To put it mildly, 2020 was extremely challenging. I speak for myself, but I have never seen the degree of unrest and suffering that we have experienced throughout the entirety of 2020. And, it was not just on one issue, but three formidable ones—health, social, and economic—all converging upon each other into one massive train wreck.
For brevity, allow me to extrapolate what I mean by concentrating on just one vertex of the tripartite: the COVID-19 pandemic. The origins, its spread, and our inability to control this virus will need to be investigated in full once we approach herd immunity with this virus. Almost like a clandestine enemy intrusion, the coronavirus had probably already made shore at this time exactly a year ago. We became abruptly aware of this virus by its infectability and lethality. In time, we learned that this virus could be mitigated by the use of masks, social distancing, mass testing, contact tracing, and lockdowns. But, it made a difference in how seriously these mitigation techniques were approached and implemented. It became clear which countries were doing a good job as the end of the year neared. One model approach is that of New Zealand. New Zealand has kept infections down to about 2,000 people. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern focused mainly on unifying the country and communicating clearly what the government and its citizens needed to do. Then, it was a matter of the citizens of New Zealand putting the Prime Minister’s plan into action. The point here is that everyone came together and did so with accurate information. Albeit with lesser degrees of success than New Zealand, other countries managed to control the spread of the virus too. Cases once surged in Israel after easing its restrictions during the summer, but they went to a second national lockdown in September, successfully bringing their infection rate of more than 8000 cases per day to fewer than 1,000. Australia went into strict lockdown in July. After 111 days, Australia has come close to eliminating community transmission. Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, have been successful in keeping their numbers down too. Although these countries employed different combinations of the above-mentioned mitigation techniques, they have all successfully managed to control the rampant spread of COVID-19 in their countries.
The common thread that runs through the strategy of the aforementioned countries are simply that they disseminated information that was accurate and came together as a nation to implement a unified strategy. This is something that has not occurred in the United States.
Instead of concentrating our energy and resources to controlling the virus, many have opted to relegate it to a sideshow. Health experts have put out a number of simple guidelines to battle the coronavirus. Among them was the encouragement for everyone to wear a mask. However, people either disregarded this advice or simply chose to rebel against wearing it. Some said masks were unnecessary, even useless, while others insisted that masks were a sign of weakness. How are measures against a disease a sign of weakness? I have yet to see this virus cower in the face of blatant bravado. On the point of
social distancing, people had a very difficult time. We are social beings, and it is difficult to stay away from family and friends. But, when there is a pandemic brewing, the reluctance to social distance has resulted in devastating consequences. Nonetheless, people made all sorts of excuses. Some people went as far as to claim that social distancing was an infringement upon their freedom. Surely, an individual’s rights are protected by our Constitution. But, a virus’ only etiquette is to infect everyone equally. Arguing for one’s own freedom at the expense of another citizen’s death is unacceptable. Your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness should not generate pain or death upon another. There is nothing more precious than life. And, one life should not be more precious than another. We as individuals are part of a larger society. To seek one’s own health and individuality with all its undivided freedoms requires that our whole society is also healthy and liberated.
Perhaps, losing sight of what is important is in part caused by our messaging. Our messaging must be grounded in truth, first of all. But, once we understand this truth, we must form a plan, and act upon it in a way where each of us can contribute as part of a larger population. New Zealand succeeded in controlling the virus based simply upon two principles. They disseminated information based upon facts, and its citizens used this information to solve their problem by working together, not to undermine each other.
I see this virus as a litmus test of how successfully we can face our future challenges that will surely come upon us in the 21st century. When I was growing up there were many reliable sources of print media—newspapers and magazines. There were also only three main television networks vying to produce content based on facts. There was a clear distinction between news and what could be found in tabloids. In the 80s, cable news networks such as CNN started popping up. But in this age of the internet, no one news outlet has a monopoly on the truth. In fact, any individual can broadcast or disseminate their own thoughts directly through social media. This has blurred the lines completely. And, there seems to be no honor system in reporting. Anyone, notwithstanding one’s position, whether you tweet from your living room or while you sit on a golden toilet, can comment about anything under the sun. It does not matter if you are unemployed or a student or whether one holds the highest office in the land. False information can easily be generated. If enough people acknowledge it, it is construed to be true. It comes down to whether we can digest the information we receive correctly. In other words, each and every one of us is responsible to become a proficient fact-checker.
Buddhism is actually a study about how to obtain truth, and how to solve problems. It is about how to observe, gather your information, and arrive at a plausible answer or solution. As such, Buddhism is uniquely positioned to make an impact in solving many of our present issues. In the absence of reliable sources, each of us needs to upgrade our ability to digest what we are fed in 2021. Accuracy in our analysis and compassion in our choices become ever more critical. We must learn to parse between what is truth and what is opinion. Once we grasp the truth, we must act upon it with empathy, what is good for society as a whole.
2021 will offer us a chance to revisit where we went wrong, and to correct our mistakes. It will be such a year. 2021 is the year of the ox. The ox is not fleeting of foot. Its steps are slow and deliberate. But, the ox eventually reaches its objective. The ox is characterized by
two words: nintai (忍耐) and gaman (我慢). nintai refers to patience, and gaman, perseverance. The ox, regardless of the issue with which it is faced, has the resolution to overcome and solve its problems. The ox neither complains nor frets about its difficult situation. It is one-pointed in the work at hand. The path or scheme that the ox chooses may not be so brilliant or polished, but it has the determination to cover its deficiencies. Above all, the ox’s intentions are noble. The ox is certainly not flashy. But, we do not need flashy in 2021. We need to trudge through muck and solve our problems in 2021. The ox’s fortitude in the face of falsehood and adversity is precisely what we need in 2021.