The coronavirus crisis – a unique opportunity for reflection

Manuel Trajtenberg

[Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, an economist, is a Harvard graduate, former student of the late Zvi Griliches,  and served as Member of Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. This is his ‘take’ on how we can use the COVID-19 crisis to reshape our own perspectives].

   At most once in a lifetime we are called upon to confront a dramatic event such as this one, forced upon each of us and upon the entire world. Sure, we are threatened by a rapidly spreading and nasty disease, but there is a good chance that we will be able to avoid contracting it, and if not, that we will be able to recover from it hopefully unharmed. The threat to our health is just part of the story, and not necessarily the major one: the coronavirus has managed to bring to a halt life as we know it, as if we were entering a prolonged “Yom Kippur” regime, just without the prayers and the fasting…

I am convinced that this same menace offers us a sort of respite and thus a tremendous opportunity to gain perspective on our lives, to pause the never-ending rate-race in which we are caught: to succeed in school, to earn a living and build a meaningful career, to find a spouse, build a family and raise children, to care for our relatives, and, oh yes! from time to time also to have a life…

         What is this “Perpetuum mobile” for? What are we aiming at? What is truly important and what is superfluous? Do we really need the avalanche of goods and services that we relentlessly strive to acquire and consume, and for which we toil and sacrifice invaluable time, instead of devoting it to ourselves, to our families and friends?

We are about to venture unwittingly into a very different routine, unfamiliar, disconcerting; suddenly we will have much more time on our hands, and probably we will not know what to do with it, lest we “miss out” on something, lest we “waste” it. But then we shall gradually discover that, repressed by the brutal pressures of daily life, there are whole layers and capabilities in our brains that were never given the chance to manifest themselves. In an ironic twist of fate, the coronavirus is about to set these dormant capacities free, and offer them a unique opportunity to act up: the capacity for contemplation, for self-reflection, for meditation, and the ability to take delight in them; the capacity to ponder social interactions and appreciate our surrounding, particularly in observing human nature, so close to us and yet often so remote.

   Shame on us if we keep suppressing these dormant capabilities, shame on us if we relate to their surfacing as a “waste of time.” There are those who need to journey to remote Ashrams in India to “find themselves”, far from the madding crowd. Now we have a unique opportunity to go on with our lives, and at the same time open a window on our own inner worlds, only to discover hidden treasures of feelings and insights, that laid there all along hidden from sight by the daily, all devouring routine.

   This is not say that it will be not be difficult to deal with the formidable challenges posed by corona, more so at first, let alone if significant hardships arise: economic difficulties, shortages of supplies, uncertainty about disease-like symptoms that may appear,keeping children safely and productively occupied, and so on. All these and further difficulties that we cannot yet envision will surely demand from us a great deal of resourcefulness, creativity, and mental fortitude, and test the limits of our wherewithal.

   This crisis is very different from others that we have known in the past, such as the first Gulf War: at that time, we were in daily danger from the threat of missiles and even from a chemical attack for six long weeks, which entailed a total disruption of our daily lives, including rushing often to “safe rooms” and wearing gas masks. But back then it was just us in Israel, not the entire world, and nobody would suggest attaching any positive significance, any silver lining, to a remote war that unfortunately spilled-over to us. Then we simply had to hang-on, to survive, and pray that it would end quickly.

   This time 7.5 billion people in virtually every corner on Earth are sharing the same fears, the same disruption of daily life, the same existential questions. This might have been the case as well during the two World Wars of the 20th century, but then again, it is hard to ascribe anything positive to wars, certainly wars of such magnitude of destruction and horror.

   Now it is radically different – what looms upon us is not a massive loss of lives and of their material envelop, but a shake-up of the key components of the rat-race that has kept as going for too long: globalization, narrowly defined economic growth and urban crowding. Tough questions and deep doubts hoover about them, and the answers are not bound to come from our political leaders or from the Davos elite. New, fresh answers can spring only from us, provided that we wisely grasp this opportunity, and refrain from treating it as a passing disturbance. It is eminently clear now: the coronavirus is not a “flight by night” occurrence, the disruption of our lives is bound to continue for a long time – as the length of the disruption, so is the magnitude of the opportunity, so is the breadth of the new horizons that may open up to us.