In 1820, 43.3% of human beings died before their 5th birthday, 89% lived in extreme poverty and average life expectancy was just 30. Fast forward 200 years (a mere 0.1% of the time homo sapiens have existed here on earth) and just 3.9% of people are now dying before age five, 10% live in extreme poverty and average life expectancy has more than doubled to 72 years.
Some may argue that this is just our innate will to survive on show; others may suggest it is the result of a long list of inevitable advancements in healthcare, agriculture, education and technology; but neither is entirely true.
What drove this was pain.
The pain of losing a child (or wife) in childbirth. The pain of having a loved one ripped away too early. The pain of witnessing the injustices of poverty or being forced to live in it.
To understand the power of pain in fuelling progress, we need look no further than Musca domestica, the common house-fly. Since it was discovered in 1758, the house-fly has not increased its lifespan or engendered equality. It has not progressed. Why? Because it doesn’t care. It doesn’t feel pain. It is not a social empathetic creature.
There are no little fly tears when baby flies fall victim to Mortein, and I have never seen a fly funeral.
Such traits are almost exclusively human. And this is where my dream begins.
If pain is the culture from which we grow, then what we must ask ourselves is: where is this global pandemic going to lead us?
Will the agony of COVID-19 prompt us to question the highly unsustainable and deadly nature of our current status quo? Will we use this moment to reorient our relationships to one another, and to nature? Will we finally see our common problems as that - common? Will we use this murderous virus and the terrible pain and suffering it is causing as an opportunity to learn and grow - both individually and as a humanity?
What makes coronavirus such a terribly sad but unique opportunity for progress, is that unlike other painful human events such as terrorism, war, natural disasters and other disease outbreaks, COVID-19 is killing indiscriminately.
Anyone and everyone is at risk.
The virus doesn’t recognise borders, skin colour, religion, where you were born or even where you live. It doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. There is no ‘us’ versus ‘them’. No immunity. No ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. There is no one to blame.
There is only pain and more pain.
But where will it leave us? If coronavirus is our first (or at least the most blatant) humanity-wide problem we have faced since becoming this inseparable, intertwined global community, how are we collectively performing? What has this pain inspired?
Fights over toilet paper. Sure. Did Trump just cut funding to the WHO during a global health emergency, and did Victoria Beckham decide to fire 30 staff (due to COVID-19) instead of letting them eat into any of her $650 million net worth? Yep. Have some human beings exhibited terrible ignorance and greed? Definitely.
But we’ve also seen a hell of a lot of the opposite. From the emergence of the global Kindness Pandemic, to billions of acts of generosity as we’ve shopped for and connected with older neighbours or given homeless people a roof over their head (all of which could easily continue post-covid). We’ve seen politicians and CEOs taking pay cuts to show their solidarity. A dramatic decline in carbon emissions may have saved up to 77,000 lives in China alone and is proof, once and for all, that we can do it. We’ve been granted a rare moment - given the pace of modern life - to stop, think and just be with ourselves and our family. This virus even seems to have forced us to use the
internet as it was originally intended - to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with shared solutions to our most pressing problems. A coordinated international team of scientists, physicians, funders and manufacturers are working together to help fast track a vaccine and other remedies. This spirit of camaraderie has spilled into communities too, as entire neighbourhoods erupt into song and whole cities and countries clap as one for healthcare workers. And let’s not forget: without unity, without cooperation, consideration and a will to sacrifice for the common good this thing would be infecting and killing millions more. But it is not, humanity is winning.
If we take a step back, what we can see is that coronavirus hasn’t only taken, it has given many gifts too. And it’s time to capitalise.
Nothing will bring back the lives lost, but what if we could pay tribute to the departed by vowing to better our world in their name? What if coronavirus was just what we needed to set a new course? A kinder course, free from the division that greed and ignorance breeds? What if it compelled us to see beyond our differences or what we’re not, to a more unified and peaceful tomorrow? What if all these deaths helped us prevent billions more? What if we could carry the spirit of sacrifice and unity from fighting this virus into beating racism, sexism, inequality, and climate change? What if the pandemic inspired us to chase a simpler life, more full of purpose, love and time? Because ultimately isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that the path to our happiest state?
Read more about how to use COVID-19 to find your happiest state.