People at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., form a queue to enter a tent erected to test for coronavirus March 19, 2020. CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters

Charles Lewis: COVID-19 crisis a chance to re-examine our lives

  • March 21, 2020

Every crisis can teach us something about ourselves. Each is a chance to revise the way we live and the way we think about what is important and which people in society deserve our respect and admiration.

It should be a time to think about why we do what we do and to own up to mistakes we have made.

We did not create the current COVID-19 crisis. But we have over time weakened our position to deal with it. 

I am not talking about a lack of proper medical equipment and hospital beds. That will have to be addressed. But, rather, the way we conduct our lives. 

Much of how we feel now, in the midst of the crisis, is in part a result of our own behaviour and attitude during the good times. 

Catholics are being denied the Eucharist in many places. But I wonder how many of us think of those Catholics around the world for whom the Eucharist comes rarely because of a shortage of priests. This is a time to be in communion with them.

We need to examine many things: from how we spend our money, to our tendency to go into debt for stuff we do not really need, to our belief that we deserve only the best. 

It is probably time that we start to appreciate the people who do the work many of us look down on. Look at the people we rely on — from the guy who stocks grocery shelves to the woman at the checkout counter to the sanitation workers who haul away our trash. They are doing the really important work. Imagine for a moment if those people were idle. 

In good times we look past them if we look at them at all. We tell our children to study hard so as not to end up in their jobs. 

We may, if we are lucky, end our dangerous obsession with celebrity. I was not surprised to see in a New York Times story about how A-list celebrities are getting tested while ordinary people have to be patient. It was galling to read but hardly surprising. 

Many of us in our own way have tried emulating that lifestyle and in the process have driven ourselves into debt — debt that is now an albatross, a form of misery. 

If you are worried about your job and carrying a ton of debt the anxiety must be awful. But no one said you needed to dine out at only the best restaurants or that you deserve the spiffiest car or to live in the best neighbourhood. Think of how you would feel now if that debt were gone. Think about why you spent so much to begin with. 

Start to think as if we are not the people you watch on the playing field and on the big screen. They have nothing to do with the real life of our families, friends and neighbours. They are only a fantasy.

We have passed this sense of unreal expectations on to our children. Families will stretch themselves to the breaking point to ensure their children go to the finest schools — not necessarily for the best education but to make valuable contacts later in life. It is as if we are trying to ensure those contacts do not mean carpenters, cab drivers and waiters.

Many public servants have been sent home with full pay and told not to bother working. Why are they so pampered when so many others are being sent home without pay? When did civil servants become the elite? Why is that a man or woman who has a desk and works in an office all their lives is often are considered better than people who work with their hands? 

At the very least these civil servants should be on reduced pay. Why are they immune from suffering with the rest of the country they supposedly serve? If there is no essential work for many of them now, we have to ask: What exact function do they carry out normally?

Then there is need to take back personal responsibility and stop depending so completely on experts. I hate to think of those who are seeing their retirement plans erode as the markets spiral. But some of this is a result of not looking after ourselves, thinking there is always an expert that is working for us 24/7. Even stockbrokers take a break.

We have accepted relying on China, a brutal dictatorship, without thinking what we are supporting. We are addicted to cheap Chinese goods. We forget that in buying their exports we are denying many of our countrymen the chance to earn a decent wage because their goods seem too expensive buy comparison with overseas products.

In a post-virus world it will be time to realize that trading human rights for cheap watches and t-shirts is a bad bargain.

These are lessons that must be learned. The best thing that could happen would be to emerge from all this as better citizens and better people. 

We may finally realize that we need far less than what we have now have and end up happier and at peace.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

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