A few days ago, I cautiously emerged from my house to go grocery shopping. For me, it’s a simple yet soothing activity to wander among the aisles. But in times like these, I find such opportunities few and far between. Yes, I kept to my six-foot distancing, and no, I’m not regularly shopping nowadays. Nevertheless, it was on this trip beyond the walls of my home that I noticed a subtle change in the world around me. The streets are now eerily empty, and the hum of cars has disappeared, but that is not the change I am referring to. It was a change in the people. 

People are afraid (and rightly so). They are clad in latex gloves, makeshift cloth masks and woolen scarves. But at the same time, I’ve noticed a newfound kindness. It existed in the gentleness of the words exchanged between me and a fellow shopper, and it lived in the smile of the woman simultaneously loading her milk and eggs into the back of her car. 

As we returned our carts, she quietly murmured, “It’s a crazy time, huh? Stay safe out there,” handed me a Clorox wipe and quickly hurried away. It wasn’t a grand gesture. It was a small and simple act, yet for me, it captured something unique about the situation we live in today. The world has changed, and we’re fighting a powerful enemy, but we even as complete strangers are united by a common identity, our shared humanity. 

Oftentimes, a shared identity forms on the basis of political ideology, nationality, race or another particular community to combat a specific threat posed by others. In many instances, communities unifying against those who threaten them is a force for good. Think of community organizing for workers’ rights, the civil rights movement and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights as just a few examples of positive ways in which communities are brought together. 

Nevertheless, in spite of these positive examples, a coalescing of people around a shared identity and a common threat has also served horrific purposes as well. Think of World War II and the demonization of Japanese people that ultimately resulted in abhorrent internment camps. Think of narratives surrounding immigration that have led to the forced imprisonment of children and families at our borders. Think of the brutal attacks against Muslims and Sikhs following 9/11. Think of the systemic, pervasive violence committed against Black and brown people each and every day as a result of the racism so deeply embedded within the history of our country and society. Sometimes, unity in the face of “fear” thrives at a terrible cost to others. 

Now, in the era of COVID-19, we have once again come dangerously close to finding this so-called “unity” in fear. Again and again, the President antagonizes Chinese people for bringing “the Chinese Virus” to American shores — as he tweeted on March 18. Sometimes, such attacks appear to be made innocuously; for example, consider a Facebook meme joking about how “a Chinese man who ate a bat” is what stole a college senior’s diploma. At the same time, consider how these jokes normalize the racism that corresponds with people committing heinous hate crimes ranging from spitting on Asian Americans to all-out knife attacks against Asian American children. 

These examples point to a heightened “unity” among Americans once again rooted in nationalism and demonization. This antagonism against Asians has become a proxy for our fear of COVID-19. 

Such a “unification” of Americans against an ethnic group is especially heartbreaking because one only needs to step back and consider a simple example like my encounter at the grocery store to understand how unique our situation is. How rare is it that as a community, we face a common enemy that is not human? In the grocery store parking lot where that woman handed me a Clorox wipe, the most relevant aspect about her was her humanity. COVID-19 cares little about her race, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity — it cares most about the fact that she is human.

Granted, it is important to recognize that in this case, class, age and ability are grounds on which COVID-19 does discriminate. And yet, we are still fighting a virus — not each other. Too often in our history have we been united against other people. It has led to racism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. It bred the discrimination and hatred that brought out the ugliest aspects of our humanity. 

But this time is different. Today, we are facing a common enemy that is, for once, not human. This is a novel opportunity. The need for us to rediscover a solidarity based on our shared humanity has always existed, but it has never been more urgent. We must reevaluate the ways in which we’ve allowed prejudices to split our societies apart, and it is imperative for us to recognize the urgency of coming together on the foundational humanity that unites us.

AIDEN LEE is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at aiden.lee@yale.edu . 

Aiden Lee is a staff columnist whose column, "It's Complicated," runs biweekly on Wednesdays. Originally from Arizona, he studies economics.