Coronavirus. That’s all that is in the news (and on everyone’s minds) these days. It is no longer just a “Chinese virus” or an Italian issue or a problem for the poor countries, those with fragile health systems. Unlike humans, coronavirus, aka COVID-19, is unbiased. It’s an equal-opportunity giver that has traveled more distance and spread faster than any of our wildest imaginations could have fathomed. And while COVID-19 continues to travel far and wide with no end in sight, it has produced the reverse effect on humankind. As city after city heads into lock-down and country after country closes their borders, we are eminently changing the very notion of what travel and freedom mean to humans all over the world.
Over the past week, I have been sitting here at my desk in Ghana, pondering about how quickly things have changed since I boarded my one-way flight here just 41 days ago. You see, I left my stable job at Google; sold all my belongings in New York City to pursue my passion for volunteering and traveling around the globe to empower women and, more importantly, to tell stories of humanity. “I’ll be free to give back and roam the world, traveling to wherever my heart desires!” I thought. The irony? The world is pretty much on lockdown now and I can no longer travel freely as I had once imagined and hoped for.
“That really sucks for you,” friends would say to me, knowing that this has been a trip-in-the-planning for over 7 years. “Maybe things will clear up in a few weeks and you’ll be back on your way!”
I don’t believe things will clear up in just a few weeks, but that’s ok with me. Sometimes, one can only laugh at how absurdly the world works. What saddens me is not that my travel plans are in flux at the moment, but rather, at how the world is responding to this pandemic, particularly, my home country: the US.
As I watch the beginnings of the US, the land of prosperity and wealth, start to get pummeled by COVID-19, I am saddened and frustrated all at the same time. On one end of the spectrum, I am perplexed at the ignorance of some who continue to act as if this is not coming. People who continue to go out to bars and restaurants, and are “not going to let it stop [them] from partying” because “[they’ve] been waiting for Miami spring break for a while” (reference: Washington Post article). These very individuals are more inclined to satiate their own short-term satisfaction versus understanding the long-term consequences of their actions, not just on themselves, but on their family, their community, and the broader world. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who believe that the apocalypse is coming and are selfishly hoarding food, supplies, and displaying acts of violence towards others during a time when working together would actually produce the most optimal outcomes.
Unfortunately, neither being nonchalant nor panic-stricken will help us in these times. Ever heard of the prisoner’s dilemma? Prisoner’s Dilemma “is a paradox in decision analysis in which two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce the optimal outcome. The typical prisoner’s dilemma is set up in such a way that both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant. As a result, both participants find themselves in a worse state than if they had cooperated with each other in the decision-making process.”
And that’s what people are doing: worsening the outcome for all. While I recognize that people are in fear of the unknown, struggling with feeling that their freedoms are being taken away, and grasping for certainty, I assure you that there is only one true freedom that we all have: the freedom in how we respond to things. And there is only one certainty in life: the certainty that we will all die one day.
Though you might find these truths to be grim, you can also choose to feel empowered by them. You have the freedom, the power to choose how you will respond in these uncertain times. More than ever, we need to come together and unite as humanity. To be selfless rather than selfish. To be compassionate and kind rather than violent and blame others. To share rather than hoard.
What gives me hope are all the stories of the heros and heroines: those who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to save lives; those who are lining up early at grocery stores to purchase supplies, not for themselves, but to donate to those in need; those who are sharing, supporting, and uniting as a single human spirit so that we can fight this virus together.
My plea to each and every one of you. Take ownership of the only freedom you truly have: the freedom to choose how you will respond in a time of crisis. Choose the freedom to be kind, compassionate and empathetic. Choose the freedom to do things for others. Choose the freedom to unite as humanity.
Perhaps, this is what we needed in the world, a reminder of how interconnected we truly are. Perhaps this is a lesson for humanity to be more humane and kind. Perhaps this will give everyone the pause needed to recognize what’s important, whether it’s being present while playing with your kids, learning a new language or reading that book you just didn’t have time for. Though I don’t know when the end will arrive, I 100% believe that we will all get through this stronger on the other side of things.
As Charlie Chaplin said in his movie, The Final Speech from The Great Dictator:
I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….
And to answer the question I have gotten quite a few times: “Are you coming home soon?” My answer is: No. I will do my part in keeping myself, my family, my community and the broader world as safe as possible, by staying put for as long as I need to. I’m lucky that I’m here in Ghana volunteering for a wonderful NGO (Breast Care International) with the kindest team that has taken me under their wing. I have a nice little cottage (for Ghana standards) and I get fed sufficiently. Though Ghana has not enforced a lockdown (yet), I’ve already started thinking about how I can use that time. My plan is to do all the things I’ve always dreamed of, but didn’t because “I don’t have time for that”. On my list: learn Spanish, learn more about finances and investing, sketch and draw everything I see, read my hoard of books on my Kindle, and most importantly, pick up the phone to connect with my friends and family. And perhaps when I really need some nature, I’ll take a virtual tour of a national park!
Best of health and hope that you and your loved ones are able to stay safe. Giving all of you a sanitized hug and kiss from Kumasi, Ghana.