The Needs Of The Many In The Age Of Coronavirus

Spock: “It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…” 

Kirk: “The needs of the few…” 

Spock: “Or the one.” 

That’s the reasoning that Captain Spock has as he leaves the bridge of the Enterprise during the Battle of the Mutara Nebula, as the crippled ship struggles to escape before the Genesis Device, activated by Khan, threatens to wipe them all out. He heads down to engineering and enters a compartment flooded with deadly radiation in order to manually make the repairs necessary so the ship can warp away with death nipping at its nacelles. 

I was eight years old when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out in June of 1982. I saw it in theaters and I wept when Spock died. I cried the whole way home in the car. I had been a Star Trek fan since before I could talk, zooming around the living room in my little wheeled scooter when the opening credits played on WPIX Channel 11. I have no memory of a time before me knowing about Star Trek, about Captain Kirk, Mister Spock. 

Spock’s reasoning has deeply impacted me. I’ve not led a blameless life, and I’ve failed at keeping my own ideals, but again and again my moral compass has eventually found its way to this true north – that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Even as Western culture, especially American culture, has taught me to look out for myself, even when I’ve fallen into that trap and thought “Fuck that guy, I gotta get mine,” I always come back – eventually, painfully – to this belief. 

These days I work in a corporate chain coffee shop. It’s not a bad job, and if it paid a living wage it might even be a good job. But this past week as the coronavirus news ramped up I found myself looking at each customer with a new kind of suspicion. Are they sick? Are they shedding virus? Earlier in the week two of my co-workers called out with the flu, then they came back to work. And suddenly I began to wonder – am I sick? Am I shedding the virus?

Finally on Friday it became too much. I’m scheduled to work this coming week, but I gave up all my shifts to other employees. I simply couldn’t bear coming to work anymore – not because I worry about getting sick, because I’m traditionally weirdly healthy and most illnesses tend to hit me for a day or two and then I’m fine, but because I couldn’t bear the thought of being a vector. I couldn’t bear the thought of being asymptomatic, or lightly symptomatic, and spreading the virus to someone who is more compromised, or older. 

This weekend I see people hitting the bars and restaurants across my city and across the country like nothing is wrong. Many of them reason that they’re young, they’re healthy, they won’t be impacted. Why should they change their lifestyle if things aren’t that bad? 

They also will claim they need to keep going out because they need to support service industry workers. It’s a weird post-9/11 “Don’t let the fear keep you down!” response that is, frankly, absolutely incorrect. Let me tell you as a service industry worker that I gave up a week’s worth of pay (at least) because I can always rebuild my finances. A dead person cannot come back to life. 

I want to repeat that: 

I can rebuild my finances. A dead person cannot come back to life. 

When people hit the bars, get brunch, go to the movies they are ignoring the message that Spock imparted – sometimes we need to give up stuff for the sake of others. Yes, they may well get the coronavirus and be fine, but they could be giving it to other people who will not be fine. Their refusal to inconvenience themselves in any way is putting the needs of the few – themselves – before the needs of the many – the at-risk. 

In South Korea it seems that one women – Patient 31 – who refused to self-isolate when diagnosed with the disease infected hundreds of people. This disease spreads exponentially, so that one person is responsible for a very large outbreak.

See, because the problem isn’t just that they’re going to get people sick, the problem is that they’re going to be a vector to get people sick QUICKLY. The reality is that everybody’s going to get coronavirus at some point. The issue is spreading that point across as wide a period of time as possible so that the medical infrastructure can keep up with it. If we don’t flood the hospital with the sick, we stand a chance of saving a lot of lives. 

It is incredibly inconvenient for us to socially distance and self-isolate right now. I am not certain about paying my rent in April, let alone my bills. But I truly believe the needs of the many outweigh the needs of me, and while I doubt I’ll end up in ICU if I get coronavirus (famous last words), I want to do what I can, what little I can, to make sure other people are able to get those beds. 

And by doing this thing, by sacrificing my financial stability, I am giving myself comfort. I know that I am doing the right thing, and this mitigates the incredible anxiety I feel in general. I was more anxious making the decision to give up my shifts than I have been since doing it – once I made the choice I was serene, and knew that I will simply deal with the repercussions when and if they arise. 

See, Spock died happy. I’m not going to die, and neither will you if you don’t go out on St. Patrick’s Day, but the metaphor tracks. Giving up for others, making a sacrifice for the greater good, is a direct line to happiness.

Kirk: “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many… or the few.”

This is where I have to come clean. I haven’t told you the whole reason I opted to self-isolate. I am in love with a wonderful, beautiful woman who is currently battling cancer. Her treatments have repressed her immune system, and she’s one of the vulnerable. The idea of coming home with the virus I caught from some guy who couldn’t live without his coffee milkshake and giving it to her was too much. And even if I stopped seeing her – we don’t live together – the idea that I could still be in the chain of communication that ends up getting her sick was too much for me to bear. 

In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock the bridge crew of the Enterprise throw their whole lives away to recover Spock from the Genesis Planet, which was created in the explosion of the Genesis Device. Through movie magic Spock’s corpse was re-animated by the Genesis Magic of the planet, and our heroes steal the Enterprise and enter a forbidden area to get him back. 

Retrieved and with his katra – his mind – returned to his body, Spock tells Kirk it was illogical to do what he did, and Kirk replies with the quote above. 

Maybe the ‘many’ is too abstract a concept. This isn’t a dig at anyone, but an acknowledgment of human nature. “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” is a quote attributed sometimes to Stalin; whoever said it, the point remains – there are certain numbers of people too large, too distant for us to really comprehend. But put a face on it and everything is different. 

The response to the AIDS crisis changed after Ryan White and Rock Hudson got ill; while there are other elements involved (White got AIDS through a blood transfusion, allowing homophobes an in to finally care about the disease), the placing of a face on the crisis was pivotal. 

If you’re finding the largeness of ‘the many’ too big to fully comprehend, think of a person in your life who is at risk. It’s likely there’s someone – a parent, a grandparent, an elderly relative, a friend who is immunocompromised. Think of the needs of this one – what would you do to save their life? Would you skip going to the bar? Would you stay inside as much as possible and avoid as many people as possible for a week or two to save their life? I bet you would. 

And you know, it doesn’t stop there. The above-mentioned stuff about service industry workers being impacted, it’s true. This is going to be economically hard on a lot of people, and there’s going to be a lot of disruption. There will be more sacrifice called for – reaching out with money to those impacted, reaching out to politicians to demand they increase social safety nets, reaching out to the alone and the frightened. We will have many more sacrifices to make this year. 2020 will not be easy. 

But let’s start with the simplest sacrifices. Let’s warm up for the big stuff, for going into the irradiated chamber. Let’s stay home and protect others. Let’s limit our interactions to the bare minimum. Let’s begin looking out for each other; instead of spreading the contagion let’s spread little kindness. In a connected world it’s easier than ever to give money, to give time, to give attention to others. It’s logical.