Shifting Priorities in the Time of Corona

Published: April 3, 2020

When the first coronavirus case hit New York, I was already in my own quasi-quarantine, recovering from surgery as a result of a chance infection. Soon after, everyone in the city joined me in isolation. And the strange effects of illness and seclusion that accompanied my private panic were mirrored by the global pandemic.

With Hashem’s help, I am recovering and, as my doctor predicts, be”H, I will be “back to normal” in time. But that is a relative term, because the repercussions of any serious sickness are not just phys- ical, even after one heals. Priorities shift, attitudes change, and the world is viewed through a new and altered prism.

It is a prism of many different facets — appreciation, newfound sympathies, dusting off resolutions and reshaping them, and discarding old paradigms. In my case, in which an infection predated the surgery by several months, the ordeal was long and drawn out and culminated in a crisis that climaxed with a sense of urgency.

Essentially, that meant that I hibernated through much of the fall and winter, only to emerge in the spring to discover the rest of the country in lockdown along with me. And I find everyone else on a similar trajectory, discovering many of the lessons I internalized over the past few months. Primary among them is the realization that all else recedes in the face of threatened survival.

Though the circumstances of my private distress differ from the public one we are currently experiencing, there is a common awareness of our limitations. And we are all cog- nizant, whether willingly or not, of how those limitations trickle down into every aspect of our lives. Especially when the lesson is rammed home in such an abrupt and sweeping manner.

In the time of corona, I am saying nothing new by stating the obvious — that ultimately, nothing is in our control except for our self-control. And the takeaways that are being ban-died about — from Hashem’s wrath on His creations to the evils of consumerism and technology to the pangs of Moshiach — may all have merit. Self-preservation begets self-introspection. And in a time of illness, we all have our private ills to scrutinize and our private aspirations to consider.

But what became so clear to me through my own experience is now clear to everyone — preoccupation with our own existence shunts everything to the side. Not only because it becomes all-en- compassing in our minds, but because it hijacks the very environment that we find ourselves in. The coronavirus pan- demic has come to govern every aspect of our lives, including our finances, jobs, schools, shopping, leisure time, and on and on. It has eclipsed every topic of conversation and dominated every news cycle to the near exclusion of everything else.

So much so that it seems almost tone deaf to speak or write about anything non-corona related. First, because it seems insensitive to society’s present plight and second, because no one is interested. Does anyone even remember President Trump’s impeachment over sup- posed Ukraine involvement? What about the Trump Peace Plan? Even Bernie Sanders has largely faded from the scene, and Joe Biden’s success in the recent primaries is garnering the unenthusiastic response that it rightfully deserves.

Probably due to the single-minded focus on survival, to the exclusion of all else, the crime rate fell in New York City during the corresponding initial spike in coronavirus, according to the New York Police Department. In Israel, there is relative calm at its borders as everyone clamors to control the disease. And apart from anti-Semitic conspiracy theories suggesting Jews are to blame for the plague, there seems to be a hiatus of violent anti-Semitic acts. With people seemingly bent on protecting themselves rather than harm- ing others, social distancing may have its advantages.

But has the world really become a better place? Perhaps only to those who have donned rose-colored glass- es with their face masks. Most likely we have hit the pause button on the social and moral decay that was festering before the virus struck. Barely beneath the surface, it’s been politics as usual both in America and Israel.

President Trump’s urgently needed stimulus bill passed last week, but not without political joust- ing by House Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer, who shamelessly tried tacking on pet progressive policies to the bill, such as environmental regulations, diversity initiatives, payoff of student debts, and immigration and voter registration reforms. In an unabashed burst of cyn- icism, House Majority Whip James Clyburn was heard advising Democrats to view the crisis as a “tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”

Against the backdrop of a pandemic on the other side of the ocean, political gridlock in Israel was finally brought to a halt with a unity government in the works to avoid a fourth election. But political gain and personal animosity against Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been urgently sounding the alarm about the coronavirus threat, continues to drive the agenda of too many political parties locked in power struggles of their own making.

While the spotlight is mostly off these shenanigans because of the coronavirus crisis, there will come a time that the current cataclysm cools down and our survival mode will broaden.

Politics and other pursuits that have taken a back seat will reset.

And with a bit of luck and reminding, citizens will remember those who put their own ambitions ahead of the well-being of others.

Hopefully, people will also remember the lessons that this pandemic has taught us — from the importance of camaraderie to the spiritual liberation of physical restric- tions to the power of prayer.

With everyone intent on survival, my own journey from personal to public plight has taught me that these are the lessons worth surviving for.