Dr. Lucy Jones is a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology, founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, and author of The Big Ones (Doubleday, 2018).
Dear Fellow Parishioners of St. James,
We are in unprecedented times. By any standard, the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the great disasters of American history. None of us know what will happen over the next year, but we know we will be changed by this pandemic. It is a time that we all will be tested, emotionally and morally, and as Christians, we will need to remember what matters in our faith to face the challenges ahead.
I want to share with you some of my thoughts from my experience studying disasters. The number of American deaths from Covid-19 has already exceeded the number lost in any physical disaster in American history. And unlike any earthquake or hurricane that strikes one region, Covid-19 is striking the whole world. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was called the first global disaster because its victims were citizens of 50 different nations who died in 13 separate countries. But the Covid-19 pandemic actually is a disaster in almost every country in the world at the same time. In our interconnected world, no corner will be left unchanged by what is happening now… and over the next year.
The impact of catastrophic disasters is seen in the decades or longer that are required to rebuild a broken economy. San Francisco was the premier financial center of the West Coast before the 1906 earthquake reduced it to rubble. One could argue that it never regained its status as the only city that mattered. The economic damage from business interruption in the Covid-10 pandemic is likely to exceed the cost of any possible natural disaster.
Past natural disasters show us what will matter most as the world passes through this crucible.
We go through two phases in a disaster. We begin with response when we have to come together to save lives. It is a time of great altruism and community spirit. In big earthquakes, you are most likely to be rescued from a downed building by your neighbors, as we all reach out to our community to help those in need. We also rally to our country and tend to praise our elected officials.
After response comes recovery when we try to recreate the jobs, systems, and way of life we lost in the disaster. Recovery takes much longer and, unlike response, does not supply continuous adrenaline to carry us through. This is also when the less charitable human emotions kick in. We start to realize how much we have lost and worry about protecting and providing for our families. We have lost our traditional comforts, and anxieties rise.
Fear and anxiety are difficult emotions to live with, and we often turn to anger as a more manageable emotion. Thus, one of the most prevalent responses to disasters is blame. This may seem odd, but the need to blame is wired into our DNA by evolution. Our intelligence developed as we competed against predators with stronger muscles and bigger teeth. When we made the connection between waves in the grass and a predator hidden within it, or between severe gastrointestinal distress and the mushroom we just ate, we were more likely to survive and pass on our genes. Our first response to danger is to find the pattern that provides us a path to safety.
Finding a pattern that blames the victim – that says they brought it on themselves – gives us the greatest illusion of safety. We can believe that we will avoid their fate by not making the same mistake. Blaming the government is not as reassuring in that we are still subject to the disaster, but it gives us the option of voting them out for better protection the next time. Numerous governments have fallen for handling a disaster poorly from Somoza after the Nicaraguan earthquake to the Gang of Four in China after the Tangshan earthquake. This is the one time that everyone, of whatever ideology, actually wants their government to function well.
For the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still in the response phase, witnessing the selflessness of many: from our medical personnel to grocery and delivery workers to the cooperation of those of us who serve by doing nothing and staying home. The transition to recovery is going to be a long process, as we struggle to return to social engagement with a population still mostly susceptible to this virus. This will be the time when the human urge to be angry at the mistakes that have been made, to blame others for the harm they have done, to see others as a threat, will be an always present temptation.
The biggest disasters – the Big Ones – make it impossible to return to what had been normal before it struck. So much is lost that society itself is changed. And just like pipes break in earthquakes where they are already weak and the neglected levees are the ones that are breached in the flood, human systems fail where they are already weak. Income inequality and unequal access to health care and housing were already weaknesses in American society and these are where our failures are already starting to manifest.
Our society will be different when the pandemic has run its course. But the path we take out of the damage is not predetermined. When the Great Depression stressed countries around the world, the United States turned to the New Deal while Germany and Italy turned to fascism. In the next year, if enough of us follow our basic human nature to focus on anger and blame, we will face even more social unrest, damaged democracies, and even more damage to our communities.
We have the opportunity to make other choices. Being aware of the instinctual drive to find a pattern that focuses on who is at fault can help us not get trapped in that space. We can manage our emotions and strive for a more evidence-based approach to making decisions in the months to come. We can choose solutions over recriminations. We need to address head-on the existing cracks in the levees protecting society.
We can also recognize that our imperiled communities are also our greatest source of strength. A community that is well enough connected that we can rely on our friends and neighbors is a community that can protect itself and move forward. Together, we will be able create a new society that we want to live in.