A Natural Reaction

Instinct and the Corona Virus

Tim Sheiner
Designer’s Field Guide
3 min readMar 22, 2020

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Photo by Larry Li on Unsplash

Yesterday evening I went for an urban hike in San Francisco.

I do that a lot, and have for years.

Yesterday’s hike was different. Really different. The trails, stairs, and open spaces I usually have nearly to myself were crowded like I have never seen them before.

Hikers, couples, families — everyone was out, walking, exercising, promenading. Social distancing was respected: family groups moved together maintaining space from other groups; teen-agers were shooting hoops, each player with his own ball. People in the sidewalk talked with people on balconies. Despite the unreal conditions people were sharing smiles, greetings, and an acknowledgement that we were all having the same upsetting, confusing experience. We were doing community as an instinct, not a plan.

Individually, this is entirely new territory. As a species, though, we have been here before. Do you remember learning about the Black Death?

I remember being taught a clinical but devastating story: during the Middle Ages, in a span of just 4 years, Europe lost 30% of its population to plague.

Until yesterday, that narrative was something that had happened to other people a long time ago.

Today that story is something that is happening to me, and you, to us, and not in the Middle Ages, but now. 650 years of progress (hmm?) later and still the only solution we have for protecting ourselves — quarantine — is exactly the same as those long ago Europeans. Yes, we will have a vaccine they never had — but we don’t have it yet. Instead, right now, in this moment, we have only what they had, we are them, we are the same human animal. And our reaction — what I saw yesterday — is to walk, separately and together, in family groups. Our instinct, as a social animal, is to retreat to the biological safety of our kin while maintaining connection with the community we depend upon to face this attack on our population.

The idea of Covid-19 as an attack was the other epiphany I had yesterday. I had an understanding of this virus as not a random event, not a coincidence but an actual, directed attack on our species.

First, make space in your head for the idea of life as an organism. Not life as a feature of biological organisms living on this planet but Life as itself a biological organism living on this planet. Call it Mother Nature. Or Gaia. Or La Pacha Mama. Whatever you call it, understand that it is real, and that just like you — just like any living organism — it has defense mechanisms, ways to protect itself. Covid-19 is a directed immune response by La Pacha Mama against a human species that has become dangerous to her health.

It’s having an effect, and in remarkably short order. An unusual number of our species is dying very quickly. Just as rapidly we are changing our habits. The amount of carbon emission from human activity has plummeted in recent days. Our beliefs will change too. None of us are certain how, but we all know that things will not be the same after this crisis passes.

Meantime, we walk.

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Tim Sheiner
Designer’s Field Guide

System thinker, story teller, designer, husband, father of 3, San Franciscan, Bernal Heights neighbor