Seismic Messages

Awestruck, people in the northern Indian state of Punjab stare at the sight of the grand Himalayan mountain range, now, after half a century, again visible for more than 100 miles. Why? The reduction in air pollution caused by the national lockdown to contain the coronavirus.

Across the planet, in major cities and minor ones, the grind, screech, and roar of modernity are now barely detectable on seismograms. Why? Little or no traffic. Less large-scale machinery. A 30 percent drop in the cacophonous London morning rush, a 38 percent drop in midday Paris, a 50 percent drop in parts of Los Angeles, a staggering 60 percent drop noted at the Geophysical Institute in Quito, Ecuador–where suddenly they hear rumblings from the active volcano that sits beneath the city. As a result of this human quiescence, Earth’s continual quivering, shifting, and settling is being recorded with astonishing clarity. It sighs. It crackles and hisses. It groans. It sings. As if the concept of Gaia had become audible. As if the planet—all but smothered by abuse—is a living entity.

Each spring, like this one, is the time to go into the garden and study the surface, the time to rake up the mulch and rotted leaves and general gunk that winter has deposited. It’s a messy, thrilling task, because you’d better rake carefully, lightly, since pale green shoots and stalks have already poked above ground, unseen beneath the muck. A snowdrop or two. An iridescent crocus. A stiff leaf-tip auguring a hyacinth. The curled red claw that will become a peony. The tight upfurl of the first hosta. The promise.

All that immeasurable boiling planetary core power beneath. All this unbearably tender largesse above.

Look closely at the promise. We have been so focused on the threat we have overlooked the promise.

It hasn’t gone totally unnoticed, though, that women leaders around the world have been doing a disproportionately superb job in handling the pandemic. A CNN report by Leta Hong Fincher examined in detail how women, who comprise less than 7 percent of world leaders, took early, decisive action in widely different cultures, and saved lives.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, even on the basis of a rumor, ordered all planes arriving from Wuhan to be inspected, then established an epidemic command center, ramped up production of personal protective equipment, and restricted all flights from China, Hong Kong, and Macau.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also took early action: despite tourism being a major economic component of the country, she sealed the borders and imposed a national lockdown, limiting casualties to date to nine deaths.

Sure, New Zealand is a small country, population less than 5 million, the size of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. But consider Germany, with 83 million citizens, where Chancellor Angela Merkel also acted early and assertively, resulting in Germany having the most intensive-care units and largest scale coronavirus testing program in Europe. Consequently, there have been only 132,000 infections, and a death toll much lower than most other European countries.

Finland’s Prime Minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin, was so prepared that the country has suffered only 59 deaths in a population of 5.5 million people.

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdöttir governs 360,000 people, but her large-scale randomized testing has ramifications for the entire world, since it discovered that about half of all people who test positive for the virus are asymptomatic. Iceland also initiated early contact-tracing and quarantine.

All this was happening while Donald Trump was declaring the virus a hoax perpetrated by Democrats and the press.

Four of the five Nordic countries are led by women and each has a lower death rate from the virus compared to the rest of Europe. The fifth country, Sweden, is led by Prime Minister Stephan Löfven. He refused to impose a lockdown and has kept schools and businesses open. The Swedish death rate is higher than most other European countries.

Nor have the female heads of state been restricted to Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs of Saint Martin in the Caribbean made a strict no-nonsense video that was so popular it went, well, viral. In it, she told her island citizens to “JUST STOP MOVING.” She brooked no excuses. “If you do not have the type of bread you like in the house, eat crackers. If you do not have crackers eat cereal. Eat oats.”

I could go on, but the point is clear.

Not to be simplistic, it must be mentioned, as Fincher dutifully reported, that South Korea’s male president Moon Jae-in is deserving of praise (which he has duly received) for having flattened the curve of infections through widespread testing. But it must also be said that the 93 percent majority of male leaders on Earth have tried to tough it out, and their citizens have paid dearly, in blood, for that posturing—as Americans are doing.

The women had no manliness to prove, you see. Furthermore, they dared to be wisely and honestly afraid—so they acted accordingly: they moved swiftly, efficiently, and scientifically. I don’t think that’s because of some mysterious inherent quality possessed by women or lacked by men; that lets men off too easily.

But even if it turns out there is an inherent difference, we now know that there are possibilities of change even there. Depending on what we value.

For example, women produce more of the hormone oxytocin, nicknamed the “tend and befriend” secretion of bonding, protectiveness, empathy. Oxytocin is both companion and contrast to adrenaline’s “fight or flight.” But women also produce adrenaline–and men produce oxytocin, too. Recent studies show that the more time men spend caring for children, the more oxytocin their bodies produce. The brain’s plasticity is a marvel, barely explored. Physicality can sometimes change because of behavior. In turn, behavior can change because of experience, just as practice can change because of legislation. When practice changes, it affects experience, which influences behavior, which produces different brain patterns and secretions. Cause and effect. Physics: for every action, there is a reaction.

This catastrophe is the very definition of a teachable moment, if we’re open to learning from it. We can’t huddle inside forever, and we can’t return to dwelling in caves, much as other animals and flora might appreciate that. We are a savage species, yes. But we have intelligence. And oxytocin. We can learn.

To do that—at the ballot box in November in the US, and throughout the international community of human beings—we need to rake away the rotted muck to find what’s been growing there all along; we need to clear the air in order to see the highest mountain peaks; we need to listen to the silenced half of our species that is female. We need to turn from the threat to the promise.

What can we learn from this?