Reading the New York Times these days can be a rather jarring emotional experience. It is replete with stories of people and families devastated by the COVID crisis. Excruciatingly detailed and poignant accounts of people dying in their homes or hospitals, isolated from surroundings and those who have been significant to them. Married couples dying within hours of each other leaving shattered families behind, all deprived of the end of life processes that would normally help with the grieving process and achievement of some emotional closure. Hospital workers struggling to provide some modicum of solace and dignity before having to move along to the next patient.

Turn the page, and you read accounts of protests by those decrying the restrictions that have been imposed by their governments, claiming their rights to choose to assemble and assume personal risk.

Protesters at Queen’s Parki on Saturday, April 25 demand an end to public health rules put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

These stories are not limited to New York or even the United States. They come from Italy, Britain, Mexico, South America, the Far East. It seems no place is spared, although the impact and time course varies considerably.

In our own characteristically muted fashion, the same dramas are playing out in Canada. Political leaders, hearing loud and clear from all constituencies and all perspectives, struggle to strike a balanced and responsible approach.

All this serves to highlight two great realities of this pandemic. Firstly, it is affecting virtually every human being on the planet. The sheer scope is mind boggling and it’s difficult to think of any prior catastrophe that even comes close. The second reality is that its very nature is such that it renders each of us both a target and a mechanism for spread. We are simultaneously potential victims and potential perpetrators. We are all therefore forced to make choices, and those choices are expressed not through words so much as through our actions.

For the vast majority, the choice is clear. Simply remaining secluded and abiding by social isolation directions from authorities is not only in their personal best interest, but also their means of contributing to the public good. It can be inconvenient, unsettling and, depending on personal and family circumstances, very demanding. It also requires a degree of trust and faith that decisions are being made with best information and with the best of intentions. It requires political leadership that evokes that trust. But most importantly, it requires a willingness to endure some degree of personal hardship for a perceived greater good.

For those who provide essential services, the choice is very different. For those people, the greater good is to continue their duties while exercising appropriate precautions. The willingness of health workers and the many essential service providers who allow our society to continue to function in these very challenging times is a testimony not only to their dedication and courage, but to their belief that they have a role in contributing to the welfare of others. They are nothing short of heroic. 

All of us are affected. All of us are making sacrifices that require us to balance our personal interests with our obligations to those around us. Our fundamental values, both individually and collectively, are being exposed. The ideological and moral differences between individuals, communities and even countries are being laid bare in the face of this crisis. The early results are largely positive and even inspiring. But the real test is yet to come. As the acute crisis abates to some extent, and it becomes clear that a complete return to “normal” is a long way off, how will we engage this “new normal”? Our leaders and governments are making decisions that require them to determine the very nature of what constitutes “common good”.  What seems clear is that what will determine success is not our ability to protect our personal interests, but the extent to which we are willing to sacrifice those personal interests for that common good.