SINCE the quarantine began in late March this year, I have tried to keep a safe distance from other people, as well as from the news.
The first one is easier mainly because I have the great privilege of being able to work from home. On the rare times when an errand is essential (a visit to the supermarket, a doctor’s clinic or a pharmacy), it is easy to stand 6 feet away from others. If anyone gets too close at a cashier’s line or tries to reach over for an item on a grocery shelf, I ask them (politely, but in the frostiest tone I can manage, which I’ve been told is arctic) to please step back.
The second distance is harder to maintain.
Last week, two stories arrived that I couldn’t ignore. The first one involved Bill Gates, who told The Economist’s editor Zanny Minton Beddoes that he believed there would be enough doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to stop this disease from spreading exponentially worldwide.
The second story was much smaller, in a sense, but had the larger effect. After fighting Covid-19 for more than a month in a hospital here in Cebu, my godfather died.
Unlike Bill Gates, far fewer people will know his name or who he was, but the element that makes the news important to us isn’t prominence—no matter how many celebrity stories we may consume. The bigger element is always proximity. The closer a news event is, the harder it lands. At its core, the news is simply any story that interrupts your normal course of events. Significance is subjective.
Think back to January or even as recently as the first two weeks of March this year. By then we had all heard of SARS-Cov-2. Some of our friends had even begun to wear masks or hoard hand sanitizers. But for most of us, the pandemic was still distant. It was still something that happened elsewhere, to other people. It was significant, no doubt, but not yet personally significant. It had not yet closed in and touched the lives of people we knew.
Since the pandemic began, I have started to limit my consumption of news stories about it, which I know sounds irresponsible, but which I find necessary. I would go crazy otherwise. There are Donald Trump supporters in my life that I still care about but whom I have muted on Facebook.
The story that featured Bill Gates lingered because it was the kind of optimism I could trust. Yes, there are questions about how philanthropy often allows “unelected billionaires to shape public policy in ways that almost always generate favorable headlines,” as Tim Schwab wrote recently in The Nation. But I am confident Mr. Gates’s optimism is hard-earned, that it surfaced after much study and reflection.
Was the story distant? Yes.
So why was it reassuring? It reassured because it was a reminder that there are still adults seeing the big picture and trying to figure out how best to lead the global community through this pandemic. Gates expressed the hope that the U.S. Government would step up and commit part (through a supplemental bill, for example) of the USD$12 billion needed to bring a new vaccine to the developing world.
The other story, the one about my godfather’s death, is news only for a smaller circle of people. My mother, for one, who had worked with my godparents for nearly 40 years before she retired. But it’s one of those stories we just can’t keep our distance from. It has landed close to home, and the fact that we can’t sit with friends at their loved one’s wake or hold them to share their grief, if only for a little while, is part of the challenge. The sad but, ultimately, soul-enlarging challenge.
One of this pandemic’s strange gifts is how it compels us to question most of our certainties, how it keeps challenging us to scramble for hope and growth, even as it closes in. There are some stories that will change us. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.