Last Sunday afternoon I came across a yellow-white dog lying hidden in a patch of tall grass. Someone’s hunting dog that had gotten lost and never found in all likelihood. It was emaciated and clearly very sick. Probably I should have just left him there to die. It would have been the wise thing to do, in retrospect, but also something that I don’t know if I am capable of doing, wise or not. So I brought him home, locked him in the bathroom in my carport, and tried to help him. He was so weak he couldn’t walk or even hold his head up for very long. He had beautiful brown eyes. When I tried to open his mouth to get some electrolytes down his throat I saw that his gums were ivory-white. Not good. I made a boot-bath of chlorinated water outside the door so I would not be tracking pathogens out of the room. I gave the dog a shot of penicillin hoping that it might help him, although it was pretty clear he was a goner. In the process of re-sheathing the needle, I grazed my finger. A tiny graze, I wasn’t sure if I had even pierced my skin. I was horrified at my carelessness. I went into the house and scrubbed my hands with soap and scalding water. Should I go to the emergency room? It seemed like an over-reaction since I wasn’t sure I had even infected myself. That night it rained like the devil, 4.5 inches. The dog died in the night. It was some consolation that at least he was somewhere warm and dry in his last hours, although perhaps he was too far gone for it to have mattered much. The next day the pinprick on my finger was red and swollen. I had infected myself with something. Over the next day I felt it traveling up my arm, making my muscles ache. It was a startling sensation to feel oneself being infected, and especially so given the general anxiety about infection in these recent days. I was lucky that I could get a prescription for a broad-spectrum antibiotic via telemedicine that stopped the infection.
We are all being faced by infection – as a global human population. It is spreading through the population and the only way to stop it is quarantine, isolation, testing, contact tracing. Protecting ourselves and our vulnerable loved ones means that we must strip down our economy to the basics: shelter, food, basic sanitation, healthcare, as well as communication and coordination. We must go back to basics, and yet at the same time evolve our capability to work together without physical proximity and the risk of contagion. It is a very confusing time. It is a time of endless questions. It is so much easier to work together if we can be together. Is it enough to just be waiting it out? Is there something else I can be doing to help out others? Or does that urge to do something only increase the risk of community spread? Being alone with ourselves is hard. Having to change our routines is hard. Trying to figure out what is going on is hard. But if it keeps one person from dying of coronavirus it’s all worth it. Yes, it’s true that we all have to die one way or another. Nothing can stop that. But no one should have to die of pneumonia, gasping for breath, simply because we couldn’t, as a society, just settle down for a spell. No one should die because we had to save The Economy. What is The Economy compared to the littlest finger of my 84-year old mother? An abstraction, a speculation, a number. There she is, real, vibrant, loving – the one who taught me to love all living beings generously. From what I am coming to understand just a moderate case of COVID-19 would put my mother and father in mortal danger.
This a strange moment for all of us, a moment when a tiny being – this novel coronavirus – has exploited a pandemic-prone global civilization, and is wreaking changes that were unimaginable to mainstream reality just a few weeks ago. A global pandemic was a matter of when, not if, and we are strangely fortunate that COVID-19 is not more deadly. (Although perhaps that fact makes it hard for some to take it sufficiently seriously.) Now we must incorporate this new being into our lives with all the intelligence and thoughtfulness that we can muster. This little being has changed us all for good, and perhaps, just perhaps, in the long run, for the better. Tragedies are happening. People are under tremendous stress. Social breakdown is entirely possible. But also possible is a new and necessary humility and humanity. We all can help to make this possibility a reality by reaching for kindness, generosity and empathy in our dealings with each other. This experience we are having together can call us all back down to earth, back down to our bodies, which are of a shared earth, air, fire, and water: a shared earthly body that is both exquisitely mortal and composed of the unchanging elements – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, iron, calcium, gold – of the universe itself.