From Wuhan to Manhattan, a great sifting of what’s enduring

As China emerges from coronavirus lockdown, it can reveal if more lasting norms have been embraced.

China Daily via Reuters
Workers in Wuhan, China, resume work on a bridge March 24 following the coronavirus outbreak.

After staying at home for two months under strict lockdown, the people of Wuhan in China are now able to return to normal life. The coronavirus threat has eased. Yet for many, the crisis has forced them to discover new norms, ones more durable than making money or seeking amusement. According to the Chinese press, this message from one resident is typical: “We should cherish every day and everyone we love.”

Wuhan was the source of the global COVID-19 health emergency and now it has begun to reveal practical lessons. One is that people experiencing what is the largest mass hardship since World War II can reorient their lives to seek what is enduring and true, what ensures harmony over fear.

That search, of course, is a universal part of daily life but has been accelerated by a natural disaster on par with the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The unprecedented economic and cultural shocks are bringing a stronger appreciation and respect for what is often taken for granted: the courage of a delivery person, the diligence of a grocery store clerk, or the sacrifice of health workers and other first responders to the crisis.

Governors are determining which businesses are “essential” and can stay open. More people are concerned about those most vulnerable to the virus, such as people who are homeless, older, or in prison.

This desire to embrace the eternal also plays out in the politics of government decisions. In the $2 trillion package designed to minimize job losses and bankruptcies in the United States, Washington is struggling with deep ethical challenges. Who merits a bailout or merely a loan? Can the rescue money be used to press other goals, such as forcing companies to go green or narrowing the wealth gap? Is there really a choice between saving lives and reopening the economy?

In these warlike conditions, a great sifting of values is to be expected. It often leads to practices that are more sustainable, such as a greater love for family and friends or an awareness that a range of pastimes – leisure travel, sports, gambling – can be put off or eliminated. People feel a deeper yearning for priorities that endure.

Long after the end of the worst public health crisis in a generation, what might be the most memorable image of these days? It probably won’t be videos of people fighting to buy stashes of toilet paper. Instead, if the spirit in Wuhan is any guide, it will be pictures of people in Italy singing and playing music from their balconies, reminding themselves of what is true and lovely in their neighborly connections. Such are the reminders of the higher norms of life.

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