By Erin Thomason

Notes from the Pandemic: Viral Humility

Last night, cocooned in a sleeping bag, my four-year-old son asked in a voice tinged with anxiety, “Mama, is this a big world or a small one?” He pointed to the wall hanging of a world map framed by a flashlight. Even as I stumbled out an answer, he interrupted me with what perhaps was his real question, “Can we ever go back to China?” 

On February 23, my husband, four-year-old son, four-month-old baby, and I left China’s southern mega-city of Shenzhen after spending five weeks confined to our 100-sq-meter apartment. The conditions of coronavirus quarantine had exacerbated my postpartum anxiety and depression and caused the already sleepless nights to plummet into a tailspin of worry and fear. After waiting for more safe travel conditions, we applied for a short medical leave with my university where I am completing a fellowship. We planned to stay with my parents for a month in California. Now, one month has turned into indefinitely while our beloved cats and most of our belongings remain in Shenzhen. Our family is living through its second round of epidemic-caused upheaval. 

As a cultural anthropologist studying how rural Chinese families respond to urbanization and migration, I’ve been trained to think about how human agency is limited by institutional barriers and the culture and history which precludes us. As a Christian, I have a personal faith that God’s sovereignty is always larger than my own efforts. Despite my professional expertise and my personal faith, the coronavirus crisis has shook the very foundations of my reality. Each one of my plans has been upended bringing me to reconsider my personal agenda for comfort, convenience and certainty. 

Anthropologists, theologians, and philosophers have pointed out for centuries, finitude has always been a condition of humanity. For as many plans that are constructed, uncertainty is an ever present part of life. Yet we have long lived with the illusion that we can plan our way into control over our own lives. This illusion was part of the first sin of humanity — the consumption of the fruit of good and evil was an attempt to know, plan, and execute human agency in the midst of a universe over which we actually had little control. 

There has never been a time in which human finitude is more visible as the entire globe is brought to its knees by a tiny microscopic organism. The small chain of RNA, ripping through humanity causing a wake of destruction, death, and upheaval in its path. It seems that people all around the world are struggling to cope. Some turn to nationalist, racist acts to protect themselves thusly undermining international and social cooperation. Mental health crises are at an all-time high as isolation, economic insecurity, and the mounting death toll affects us personally.

While these perils surge around us, most of us, unless we are in the medical field, have been asked to take up profoundly humble weapons — improved hygiene and physical isolation. These are the ordinary tools and burdens of housewives which have long been undervalued by masculine economic measures and social rewards. And while a closed door and a bottle of Lysol may feel profoundly inadequate, public health experts urge that these very simple tools have the capacity to reduce the outbreak, to protect our neighbors and ourselves. 

Our usual cultural and psychological response to threats, meanwhile, creates a need to act. Simultaneously, we crave the comfort of the normal, familiar and routine. The pandemic response has required a total reset to our taken for granted ways of being in the world. This compels a reframe of our most intimate convictions and the creation of new ways of cooperation, connection, and care. 

There are many stories that exhibit new and positive forms of “socially-distanced sociality” and ingenuity. Mothers willing to test out vaccines, stores creating safe and sanitized times for seniors and immune compromised shoppers, the building of new open-source medical technology, and the collaboration of scientists and health workers across borders. 

We are probably only at the beginning of coronavirus’ challenge upon our lives and I’ve been forced to set a new pace of life. My own efforts to live under pandemic conditions don’t feel remotely heroic or eventful, but are instead, halting, awkward, and excruciatingly humble. I’ve cried more times than I’d like to admit, turned to despair as my prospects for a tenured-track job dwindled, yelled at my family, and stared dumbly at my news feed. At the same time, I’m taking solace in the fact that spiritual growth and mental fortitude are birthed seeds sown carefully. Much like weapons used to fight the virus, they are humble and quiet. 

Is the world a big one or a small one? The answer, I think, is both. The world is small when we think of how fast the virus spread, how effective collective efforts can be. The world is big when we consider that we, these unique animals that have built so much and changed the world so quickly can be brought to our knees by nature. The hope of humanity is not that we can conquer, but that we care. And care, ultimately requires humility and an experiential understanding of our place in the universe.

About the Author

Erin Thomason is a psychological and cultural anthropologist with a specialty in rural China. Her work considers how economic changes and rural development create novel demands for families. She has a special interest in older women's experiences of childcare. 

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