On Easter Sunday, a neighbor sent me the following email:
Just wanted to let you know that [my husband] came down with little sniffles yesterday. We thought it may be just allergies, but it didn’t go away after he took his allergy meds. He doesn’t have any fever, coughing or sneezing, but these days you have to treat everything as COVID, so he’ll be self-isolating. We’ve been wearing face coverings in the public areas of the building.
Because of his work, we have been trying to keep distance from each other, and I have no symptoms. But I will also limit going out of the apartment. Just to throw out garbage and if I need to get food or medicine (but we’re very well stocked up). If I need to throw out garbage, I’ll wear a mask and wipe the door and trash chute handles with Clorox wipe.
These neighbors have always been considerate, and I felt no need of this reassurance, but I admired the “Love thy neighbor” spirit in which it was given.
Still, I found myself reflecting on the curious craving we humans have to make causal connections. In times of tragedy, as we’ve seen in this COVID-19 era, we not only persist in this obsession with cause, but go on to seek out something, or more likely someone, to blame.
Each of us could catch the virus from any number of sources. It could be a panting runner in the street passing by too closely. It could be a sales clerk coughing in our faces, or we coughing in theirs. It could be the virus surviving long enough on a door handle to pass to our hands, then from our hands to our faces. It could be due to rushing inside our home when the phone rings and forgetting to wash our hands before picking up the receiver. It could be a defective mask. For healthcare workers, the possibilities multiply.
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), David Hume contended that just because the sun rises on clear mornings doesn’t mean the morning causes the sunrise. A pattern isn’t sufficient to establish actual cause, no matter how many million cloudless days have begun the same way. Yet we tend to assign cause to effect on the flimsiest of grounds.
By contrast, science is about establishing genuine connections between cause and effect. We need science to determine which COVID-19 antibody tests are accurate, which treatments work and, eventually, which vaccine will cure.
Meanwhile, President Trump is blaming China, where the virus apparently originated. Following such logic, North America could have been blamed for the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, misnamed the Spanish flu, since there is evidence it started here. In centuries past, with less science to guide them, Europeans blamed witches for epidemics. There’s no end to our compulsion to assign human agency as the cause of suffering.
Trump is playing on his supporters’ desire for a scapegoat, just as his supporters are now targeting Democratic governors in red states who have instituted stay-at-home policies. Should governors be blamed for these policies or scientists? Or should either group be blamed instead of the virus? Should a single country? The problem is this: The virus has no mind of its own, no character, no ethics. There’s no moral satisfaction to be gained from blaming a flaw in nature.
If I catch the virus, will I latch on to one or other event as the cause? There will have been so many candidates. Will I feel the need to have someone to blame? It would be, to put it mildly, unfair to that person.
Besides, blame is a terrible burden, whether to cast or to bear. I think of two ways an adult might become paralyzed. One might be due to a genetic degenerative condition, and the other the random consequence of a drive-by shooting. The condition is life-changing in both scenarios, but having someone to blame might well turn distress into high-octane anger. A recent news item reported that a man who knew he has COVID-19 got into a dispute and deliberately breathed hard at a woman. That is truly grounds for anger. But for our own sanity and everyone else’s well-being, we can’t afford to make up scapegoats. Besides, doing so could make us agitated when our minds and bodies were already in a state of turmoil.
The flip side of refusing to cast blame is the helpless feeling that we can do nothing to protect against the virus. Nothing is more threatening than having no control when danger is at hand. But I do have some control. It’s the fortunate byproduct of the measures we must now take every day: washing hands after doing almost anything twenty seconds every time, minimizing social contact, maintaining a distance of six feet (actually, two meters, which should really mean seven feet), wiping off packaging when food is delivered. If I disregarded safety recommendations, I’d almost certainly get infected. By faithfully adhering to them, I substantially reduce my risk. Thus the measures don’t give us just physical protection; they are a psychological comfort.
There’s also spiritual warmth to be drawn from the willingness of our communities to come together in a time of uncertainty and stress. The nightly seven o’clock cheering for frontline workers is a stirring affirmation of what is best in us.
I remain optimistic for my neighbors. The other day, the wife wrote:
We stay far apart. With both of us wearing masks, we can barely understand each other. It’s actually easier to communicate when we’re using texts or video chat. LOL
In being shown such caring in a time of hardship, and with such good humor, how could I feel anything but love toward my neighbors?