I am one of the unfortunate study-abroad students in Italy whose dream semester was prematurely and abruptly cut short by the coronavirus craze. After 10+ years of anticipation, and 2 years of stressful minimum wage jobs, I got only two and a half weeks of a two and a half month semester. I will not be able to have classes right next to St. Peter’s Square, and my excursions to Athens and Jerusalem are canceled. I do not say these things to ask for personal sympathy but because I know there are thousands of students, including many who have probably worked much longer and harder than I, whose dreams of the perfect semester in Italy (and other countries) are over now, perhaps permanently.
Then, of course, there are the people whose family members have fallen ill, perhaps died, from the virus. Stocks are crashing and people are panicking. Even in the US, where the situation (much thanks to Trump) is far more under control than most countries, people are crazy. A friend told me a few days ago that some people, abnormally alarmed, are even rushing to grocery stores to stock up on food. Another friend could not find a mask at Home Depot because so many people are buying them.
Obviously it would be easy either to panic as many people are right now or rant about my personal disappointment—neither would be constructive, however. I think what I learned most of all from this worldwide fiasco is how incredibly incapable moderns are of handling crises—in fact, irrational and superstitious are the words that come to mind when considering the coronavirus craze.
Looking at the situation with as much objectivity as I can muster, it seems rather difficult to believe just how big an impact the coronavirus is having. More people die yearly from the flu in America than have died worldwide from the virus (presuming, of course, that you are trusting enough to believe Chinese statistics implicitly, which I do not). As Richard Tatem’s article on the Rogue Review noted, even if 10 times the amount of people were infected it would be a minuscule (less than 1%) amount of the population in the US, Italy, and other Asian and European countries. The number of infected people has gone up in the days since that article (3,462 worldwide), but not nearly enough to change the below-1% statistic. Most people who get the virus do not die, and those who do are generally elderly or already seriously at-risk. Meanwhile, 10,000 people have already died of influenza in the US this year, as of the beginning of February. I am not saying that we should not care that several thousand people have died of corona worldwide—every individual matters, and I pray for the COVID-19 victims every day. What I am saying is that the reaction is not proportionate to the action. The world economy and travel should not be so in peril because of a new strain of flu that is affecting way less than 1% of the population.
At my college, Christendom, we are required to take many philosophy classes. I learned from Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, Augustine and Aquinas (to name a few major philosophers) that the virtuous man never lets his passions control his reason, that he considers his perfect safety secondary to moral imperatives and duties, that his reaction to everything is always proportionate to the seriousness of the event. I confess my faith in Christendom’s dedication to this philosophy was a little shaken when Christendom canceled its Rome semester, but I understand that the Italian government has ordered students home and that ultimately the blame lies higher up the chain than my school. If the government here had not been careless about dealing with coronavirus at first, it is possible I would not be going home. Christendom would not have been cowardly if the Italian government was not being so to a greater degree.
None of the attributes of the Classical or Judeo-Christian virtuous man were checked off in this situation. As soon as corona was reported in Italy, fellow students’ terrified parents were calling up and demanding that their children leave immediately, without any assurances of how their academics would continue, without any notion of exactly how at risk we were in sleepy little Assisi. I am not referring to parents who bought tickets for their children when the Italian government and the US State Department said that students needed to leave. Students were being pressured by parents to leave Assisi the next day and fly home because one person was infected in Florence—which meant, of course, that a pandemic plague was on the way. Of course, these parents, who did have a right to be concerned about their children, were not even as emotional as many people, including some in important political positions.
Perhaps the parents were following the example of San Francisco in the US, which declared a state of emergency before even a single person died of corona in the US and before SF had any coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, searches on Google for “corona beer virus” surged astronomically in January and February, indicating that people actually thought the beer (named from the Latin word for crown) could give them the virus because it had the same name. The official order of the Catholic Church in Italy (and many US dioceses) is that communion must be received in the hand rather than the tongue because bishops are so afraid of germs (which, apparently, they believe do not spread via hands). These instances all show emotion overriding reason, every one a disproportionate reaction.
Furthermore, everyone is acting as if the number one goal in life should be safety. Don’t get me wrong; I want a long, fairly painless life as much as anyone. Stupidity and courage are not the same things. What I am saying is that there are a whole long list of things more important than possible dangers: honor, courage, loyalty, love…visiting family members who are very ill, rushing into battle to defend your country, visiting foreign countries where terrorist attacks sometimes happen so you can expand your world and your mind. I can sit in my house for the rest of my life and be perfectly safe, but one would hardly call that admirable or fulfilling. Of course, even if I sit at home, a hurricane or gas leak or a fall down the stairs could occur. Anything worth doing requires a risk of some kind because risks will find me no matter how hard I try to avoid them.
Ultimately, I don’t think my Rome semester should have been canceled. I don’t think that Europe should be on lockdown or the US Media in hysteria or stock markets in jeopardy. I say that without regard to my own personal feelings; I think it the cold, hard, rational truth. Maybe the next time we laugh at people from the past for (as an example) doing crazy and illogical things during the Black Death of the 1340s, as I have known numerous people to do, we should stop and look in the mirror. Our plague is a heck of a lot less serious than theirs and we just put the world on lockdown. Superstitious and irrational, anyone?