A Stoic Approach to COVID-19

“Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

― Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations 4.49

One of the things I most appreciate about practicing Stoicism is the consistency it gives to my life. The world can seem to be crashing all around me (like waves against rocks), but I can always rely on a consistent application of diligent common sense to every challenge. It usually produces that kind of emotional tranquility that makes life worthwhile even in the midst of hardship. And perhaps my own calm demeanor may instill calmness in others… So I decided to write a quick blog about the recent panic-inducing novel coronavirus outbreak and how I approach it.

In the case of any illness, I abide by common sense in the same way as I would, for example, during my daily commute or in dealing with coworkers. The principle that I have ready at hand is one that we find most explicitly in Epictetus; many people cite Discourses 1.1 but the following passage is short and sweet:

“So in life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control.”

―Epictetus’s Discourses 2.5.4

So I ask myself what is in my control in any given situation and what is not (common sense, right?). I have partial control over my immediate surroundings (in the choices I make about them), but no control regarding most of the sensational news featured on TV and online.

Regarding the possibility of contracting COVID-19, it’s helpful to know how it spreads in order to understand what choices I should make. This is why the Stoics studied physics—you need to have some understanding of how your choices effect change in your environment in order to make the best choices… So here we go…

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and only gets transmitted through respiratory droplets. This means that I can contract it if A) someone coughs or sneezes and I inhale their respiratory droplets or B) I touch my mouth or nose after touching a contaminated surface (a surface may have the virus on it if a sick person has coughed on or handled it). Knowing this, I can do the following:

  1. Just avoid as many people as I can who may contaminate the air I breath or the surfaces I touch (likewise, if I’m sick, I should stay home). Coronaviruses don’t seem to travel more than 6 ft. away from people who cough or sneeze so I try keep my distance from strangers if I can help it.
  2. Avoid touching my eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. An unexpected benefit of this is that it’s a great exercise in mindfulness!
  3. Wash my hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating. ALSO, it’s a good idea to wipe down my mobile device as often as I can since my grubby hands touch it all day.
  4. At home, I can clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe (a solution with at least 60% alcohol content seems best)

It’s also worth mentioning things that I shouldn’t worry about. The virus doesn’t seem to last more than a few hours or days on surfaces (depending on environmental conditions) and certainly doesn’t survive on items being shipped from China… No need to avoid Chinese products. The virus is killed by standard water treatment processes and I can’t contract it from tap water, so I won’t worry about that… No need to go run out and hoard plastic water bottles. If you’re healthy, face masks are pointless (unless you’re around someone who has the habit of sneezing in your face)… No need to hoard face masks. Instead we should leave them for those that are sick/symptomatic or else caring for someone who is sick; we should leave them for health care workers! And lastly, there’s no reason why the spread of COVID-19 should interrupt the toilet paper industry… No need to hoard toilet paper. Our thinking that there is a reason would actually be the only reason and this paranoia can drive mass irrational behavior (look up “contagion effect”).

I’ve received all  this information from reliable sources like the CDC, California Health Dept., LA County Health, and health experts on public radio shows I listen to. Check them out yourself:

As the information is updated, my behavior may change slightly, BUT even as I anticipate the worst-case scenarios, I expect to approach my decision-making in the same manner. I find trustworthy sources, look at the relevant up-to-date information, recognize what I can and cannot control, and focus my attention on what is in my control. If we were in the midst of the bubonic plague, this process would be the same. This reliable decision-making procedure affords me the clarity and tranquility of mind to enjoy life and be grateful for what I have. Thanks Stoicism (i.e., common-sense).

For more Epictetus-style consolation, I recommend reading all of Discourses 2.5.

Take care.

―Justin K.

3 Replies to “A Stoic Approach to COVID-19”

  1. This experience is quite an exercise in the practice of Stoicism! The ripple effect of the virus gives us a lot of decisions about what to react to… disrupted work, cancelled vacations, figuring out what we should/shouldn’t do, and the general unknown of when things will settle down to (a new) normal. Watching people hoard TP (and wondering if I missed some crucial TP-related update) is confusing. I’m definitely seeing a range of under-reacting and overreacting, so clear messaging is appreciated! Many thanks!

    Erica says:
    1. Erica: Well-put! the range of how people are reacting is incredible. That’s why I framed the benefit of Stoicism as providing a kind of consistency with approaching hardships.

      And as an UPDATE, I don’t think much of my advice has changed, has it?… I did want to clarify that a study published on March 10 indicated that COVID-19 can only survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours in idealized laboratory conditions. That’s 72 hours MAX on aluminum steel and plastic, but 24 hours MAX on cardboard. Non-ideal real-life factors like SUNLIGHT can kills off viruses faster. The study also shows that the novel coronavirus can survive in the air in idealized laboratory conditions for several hours… One of the takeaways that I got here was that I’m gonna go out and enjoy long walks in nature once it comes out! Looking forward to that.

      [Here is the study conducted by UCLA researchers in collaboration with Rocky Mountain Laboratories: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.09.20033217v1%5D

      losangelesstoics says:
      1. TYPO: I’m gonna enjoy long walks in nature once THE SUN comes out! 🙂

        losangelesstoics says:

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