Naamal De Silva
A pandemic makes visible the connections between all of us.
For perhaps two weeks, one of my rituals has been to look once a day at the maps compiled by the New York Times – maps of the places with reported COVID-19 cases. There is one map for states in the U.S. and one map for the world. The first time I looked, there were no cases reported in Africa. I wondered whether the gaps on the map had to do with testing or whether there were fewer strands of connection between many African nations and the rest of the world.
Over a shockingly short time, the countries and American states filled in. West Virginia became the only state without reported cases – again I wondered whether this was due to comparative isolation or to lags in testing. Papua New Guinea became one of the only places on the world map without reported cases. Both places are mountainous and comparatively poor economically - isolation that has enabled cultural richness and the persistence of biodiverse landscapes. I am fortunate to have visited both places. In the past, I have been concerned about environmental damage in both places – from mining, oil palm expansion, a lack of strict regulation and capacity for monitoring. I have thought about new jobs being primarily in extractive industries, and read about the potential for renewable energy and ecotourism. This week, I worried about how such relatively isolated places will cope with the spread of a disease that thrives on social connection. I thought, too, that if people did not travel quite so much for work or leisure, COVID-19 would not have spread to some parts of the planet for years – enough time to have found a vaccine and better treatment options, for richer nations to recover and consider lending a helping hand to nations with fewer resources.
I have been thinking, more generally, about isolation and connection. In my household, we have been isolating ourselves from people outside our home, but in doing so, we are more constantly connected to each other. I am accustomed to working from home, but my husband is not; he has been adjusting over the past week. My daughter has not been in school for over a week, and it will likely be many more before she returns. I am adjusting to having them near me all the time. I have been making sure that we go out into nature most days for connection to other beings and the outdoors, even as we maintain some distance from other people. Even when we feel exhausted or upset, I know time outdoors will help us.
Our more constant connection makes me chafe at times, especially thinking about weeks of limited mobility. At the same time, I feel lucky for their presence in my life. I feel fortunate that we can retreat to different rooms or to our tiny deck. I feel lucky to be alive, acutely so in a time when I know I am at some level of risk due to asthma and a history of pneumonia. I feel lucky that my husband and I both still have work and that we derive meaning from our work, that most of our friends and family are healthy. Really, the list of things to be grateful for is endless, existing alongside middle-of-the-night anxiety and a constantly shifting sociopolitical landscape. As Lori Gottlieb wrote recently in The Atlantic, it is "BOTH/AND: It’s horrible AND we can allow our souls to breathe.”
I have been thinking, too, about the role that connection and isolation play in our relationship with the environment. The pandemic shines a spotlight on many things. It confirms what I have long suspected: in times of acute crisis, humans are capable of rapid shifts in behavior. It is remarkable how many business leaders were able to cancel travel across the globe. It is remarkable how drastically our carbon emissions have dropped during this time of less travel. Still, we cannot stay inside our homes forever, and so many of us do not have that luxury even now.
How can we find a more effective balance between connection and isolation, between a frenetic push for progress and paralysis? How can we use this pandemic as an opportunity to create systems that better support our collective health and wellbeing? How can we create places and ways of living and working that will be resilient in the face of future pandemics and a changing climate? How can we create a greater sense of community and meaningful connection to each other in an increasingly digital world?
The pandemic is terrifying. I worry for people I know personally and for billions I will never meet. There is no getting around that. However, if we collectively decide that the threats facing us are existential, I believe we will defeat COVID-19 and be better prepared for future pandemics. I believer that we can create new ways of being that increase our resilience in the face of climate change while actively fighting the poisoning, weakening, and impoverishment of our environment. We can more intentionally decide what travel is necessary, what industries serve the collective good, where each of us spends our time and money and effort. We can choose collective action, health, gratitude, and joy. We can choose rest and recovery – for ourselves and for the planet. Sometimes, a pause and reset is exactly what we need to create new ways of being.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.