From most vantage points, the coronavirus spread gradually as a looming, far-removed threat.
For many, it wasn’t until it entered the borders of their countries, infected people in their neighbourhoods, or was right at their feet, that they really took notice. For me, it was when my university decided to close for the rest of the school year. I was in a deli I regularly went to when the student newspaper broke the news after obtaining a leaked administrative email. A few days later, I was back at the same deli squeezing hand sanitiser from the mustard bottles they put out for customers into an empty shampoo bottle to carry on my flight home as all the stores were sold out of disinfectants. A week later, the deli closed its doors under lockdown ordinances.
Now, looking back on how quickly those moments unfolded, I recognise that they were telltale signs of how the pandemic would play out and how I missed their forewarnings in the whiplash of the realisation. COVID-19 has brought out the best and worst of society; it has generated extraordinary altruism and sympathy but also induced great panic, fear and anger.
The paradoxical yet simultaneous presence of greed and altruism seems to have stemmed from the impulse of self-preservation. The primal survival instinct that was once dormant in our modern, civilised world has been revived and amplified. Yet, with a threat in the nature of a virus, individual well-being depends on communal well-being. The behaviour of self-preservation can and has blossomed into societal-preservation in the form of altruism and generosity. If done right, this great interconnectedness can be used to generate collective strength and to overcome the pandemic together; however, it requires that the behaviour of self-preservation be done the right way—as societal preservation.
In this visual essay, I examine the pandemic's impact on human behaviour—the good and the bad—and explore the unique opportunity we have been given to rebuild a better world.
As the virus took hold and lockdown rules were laid out, anxious consumers raced to stockpile and hoard food, sanitary products and other essential supplies. Consequently, supermarket shelves were cleaned out and desperate customers got into altercations over the last bottle of sanitiser or the last roll of toilet paper, illustrating a level of fear and greed that are reminiscent of a dystopian novel.
Numerous individuals exploited consumer anxiety and the soaring demands for sanitary equipment by hoarding and then up-selling essential supplies such as face coverings, hand sanitisers, toilet paper and even diapers. As a result, desperate customers were forced to pay ridiculous amounts for basic necessities. A roll of toilet paper was being sold online for the same price as a whole package and hand sanitisers were selling on Amazon for as much as 40 USD per bottle.
Even though corporations have started to regulate price gouging, the online marketplace continues to explode under people’s needs and anxious urges to protect themselves.
The pandemic has also highlighted and augmented the disparities that have always existed in society.
At the beginning of May, grocery delivery workers from companies like InstaCart, Amazon and Whole Foods organised a strike for basic coronavirus protections after working long, high-demand hours without adequate protective equipment, cleaning supplies, or hazard pay compensation. Society has come to depend on these workers for food, childcare, transportation, and other essential services. But the structure of the gig-economy, matched with increasing corporate deregulation, deprives them of basic worker protections and their share in the social safety net.
An image that comes to mind is that of the magician David Blaine who suspended himself above London’s streets in a glass box for 44 days. Even with a threat as indiscriminate as a virus, some parts of society can isolate themselves in a metaphorical box safe from any contact with the virus, often at the expense of those who can’t.
Cracks in the capitalist structure have appeared under the weight of the coronavirus. Corporate concentration and the low-cost/high-yield model of our global economy has major inefficiencies that make it unable to adapt to unforeseen challenges like the coronavirus. In the agribusiness sector, for example, with the market’s sudden transfer from commercial production to small-scale, individual consumers, massive monoculture farms had to modulate their supply by euthanising their animals, letting produce rot in fields, and pouring excess dairy down the drain. Meanwhile, the very workers that would be tending those wasted crops were laid off, many unable to provide food for their families.
Similarly, those consumers who panic-bought and hoarded unnecessary amounts of food ended up wasting most of it as they had no way to finish everything they bought, while the poor and homeless were left starving. Not only has the coronavirus brought the marginalised who are regularly tripped by the cracks of capitalism to the forefront, it has also widened the cracks and caused them to fall through.
Black and Latino people are the hardest hit by the coronavirus in the US. A New York Times report released in early July revealed that out of every 10,000 cases, 62 were Black and 73 were Latino, while only 23 were White. This is because economic inequality, which falls along racial lines more often than not in the US, places Black and Latino communities in conditions which are less sanitary and harder to social distance in, such as public transportation, congested apartments, and jobs on the frontlines of the pandemic. What’s more, Black communities in the US have seen the highest death tolls from the coronavirus as a consequence of historic discrimination which has led to substandard healthcare and greater rates of chronic illnesses and co-morbidities like diabetes.
The pandemic has also stirred racism towards Chinese people, as well as other Asian ethnic groups, who are now being ostracised from society. Even when there were only a few cases reported, Chinatowns across the US became deserted and businesses were forced to close as visitors avoided it amidst the racist assumptions and rumours spreading against Chinese people. The same phenomenon has been observed in Chinatowns across the world including Canada and Australia.
Asian Americans have been attacked both verbally and physically. They have been spat on, ridiculed, bullied at school, assaulted, kicked and punched in public, and have been told that they were responsible for bringing the virus into the country. Many have also reported discriminatory treatment and noticed more people watching them with disapproving looks. The head doctor of the emergency department at a New York City hospital told The New York Times that some of his patients would cover their mouths and noses when around him as if he were contagious by virtue of his race.
World leaders too have encouraged and fanned the flames of racism and made baseless accusations against Chinese people—like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who claimed the virus was a conspiracy by the Chinese government and US President Donald Trump who called COVID-19 the “Kung flu” and now insists on labelling it the “Chinese virus”.
Despite these leaders' best efforts to scapegoat China or promote a sense of nationalist exceptionalism, no country is immune to a global pandemic. The pandemic’s consequences have given tangible evidence to the ideological threat of global populism. Countries such as the US, Brazil, UK, and Russia are facing the world’s highest rates of infection as a result of their leaders’ negligence and denialism.
The US is a prime example. Although arguably one of the countries best equipped to manage the coronavirus, it has failed to do so and this failure has made it the global leader in virus-related deaths. In March, when US hospitals were desperately trying to manage casualties while being under-resourced, the federal government was misallocating respirators. During that time, President Trump also falsely advertised the malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus, which resulted in an Arizona man lethally overdosing on it and his wife being hospitalised. This was despite Trump’s access to world-class medical professionals and their advice to the contrary.
Under such unprecedented circumstances, which few countries were adequately prepared for, it is safe to say that there has been a dire lack of big, necessary acts of government intervention to deal with the ramifications of COVID-19. Many complicated economic models and public health predictions have been released but, even at a very basic level, people have been feeling the pain of a crumbling economy and quasi-apocalyptic society.
However, the lack of support from leaders has been met by an explosion of small yet generous acts of kindness. It is as if the tables have turned and the scales tipped; tired of the inaction, communities have stepped up to fill the gaps in the system, supporting one another through small, grassroots acts of care.
Individuals have teamed up with charities to produce and donate masks, hand sanitisers, food, and other essential supplies to support healthcare workers and families in need. In the height of New York City’s infectious surge, people gathered on balconies and rooftops every evening to clap for healthcare workers. When high school proms and graduations were cancelled, teachers and celebrities organised Zoom celebrations. Companies have donated a portion of proceeds to relief efforts, and individuals have single-handedly saved small businesses. There have been efforts of communal support for almost every need imaginable during this pandemic.
Within my own circle, my college created a Mutual Aid network on Facebook to mitigate the shortage, along with food, moving assistance, and donations to those unable to meet their month’s rent or cover transportation costs home from school. When my deli and other local small businesses were hit by the economic strain of COVID-19, the community organised consumer support to keep them afloat. This was all done while social distancing or through virtual means, such as online textbook orders to support the local bookstore after students left campus.
Ironically, this global pandemic has fostered a culture of localism, whether it is by connecting with our neighbours more or through simply appreciating our surroundings. While we are stuck at home, many of us with more time on our hands, there is a heightened awareness of sense of place and a new appreciation for nature. With planes grounded and car emissions down, smog has cleared from city skylines and satellites are reporting decreased levels of greenhouse gases. With the rumble of life brought to a quiet lull, seismologists from the US, New Zealand, and France are detecting seismic activity they couldn’t hear before. So, while being quarantined feels uneventful, the impacts have radiated down through the earth’s crust and up into the atmosphere.
In hindsight, I have come to understand the pandemic as a source of amplification. Quite literally, the virus spread on an exponential scale, a pace at which patient zero, in whatever frame of reference, can suddenly become an entire population. Metaphorically, the pandemic has intensified both charity and greed and at the same time, it has served as a magnifying glass into society by exposing evidence of who the economy lets into its Blaine boxes and who it keeps out, and provided a clarified understanding of our individual roles in our global, interconnected society.