Don’t Let Coronavirus Carry Off Our Culture, Too

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Many weekend afternoons, and some weekday evenings, every year from April through October, a group of people, young and old, male and female, black and white, advanced and beginner, meet to play tennis, shoot the breeze, trash talk, and sometimes share food and drink at our local park.

Our family of five has joined this group for the last twelve years, as a result of which my children have become avid tennis players and we have all become part of a community strong enough to fill a third of the church at the funeral of one of the group’s founders a few months ago.

It’s fun — we have self-appointed promoters, coaches, and rivals; and it’s deep — we care about each other and respond to need with both practical and emotional support.  

The tennis courts are locked right now.

The sport of tennis will surely continue. If the U.S. Open doesn’t take place in September, I’m sure Wimbledon next year will. I’m sure the United States Tennis Association will resume league play, and the protective tape will eventually be taken off the tennis ball aisle in Walmart.

It also seems likely our local tennis courts will re-open – perhaps this summer. But I’m not sure the Blunt Park ‘Netset” will ever be the same, and here’s why.

In our global response to the coronavirus pandemic, the primary concern among individuals, media outlets, and governments has been to protect the physical health of people. While coronavirus victims are small as a percentage of the total population, this is obviously a legitimate concern, because the number of people sickened, and, to a lesser extent, killed by the disease, has been large and may continue to grow.

In our national dialogue, and in other nations around the world, this concern has been balanced with a fear that the response will have a devastating impact on our economy.  A much larger group of people — albeit less dramatically, perhaps — may suffer as a result of the unemployment, reduction in demand, increase in national debt, and general economic havoc which may result from our lockdowns.

Also, while generally absent from our mainstream national conversation, certain groups are concerned about the long-term impacts that the suspension of our civil liberties may have on our rights and freedoms.  It is true that both explicit guarantees, such as freedom of assembly and religion, and implicit rights, such as privacy and movement, have been violated by the lockdowns, and none of us know when and if they will be fully restored.  

Notably absent from the conversation, as far as I have seen, is any concern about the cultural impacts of the pandemic and our responses — changes which may affect all of us, forever. Perhaps “changes” is the wrong word;  as a friend of my brother’s remarked when discussing the advisory to stay home and operate remotely: “We’re already pretty good at that.”

And yes, we are pretty good at entertaining ourselves passively with screens inside our homes. We are pretty good at forming virtual communities with people all over the globe, whether through Fortnite, biotech symposiums, or political chat-rooms. We are pretty good at providing for our basic material needs, and indulging our desires, with the click of a button, never having to engage with the growers, distributors, and manufacturers, or even exchange a smile with the retailer.

We are only just learning to wear masks, but since we hide behind our cell phones in public places anyway, the transition should be easy. We are pretty good at limiting contact with our elderly, either by placing them in homes or just by living far away from them as they while away their day in front of a TV set.

We are not, on the other hand very good at going to our local park and playing tennis with whoever happens to show up — which is why our community at the park is such a rarity in our world today, and why its continued existence is so precarious. We are not very good at getting to know our neighbors, much less buying the tomatoes they grow or bartering for the sweaters they knit. We are not very good at entertaining ourselves by watching the people stroll by on Main Street, or watching the pigeons fly around at a nearby lake. We are not very good at getting our hands dirty from finding a worm for fishing or sweaty when we shake hands with a stranger.

In other words, we are very good at social distancing, at staying home, at sanitizing, at isolating the old and sick. My greatest fear is that the coronavirus will make us even better. 

Ultimately, someday, the economy will reopen and people will start frequenting “nonessential” businesses again and public events. It’s not that I fear we will never leave our homes (though I do fear that we will continue to regard staying home as both safe and virtuous).

But I fear that when we do, our suspicion of each other as “asymptomatic carriers” and of any informal environment as a non-sterile vector for disease will make us less likely to allow for personal, intimate contact in business, leisure, or worship. I fear that we will frequent even more the chain stores that can afford to fully sanitize and sterilize. I fear that we will be reluctant to attend informal gatherings where we come into contact with people whose temperatures have not been taken and whose previous whereabouts are unknown. I fear we will simply be afraid of the outdoors, like many people I know who believe the virus is just in the air, guided by government exhortations to “stay inside” without any caveat about the harmlessness of fresh air.  I fear that we will be afraid to eat food from plants or animals that human hands have cared for from the seed to our plates.

When I first heard about the enormous drop in international travel and the potential disruptions in global trade, I thought “Great, perhaps we will get to know our own communities and local ecosystems better.” Travelling less, from a variety of perspectives, may be a good thing.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong with spending more time with our immediate families, or even just quiet time by ourselves.  I don’t think any of us will suffer too terribly from making fewer “nonessential” purchases, either.  And theoretically, we have nothing to lose by temporarily pausing from our ordinary activities in order to save lives.

But we must beware not to internalize some of the cultural shifts we are being called upon or required to make.  We must use this situation as an opportunity to take stock of how few “Netsets” we have left, how little we incorporate our elders into our daily lives, how scant is our personal knowledge of the plants and animals that surround us, how seldom we frequent the small businesses in our town, how few of our neighbors we have talked to lately — or even better, hugged.

We are already losing all of this; we must not allow coronavirus to finish it off.


Daniel Staub lives in Springfield, Massachusetts.