The Pandemic Isn’t Bringing Out the Best in People. It’s Showing People as They Truly Are

It's fantasy to think that difficult times change our natures.

The pandemic is bringing out the best in people who are already inclined that way. Photo: Kathrin Ziegler, Getty Images

One of the abiding tropes when it comes to disasters like the one we’re living through is that they bring out the best in people. It’s easy to understand the seduction of that idea. We’d all love to believe that in dire straits, just like in our favorite movies, we’d rise to become our best selves — braver, more compassionate, wiser in every way. Something of this same magical thinking could be seen at the start of the Trump administration, with various pundits opining that the 45th president could very well surprise us by rising to the occasion and “growing into the job.”

Um, no.

Desperate times bring out the best in people who were already inclined that way, not in people who try to corner the market on hand sanitizer. Sure, there are plenty of examples of folks who do amazing, self-sacrificing things, like all the front-line health-care workers. But — and I absolutely mean this with the utmost respect — these people are front-line health-care workers. They knew going into their professions that they’d be dealing with mucus and pus and infectious diseases, and this didn’t deter them, bless their souls. I am not in a mucus-and-pus-dealing profession, nor would I ever be. What would be truly astonishing would be if, say, a lame journalist like me signed on to work in a COVID ward, where I’d be about as useful as Kayleigh McInaney at a podium.

You know what’s 100 percent sure even as the coronavirus keeps raging? That Mitch McConnell is still an asshole. That Ron DeSantis remains a moron. (Florida is “God’s waiting room”? Really, Governor? Really?!?) That Cristina Cuomo is just as wacky an advocate for bleach therapy as the president her husband mocks endlessly. That that same president won’t stop tweeting — or talking — even if Promises Are Made.

Miracles are for suckers, friends. At the very least, they’re nothing to count on. Here’s what is: We are what we are. If you’ve got a good heart, you’re already checking on your neighbors, diligently distancing socially, refusing to share dubious information gleaned from Facebook, and thanking those first responders and grocery-store clerks at every opportunity. If you don’t, you’re spitting on strangers at Di Bruno’s and refusing to get your kids vaccinated and hitting the beach on the next sunny day. Enough with this romantic myth that terrible circumstances turn us all into Oskar Schindler or Florence Nightingale or Nelson Mandela. All that fantasy has to offer is false hope about the kinds of ‘Murica-loving folks whose reaction to a pandemic is to rush out and buy guns. (“Hey, I know I’ll be a movie-star hero if I just have my own AK-47!”) A state lawmaker who doesn’t have the God-given good sense not to wear a face mask made from a Confederate flag isn’t wondrously going to transform into Abraham Lincoln. The PLCB isn’t likely to get its act together anytime soon. Big corporations won’t stop trying to shoulder their way into money intended for the little guys. That doesn’t mean we can’t all strive to be better — better friends, better colleagues, better parents, better spouses, better humans. And it surely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. But then, if you’re trying to be better, you’re already not a bad human being. It’s the folks who wallow in their worthlessness that you have to watch out for. You can count on that.