From me to we: The ‘white-coat’ lining of the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 could be an opportunity for us to reimagine our role as citizens and reassert the primacy of scientific fact.

coronavirus spain
Paintings reading 'Together, We Can' are seen at an elderly home in Barcelona, Spain as the outbreak of COVID-19 continues [Nacho Doce/Reuters]

Despite the tragic, troubling times, the world may be poised to experience a renaissance. 

I know that you may disagree, perhaps vehemently. I know you may scoff or recoil at the idea that a pandemic can produce anything other than fear, uncertainty and grief. You may even be inclined to stop reading this column because you think the suggestion that a rampaging coronavirus can trigger a renaissance of any sort is a click-bait-driven “take”.

Still, hear me out. 

Like you, I have watched, impotent, as this infuriatingly obstinate virus has spread with lethal and panic-inducing efficiency. It has made the old and vulnerable grievously sick. It has killed indiscriminately. It has forced us into hibernation, shuttered economies and extinguished countless jobs and hope.  

But the wee, stubborn optimist in me remains convinced that hope and possibility exist even in the midst of an unrelenting global humanitarian crisis that will keep causing harm and havoc and possibly overwhelm our ability to respond. 

If we peer over the grim horizon, there may not only be a way out of the ever-gathering storm, we could also seize the opportunity to reimagine our role as citizens not just inside nations, but among nations and to reassert the primacy of scientific fact. 

If we do this – and that, of course, remains profoundly uncertain – the world could fashion a renaissance of the spirit of collective action in the tangible, lasting service of the common good based on fact.    

First, we must listen to doctors and scientists – the women and men who make up the white-coat brigade now leading the fight against this insidious disease. Then, we must do our best to abide by their instructions with unflinching discipline and persistence wherever circumstances permit.    

As the pandemic rages, we will continue, no doubt, to oscillate from resignation to an almost paralysing dread. The doctors and scientists we turn to for help, guidance and still distant therapeutic solutions, are the indispensable sources of knowledge, calmness and, at times, reassurance. They are a welcomed presence and a comforting sight. 

More than that, we are, I believe, witnessing the long-overdue revival of intelligence and expertise in our public discourse. Every day, we see and read it across time zones, continents and languages as the who’s who of science and medicine are asked to explain what we need to do and when we need to do it and to raise, when necessary, the alarm. 

Oh, how these smart, eloquent and authoritative voices have been missed. For too long, too many irresponsible editors have offered an inviting platform to an endless parade of slick charlatans and hucksters who have told us that vaccines cause autism and that climate change and, lately, COVID-19 are hoaxes manufactured by “woke” liberals. 

And for too long, it has been fashionable – particularly among the legion of right-wing ideologues and self-professed “contrarians” – to dismiss and denigrate science and the learned women and men who produce it with painstaking care and attention to detail.

The record is plain: the white-coat brigade warned us a long time ago a pandemic would happen just as it has happened before – often to the poor living in distant lands. They told us the wealthy and privileged would not be immune. They told us to prepare. They told us how it would happen and how quickly it would happen. They did all this with astounding precision and prescience.    

Instead, we chose gluttony and complacency. We were too preoccupied with the here and now to listen and act. For far too many of us this has meant buying more stuff we do not need for an ephemeral jolt of satisfaction since, generations ago, we became voracious consumers who gave up being engaged citizens. 

Too many leaders in too many places compounded this smugness and insatiable craving for the pleasure of now with willful ignorance and self-serving myopia. They called doctors and scientists warning of the impending danger alarmists – if they bothered to listen at all. 

They assured us the giddy party on Wall Street would go on and on and they urged us to keep buying and buying.

Well, the party is over and the rapacious buying has stopped – temporarily and involuntarily. The cocky, short-sighted politicians and their equally smug enablers were wrong. The doctors and scientists were right. 

Thankfully, although belatedly, most politicians are listening and calibrating their reaction to the health emergency on the advice of doctors and scientists, with the predictable exception of the United States’ dunce-in-chief, Donald Trump, and his Brazilian twin, Jair Bolsonaro, among others.

My family and I are listening to the white-coat brigade, as well. We are staying home, washing our hands and cleaning surfaces frequently. We are trying to do our small, but important part, to prevent the virus from infecting us and our neighbours. 

Those of us who are thinking and behaving in a way that is intended not only to protect ourselves but those around us, reflect a renewed understanding of, and commitment to, what it means to be citizens in a wider community.  

We know that community extends far beyond our neighbours. We also know that our behaviour today has implications and consequences for countless people in countless places tomorrow. In this precarious moment, we have understood what it means to be a global citizen.   

This tenacious virus has confirmed what many of us had forgotten – that we are inextricably connected to one another. The pursuit of our parochial needs and aspirations must not be achieved at the expense of the needs and aspirations of our neighbours at home and abroad.  

My hope, however fanciful it may seem, is that if we reframe our understanding of citizenship – from me to we – we will vanquish not only COVID-19 but the other existential threats we face, including, most urgently, the unfolding climate catastrophe.  

That may turn out to be the white-coat lining of the awful storm we, together, shall confront in turbulent days ahead.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.