One of my new resolutions for the year 2020 was to watch more Netflix documentaries. More specifically, I wanted to watch all the War documentaries out there. I am always very intrigued by how a big event such as war, forces sweeping step function changes across society.
Another thing that always got me about wars is just how life must be for an individual living under the constant fear of death and damage. Do people that live during war constantly think about a bomb landing straight upon them, as they go about doing their daily business? How is it that most people do not crumble constantly fighting their inner fears but continue to operate with a brave face?
January 1st, 2020, I started watching the Vietnam War on Netflix. Such a well made documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, with some extraordinary footage of both the perpetrators as well as the victims of the Vietnam war. The documentary also has footage of both Vietnamese & American troops, who while constantly being bombarded by each other, were going about their daily business as usual. As I watched the amazing video footage from the Vietnam war archives, I was floored by the resilience that humans show in the face of adversity.
By the time I finished watching The Vietnam War, it was late January 2020. Here in Singapore, life seemed to be going smoothly, as you’d expect from this ultra-modern city-state. And then one day we heard about a mysterious “Wuhan Virus” doing the rounds on the Asian news outlets. Just 6 weeks later, that virus, now infamous as COVID-19 virus has perpetrated a full-blown Global Pandemic.
Almost half of the Earth’s human population is on lockdown. In 6 weeks, it has brought the entire world and the global economy down to its knees. The virus that originated in China, has now spread to pretty much every country in the world. At the time writing this, over a million people globally have contracted the COVID-19 disease, which wreaks havoc on your respiratory system, especially if you already have an underlying medical condition.
More than 50,000 people are dead.
“Is this really happening?” my wife asked me one morning. I didn't know any better, I have the same question.
Every day, the press from around the world carries news of the exponentially growing number of infections and “death curves” that refuse to flatten. It has become clear that the modern world with all its technology is painfully unprepared to fight this war. An enemy we cannot see is lurking somewhere dangerously close. Worse still, we fear it’ll use us as attack vectors, to infect and kill our loved ones — people we don't ever want to put in harm’s way.
It’s that constant fear in our heads that is the war, and it’s debilitating. And this war is unlike anything that our generation has ever seen.
The only real threat to the enemy has just been one thing. And it’s the same thing that has helped us survive events like these in the past. It's our collective resilience and response when our backs are against the wall. It's that naked human resolve to survive despite the odds — helping us negotiate step-function changes to what ‘normal’ means.
Look at how we’ve reacted to this pandemic once we knew our medical, scientific and technological prowess wasn't enough to defeat the virus? We just stopped doing things that make us happy.
We’ve stopped working on the things we love, we’ve stopped seeing friends and family, stopped going outdoors, postponed our weddings, shut down our schools. We are just sitting indoors all-day — day after day — washing our hands, cleaning and disinfecting our spaces, wearing our masks. We’ve stopped shaking hands and exchanging high fives. We’ve stopped hugging our friends and having them home over home-cooked meals. Instead, we’ve embraced loneliness and self-isolation. Our doctors and nurses have stopped seeing their families so they don’t accidentally expose them to the virus. Our factories, irrespective of what they built before, have transformed overnight into masks and protective gear production units.
We’ve now learned how to break the chain of transmission of this rogue virus on a rampage. At last, the virus has met its nemesis. It has learned that humans are no bats.
I was recently on a work conference call with colleagues from China and Italy — two countries that have seen the worst of the worst during this pandemic. There are active COVID-19 cases in their neighborhoods and these guys had been holed up in their homes for weeks. Friends they knew were dying, and they couldn’t even say last goodbyes. Despite that, they were talking about work — as if nothing was wrong.
What makes us humans so strong and resilient? Despite tragedies brewing up all around us, how is it that we continue to focus on the present? It blows my mind.
And like I said, this is not a one-off response pattern against this specific pandemic — we do this every single time when our survival as a unit is under threat.
I have a theory about how we do it.
We survive catastrophes because humans have the ability to remember the past and dream about the future.
We store and nurture memories of the wonderful times spent with our families and friends. It's this ability to build beautiful memories to help us cope when things are looking down. Just like in the world wars, despite warplanes bombing cities and towns, civilians continued to work in their offices, farmers continued to till and plow their fields. Memories of a wonderful past served us the willpower to fight & survive.
We also dream.
When darkness befalls, we close our eyes and imagine a future where good times have returned. We will see our families, and share a meal together again soon. We will hug each other and tell them how much we missed them and how much they mean to us. We will return to the outdoors we love and enjoy the sun, watch the clouds & sail the sea.
But for now, we will stay indoors. We will fight & We will persevere.