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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

It's generosity and greed at epic scale

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best — and worst — in society. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/MaryLB

Crisis, it is said, builds character. And that certainly is true, for those who wish to learn from adversity and choose to fight back against it.

But crisis more reliably reveals character. And that does not always accrue to one’s benefit.

We saw that on 9/11 in the bravery of those who charged into that fiery maelstrom, and in its aftermath in the cowardice of those who attacked and harassed innocent Sikhs. The assault on the nation did not forge either of those qualities in those who showed them. It merely exposed what lay within.

Not surprisingly, that’s happening again in this coronavirus crisis.

Daily, the evidence is splayed before us. And again, we shake our heads, in admiration or admonition.

What can one say about the amazing grace of strangers, whether it’s kids making cards for nursing home residents to remind them that they’re not alone, or a musician taking the time to livestream a concert to Alzheimer’s patients in several facilities, or fishermen in Montauk giving away their catch to those in need, or people shopping for elderly neighbors advised not to leave their homes?

And what can one say about the hoarders — not merely those stocking up on banalities like toilet paper but the acquisitors vacuuming up gobs of food, enough for weeks in a bomb shelter, clearing shelves and reducing options with no regard for others, not to mention the ones stockpiling distilled water needed by sleep apnea patients for their breathing machines?

This dichotomy between the best and worst in us has had endless iterations.

We see the medical professionals toiling valiantly day and night on the front lines, putting themselves at risk, like the nurses soldiering on with homemade masks and plastic garbage bags as protective gear, and sometimes literally dying, like at least 45 doctors in Italy who contracted the virus and passed away. We see the more than 60,000 doctors and nurses who signed up to come out of retirement and join the fight in New York, and the 10,000-plus mental health professionals who volunteered to provide free care for people struggling with the emotional toll of this crisis.

And then we see reports from states around the country about other doctors hoarding medications hailed as possible treatments for COVID-19 — by writing prescriptions for family members and for themselves, creating scarcities that forced several states to issue emergency restrictions on dispensing.

It’s selflessness and selfishness at epic scale, revealed by our reactions to stress.

We see tech gurus at Stony Brook University using 3D-printers to make face guards for our medical corps, and hotels offering rooms and businesses of all types paying for food for beleaguered doctors and nurses. And we see other firms engaging in deplorable price gouging at a moment of high need. Behind those corporate names are individuals making decisions right and wrong.

And we can see it at the most basic level in our streets and our parks and our playgrounds and our stores, in those who carefully keep their distance from others and those who callously do not. We all reveal something of ourselves at times like this.

Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, likened the coronavirus response to building an airplane even as we’re trying to fly it. It’s a good metaphor for the pressure under which we all labor. Because we all should be part of the crew now, trying to keep this ship aloft.

Most rise to the challenge. Some fall short. The moment cries out for character. How will you answer the call? 

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.