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The Radical Empathy of the Coronavirus Panic

The deadly disease puts a moral onus on us to care for others—a reminder that, for better or worse, we are all connected.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

In certain court systems, injuring another person without intending to by taking a risk whose danger you could have foreseen is called dolus eventualis. It’s punished less severely than dolus directus—the direct intent to harm—but it’s still a crime. The concept acknowledges that we have an inherent duty to protect other people, even strangers, from unnecessary danger.

With a widespread coronavirus outbreak, those of us who have not taken a test are in a state of perpetual dolus eventualis. We’re able to foresee actions of ours that could harm others, like breathing near someone on the bus or touching a gas pump or even answering the door. We feel ourselves, in other words, to be potential criminals—guilty, even if we would never be charged for these acts.

Dolus eventualis is a part of jurisprudence in South Africa, where I live—most famously applied in the criminal case of the Paralympian star runner Oscar Pistorius. The coronavirus has played out differently here than in America, where panic is running so high. South Africans have gone viral for tweeting images of face masks made of brassieres and a dance video to a “corona song.” The government, which has partially closed its borders, feels relatively well prepared—especially on testing. South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV in the world, a majority of whom are on antiretroviral treatment. That requires monitoring with polymerase chain reaction testing—the same protocol that can be used to test for coronavirus. South Africa has already run a quarter of the tests the United States has with only 1 percent of America’s number of confirmed cases.

Still, as an American, it’s hard not to succumb to the freak-out. A few days ago, I got tested for the coronavirus. I’d flown back to South Africa from America recently, and shortly afterward came down with a fever. Then I started to feel chest pain. I panicked—I have weak lungs from a birth defect. A dull two-step played in my head, crowding out any other thoughts: I’m sure you don’t have it, dummy. But what if you do?

I emailed my doctor. He wrote back right away: It was probably OK, he said, since I didn’t have the dry cough, but given my symptoms and travel, I met the bar to get tested. I went to his clinic after hours. Another doctor on coronavirus duty took me into a separate room. The test was both simple and thorough: three swabs, then 45 minutes of filling out forms fastidiously accounting for every hour of every day over my last two weeks.

When I got back home, I noticed that my panic had totally dissipated. I didn’t binge on coronavirus news; I read a book. That peace was unexpected, since I didn’t get my result—negative—for four days.

But I realized that what I’d felt wasn’t fear so much as helplessness. No individual can control a virus, despite what the president might wish. But before I got tested—the current state of millions of Americans—I felt helpless over not only my own fate but also the fate of all the others I might have infected. It’s a rare thing to feel a stranger’s potential pain so intimately. There’s an instinct in us that dolus eventualis acknowledges, even if we’ve forgotten it.

Along with feeling like trash, before getting tested, I felt constantly guilty. Should I have told every person I interacted with that I felt tight in the chest and unnecessarily freak them out? Should I have waited, potentially infecting an unwitting acquaintance or their loved one? The anxiety radiated outward. My partner agonized over whether he should go to work. A plumber came by right before I got sick; he happened to mention he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a disorder that compromises the lungs. I felt I had been put at the head of a train carrying the people formerly and newly precious to me—my partner, his colleagues, my friends, the plumber—whose brakes might have failed.

In a sense, with so little capacity for coronavirus testing, everyone in America is at the head of that kind of train—navigating blind. It’s heart-stopping. I wonder if that’s driving some of the heartrending panic many Americans are experiencing. A friend who’s a therapist in New York tells me that their patients’ overwhelming coronavirus anxiety is “all we’re talking about now.” Meanwhile, after a long technical discussion about Covid-19 with a doctor here, I asked her, “Are you nervous?” “About what?” she replied. I meant about herself and her family. But regarding them, she felt prepared and calm.

It’s not just the sense that we could be in danger—but that we could become endangerers without knowing it or being able to know it.

Doesn’t the globalized world put us in this situation already? Don’t we so often put other, distant people at risk through what we do, no matter how much we tell ourselves we’re not directly responsible?

We drive, and a Pacific Islander’s home sinks a nanometer further into the sea. We order something from Amazon, and a small brick-and-mortar shop a thousand miles away goes out of business. We open a small grocer that outwits the chains, but only by stocking hip products made with palm oil that destroys virgin rain forests. We move to a fancy county for its schools, and the one we left suffers.

We can tell ourselves: We didn’t make this system. But that rationalization doesn’t stop the feeling of knowing ourselves, every day, to be complicit in other people’s maltreatment, deprivation, and loss.

That’s all clearer here in South Africa, the second-most-unequal country on earth. You can’t avoid it so easily. From almost any house you can see the house of somebody far more vulnerable than you are.

And there’s been an ambient panic here for at least a decade that reminds me of the feeling, now, in America—a sense that every day brings a fresh, possible apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it. For a while now, I’ve thought this has to do with the unbearable, collective weight of guilt. With the criminality on the part of almost everyone in society not desperate enough to be an actual criminal—with the too rarely faced duty toward our neighbors.

The other night, my partner and I heard screaming across the street. Ours isn’t one of the streets on which people know the names of their neighbors. But we went onto our porch, as did a couple of other residents.

Glass was shattering—windowpanes. It sounded like a fight, not necessarily something that was going to affect us. But you just know, in this kind of moment, that if something really bad happens and you pretended you didn’t know, then you are also at fault.

I didn’t leave the property because of my fever. But my partner went over. There had, indeed, been a fight. Sanitizing the bottles first, he brought the bloodied victims water while they waited for the police—even though, he was told, they were supposedly gangsters. They were in the vicinity, and we all are human.

We’re all human. It’s a phrase we use often, these days, in a sighing, regretful way, as if we wished we weren’t. We don’t vote rationally because we’re human. We’re susceptible to fake news because we’re human. We’re panicking over the coronavirus because we’re human.

But maybe that panic also stems from a beautiful part of human nature—the wish to save others you do not know from worry.

And that’s why the shortage of coronavirus testing in America is an even deeper tragedy than we may realize. It’s now clear widespread testing has a crucial impact on containing Covid-19. An American friend of mine living in South Korea told me the country “never got half as panicked,” in her view, because of the “high transparency” around the testing. The knock-on effects of the more contained mood were legion, from clearer quarantine-preparation planning by individuals to more consistently practiced hygiene habits to lower stress and, thus, perhaps, slightly better health outcomes. The lack of testing isn’t just an epidemiological failure—it’s so damaging psychologically, morally. And America is a country that cannot afford to feel any more out of control; any more suspicious that, deep down, it hates its fellow countrymen; any more guilty.