By Dr. Alexander Görlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
In the end, it all happened quickly: In the space of a few days, life has shut down in a city that’s famous for never sleeping. A week ago, there was still dancing in the city’s clubs, dining in its gourmet restaurants and learning in its schools. Now all that has stopped. New York City’s most prestigious universities, Columbia and NYU, even sent their students home in the middle of the semester. The universities are closing their dormitories to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
From our apartment in Long Island City, we look out over Manhattan, separated from it only by the Queensboro Bridge. One subway stop, or ten minutes by bicycle. The subway station is as deserted as the bike lane this morning. The iconic spires of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building rise out of the sea of buildings. In front of them, on the banks of the East River, is the United Nations. They are deserted, like many of the city’s office towers. The acronym of the hour is “WFH”: work from home. Until recently, working from home was the domain of a contemporary digital bohème. Now it’s one of the primary weapons in the fight against a pandemic that is nowhere more easily spread than in a metropolis where millions live and strive right next to each other.
For New Yorkers, tuning out the crowd, combined with a dash of misanthropy, is normally something like their primary civic duty. But now that the other people are gone, an uneasy feeling is spreading. “Where is everybody?” By text message and video call, friends assure each other that they’re doing well. Meeting in person is increasingly avoided, however. New Yorkers have confronted states of emergency before and not only on 9/11, which many of them faced with stoic calm. The consequences of the current social isolation are therefore more likely to develop over the long term.
The current situation, with restricted personal freedom of movement, is something entirely new, and not only for New Yorkers. For me personally, there is currently no way to return to Europe. There’s no need to at the moment because until the end of April, all conferences are canceled, all presentations and the travel required for them postponed. All the normality that working life and its daily routines entail has come to an end for the time being. Working from home, no personal meetings, all habits interrupted: It’s never happened like this here before. It’s never happened like this anywhere in the world. Panic still hasn’t set in, and as long as the subway is running, there’s still one small scrap of normality. Experts are calling for those underground virus incubators on wheels to be shut down for the time being, however.
Numerous articles published in recent days expect the Corona crisis to be followed by a severe economic and financial crisis, and justifiably so. What these analyses have so far failed to consider, however, is the spiritual dimension of what’s now happening and the potential for crisis it holds. Spiritual, in this case, means more than working through things with a therapist (which New Yorkers are really not hesitant about anyway). Rather, in many places around the world, we are having the same existential experience of isolation, of social distancing, because of the virus. In a recent interview published in the newspaper Die Welt, former German foreign minister Joshka Fischer referred to it as an “experience of all humanity.” What unites us with each other in such different places as South Korea, Italy and Iran, the three countries besides China most severely affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, is the collapse of public space and with it the community – or rather, the communities – that populate it.
For me, what most starkly illustrates this are the pictures of the deserted St. Peter’s Square in Rome and the shuttered holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Places of communion, where we go to reassure ourselves that “we’re still all here,” are completely empty. Not a human soul in sight. Fear of the virus drives us into isolation and, perhaps with some few exceptions, neither are we used to this isolation, nor do we consider it worth striving for. When churches and clubs, museums and restaurants are closed, we no longer have places of communion, no moments of self-affirmation as reflected in the others around us. For several years, we’ve had a lot to say about identity, belonging, empathy. We negotiate who we are with ourselves and with those who are important to us as reflected in the common humanity that can only be experienced in community. All too often, we take this community for granted.
In this moment of crisis, there are shining examples of a sense of community, such as the offers to shop or go to the pharmacy for older people that can be found online. But other proposals for dealing with the crisis aim too low: finally reading that book you’ve always meant to read, or watching a series on Netflix. They aim too low because crises make us lethargic and deaf in both body and spirit. The opportunity presented by this crisis can therefore only be seized by someone who, in a moment of isolation and social distancing, reaches out to others and does not forget their needs.
The pandemic has the whole world in its grip. New York City is a microcosm of this world: There’s almost no language that isn’t spoken here, no religion that isn’t practiced. None of these differences matter in the end in the face of a virus that can claim any of us. The virus endangers every individual and thus the entire human community. We also need to worry about the entire community in this situation so that we as a human family can emerge strengthened from this grave crisis. So while we’re jailed within our four walls at home, I’m dreaming of going outside again, returning to the hustle and bustle of the city and diving into the crowd of people as one of many. One of those who relearns in these times of crisis that freedom is the greatest good, and that we only prove ourselves worthy of it by our human compassion.
Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York.