contagious, though seldom at the same time as disease; and as true, in times of health, that the good condition of one, supports that of those around it, in subtle ways. This must necessarily require an act of will. Such efforts do not come naturally to the majority of human beings. The effort to bring unconscious motivations to the surface of our minds, and indeed to resolve ourselves to the course outlined above, is as great, and far more difficult to commence, than the simple act of speaking with trust to all we encounter. Yet it is none the less necessary for all that. Such effort may prove too great for many; but those for whom it is not, are thus doubly empowered, to make it. In the simplest of terms, then, our needs are these: first, to outlast this plague; and when we have done, to return ourselves, mentally and (therefore) socially, to a peacetime frame of mind.