What is civilization? The poet Robert Frost once eloquently described civilization as “a clearing in a dense dark forest”. As we collectively hacked our way to establish a clearing, to industrialize, to modernize, we began to think that this vista of our action was the defining world view. This is an idea that we continuously strengthen through the everyday.
It looks like that clearing in the forest might be very temporary after all. The meadow of civilization seems to be extremely vulnerable. As soon as something rattles the very fragile fabric of civilization, the dark reptilian ancestor in our brain seems to take over, and human values are banned and contained.
Fighting for toilet paper
People bash each other’s heads in for 12 rolls of toilet paper, and a flacon of hand sanitizer. Here in Austin, stores opened at 8am and had sold out of their full stock of milk and bottled water five minutes later, some gas station pumps are running dry. Finding masks, hand sanitizer or bleach is next to impossible. “Some people bought in bulk and are not hesitating to resell at a premium” said Tevin Hunter, a sales representative at Target in an interview with the Straits.
Shopping mall parking lots are empty. Some non-essential stores are open, but with a staff that longs for one thing: going home. Pasta, rice, virgin olive oil, meat and toilet paper are sold out at most places. Bizarrely, some other things are getting short in supply. Headphones and webcams are sought after items, tech stores run out of external monitors. Homeworking takes its physical toll on the supply chain.
Bikes and tents and moonshine
People bought more bikes, apparently to avoid public transportation, or to self-exercise now that gyms are closed. As a high number of these bikes are off roaders, it seems people are preparing for the apocalypse. Tents, flashlights, camping gear. You never know. Most Texans keep their impressive V8 vehicles topped up to the brim.
An Austinite was filling the flatbed of his truck with cases of beer, wine and Bourbon. “I need enough to kill the time before my moonshine is ready”, he laughed: “Smokes and booze, I can as well be honest about it.”
Guns and ammunition
More worrying are the long queues at some gun shops. Some of these shops sold more than a month worth of inventory over the last few days. Pistols, guns, rifles, and ludicrous amounts of ammunition were sold. While we experience some fights on the parking lots of supermarkets in Europe, I do not dare to imagine what this would look like in a US State that allows for open carry. Gun ownership in Texas is at an estimated 35,7 percent, nor are Texans required by law to register their firearms.
Mind you, people do not buy guns and rifles to go hunting or fishing in this time of (perceived!) short supply. Ken Booth, a gun owner, told the Buffalo News that he was stocking up on ammunition for his rifle and his girlfriend’s new handgun because he fears if there are widespread closings of stores selling essentials such as food, it could create social and economic turmoil and result in lawlessness.
“People haven’t stood in soup lines in this country since the Great Depression,” said Booth: “What happens in a month from now when people start coming for what I have?” Booth said.”
Racism and extremists
“The Chinaman disease” or “stay away from the yellow fever”, I heard somebody call it, a bit in line with Trump’s consequent usage of “Chinese virus”. Some extreme right wingers finger point immigrants, hope COVID19 erases the homeless, or see a solution for the “pension problem” as COVID19’s primary mortality victims are the elderly.
Some of the biggest technology companies banded together in a commitment to fight coronavirus-related fraud and misinformation, as the internet was flooded with conspiracy theories, disinformation and hoaxes. The group includes Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube.
Amongst others, Twitter and Facebook are committed to providing non-governmental organizations vast advertising credits to boost public health campaigns and spread targeted and correct information.
Tech companies stepping in
Cisco announced free access to its video conferencing tool Webex for all countries where it is available, on top of the recent free availability of the platform that was limited to the countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that Google would roll out free access to the Hangouts Meet video conferencing capabilities to all G Suite customers globally. The rollout will begin starting this week, and free access will be available until July 1.
Microsoft offers a free six-month trial of its Teams product, which facilitates remote work through video and text chat.
Telecom operators worldwide offer higher bandwidth, and/or free access to on demand content. Some newscasters take down (albeit partly) their paywalls.
Onlineschools.be offers a comprehensive suite of (free) tools for schools and educational services.
All in all, companies scramble to maintain business continuity, while at the same time ensuring flexibility and safety for their employees. Ranging from home-working where possible, over flexibility on sick-day-credits, to help with medical bills or day care.
The hotel (Lakeway Resort and Spa) in Texas where I am typing this, is providing staff AND visitors alike with gels, latex gloves and pro-grade masks for those that need to go through an airport.
Countless entrepreneurs and consultants offer services and advice for free, and set up platforms, websites and ways to help. Local volunteers take care of babies, childcare, and help the elderly with their shopping needs.
As often, a crisis brings out the best in people. The herd protection reflex at its fullest: the knowledge that together, we are stronger. That as a species, to prosper or to survive, we need each other. That, to maintain our clearing in the forest, we need to co-operate.
The dark side
Sadly, the same crisis also makes masks drop. Some people and corporations show their darkest side in full survival mode. They will rather throw the others under a bus, if they think it will give them the tiniest advantage.
A time of reckoning
We will learn a lot from this crisis. From each other. From our colleagues. From our bosses. From our friends. From our partners. From our neighbors. From our suppliers. From the old man in the shop.
In three weeks, we will know each other’s true hair color, and we will know each other’s true colors. No more hiding. No more pretending. Values are what you display when you are at your best, or at your worst. As an individual, as an employer, as a friend, a spouse, a parent, a brand.
May history be kind on your words, your actions and your mails. As this COVID19 crisis will pass, your empathy and your actions will go viral and will not be forgotten.