COVID-19 is a stress test

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watching the world burn. pxfuel

Critical thinking suffers in quarantine

by Hammad Ali, Contributor

“On the internet, you can be anything you want. Which is why it is strange that so many choose to be stupid.” – Anonymous

At some point in the second or third week of March, our lives changed significantly. Many of us were told to work from home, and the university campus was deserted within days. Many non-emergency medical appointments got cancelled, restaurants closed or moved to takeaway and delivery only, and Zoom became the most installed app in recent history.

In the six or seven months since then, the world changed drastically. Many have lost their jobs. Many businesses closed permanently. In the middle of this pandemic, some of the bravest protests were staged in defense of the dignity of human life. And no small number of people, myself included, witnessed most of this on a screen from their living rooms or bedrooms. As we have heard only a million times now, this is the “new normal.” We are required to physically distance ourselves in an effort to slow down the spread of COVID-19, to give our healthcare workers and researchers a chance at a fair fight. While this makes perfect sense, there are associated costs with the very way our society is likely to function for the near future. As someone recently remarked to me, the pandemic has been a stress test, exposing many aspects of the world that had been rotting away for years, and finally collapsed in face of this somewhat novel challenge.

One thing that many have remarked on, and became all the more visible in the lockdown, is how people behave differently on social media. When having a conversation in person, I may still disagree with you, but it is a lot less likely that I will call you the worst human being to ever walk the earth. Yet, on social media, all our reactions seem to be at the extreme ends of a spectrum. People say things to each other they never would in person. Maybe it is the distance and anonymity to blame. Maybe social media gives us illusion that there is nothing we have in common with the person we disagree with. Reality, however, is far more nuanced. 

 Often, the person I am caught up in a vicious battle of words with online has far more in common with me than I think. Maybe this is easier to notice in person? Who knows. What I do know is that I have been called a litany of labels far more often online than I ever have in person. It’s almost like today’s individually tailored newsfeeds are making us prickly to the most minor disagreement. We are living in the ultimate echo chamber, with algorithms boasting how they can only show us things similar to ones we enjoyed in the past. But then what about novel perspectives, or uncommon ways to think about the commonplace? Where is the room for a completely original idea, one unlike anything that has been seen before? On a less grandiose scale, what about something I may not necessarily find pleasant, but should see anyway? I fear a lifestyle where we only see things we find pleasant. That leads to stagnation, not progress.

With my bias as someone with a career in science, I also see that the pandemic has exposed a lack of critical thinking as a flaw in our world. I am unsure how we got here, but we have a problem. As depicted by a cartoon I saw a while back, people who read one viral post about viruses suddenly believe they know more than scientists who spent decades studying the field. At the very least, they believe that every scientist in every corner of the world is lying, and the only honest media is the sites they read regularly. As depicted in the movie Contagion, conspiracy theories go hand in hand with any global crisis. Nevertheless, it is disheartening to see so many people believe everyone but their favorite media is lying to them. Scientists and researchers are not above criticism, but the current worldview many have that depicts them as scheming villains seems unfounded. While everyone has a right to expound their theories online, it is a grave concern when these theories come in the way of proper measures to tackle a pandemic (think masks) or offer treatment (think vaccines).

 Lastly, the months of isolation and being stuck at home has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health. It is hard to even tell who has it worse — those with a family and children, who have had no personal space for the last six months, or those living alone, who are missing out on much-needed social interactions. On top of that, many have found themselves without a job or income. Students are finding it hard to meet all the expectations of their schoolwork without access to facilities on campus.

 There are no easy answers to these problems, but clearly we have failed society in many ways. Looked at another way, there is much that can and should be improved. Unlike many of my peers, I firmly believe that the lockdown was the right decision, and any reopening has to be done with extreme caution. We cannot open up and “hope for the best.” Sweden, and for a brief little while the UK, tried that route with not exactly desirable results. 

 At the risk of sounding naive, we will get through this pandemic. At the risk of sounding pessimistic though, there will be other challenges in our future. We need to start the work of repairing the flaws in our world that have been exposed in the last few months. Many people, including Bill Gates, had been warning us that a global pandemic was just around the corner, and we ignored them. Maybe we need to sit up and take notice of what else people have been warning us about, and take steps to not be caught as unaware as we were back in March 2020.

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