I’ve been thinking a lot about butterflies lately: their beauty and fragility, the extraordinary metamorphosis they undergo in their brief lives, the way they represent nature and freedom, yet are also caught and pinned down for eternity. I attribute my contemplations to the fact that I prefer to think of colorful butterflies than try to imagine how a virus invisible to the human eye has brought the world to its knees.
The Butterfly Effect is a well-known concept associated with the work of the American meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz used to explain the way that a small incident in one place can set off a chain of events which may have a momentous impact on the other side of the globe weeks later. The term gained popularity after Lorenz presented a talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December 1972 entitled: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”
Lorenz, incidentally, did not coin the phrase. According to Scholarpedia, “in its frailty, the butterfly – actually introduced in the title by the convener of the session, unable to reach Lorenz at the time of the release of the program – seemed to provide the ideal illustration of smallness, as opposed to the overwhelming character of phenomena like tornadoes encountered in our natural environment and interfering decisively with our everyday experience.” I guess the person who came up with the metaphor didn’t realize that it would trigger its own version of the Butterfly Effect, creating a cute name within the science of chaos theory that would take on a life of its own.
There is no doubt that whatever brought about the COVID-19 pandemic that started in China at the end of last year has changed the world. Some of the changes will be permanent – a likely reduction in major international conventions, the cruise ship industry and travel in general, insurance, and a new way of addressing medical needs. Other changes will hopefully be transient – the economic repercussions and psychological harm, the loss of a sense of security in general.
The restrictions in force to try to stop the spread of the disease are leading to a major recession whose impact will be felt for years to come. There are predictions that the disease will change the way people work, with less personal interaction. I expect that the generation entering the work force in coming years will look for solid jobs of the sort that went out of fashion in the fast-paced hi-tech world. There is probably no such thing as job security anymore, but there’s a renewed desire for it.
The economic butterfly effect is causing more than a flap of wings. Many of those affected are the less-seen and vulnerable members of society. An article in last week’s Yisrael Hashavua, showed, for example, that when a restaurant closes, it is not only the owner or chef who is affected but the serving staff, cleaners and the fisherman who no longer has where to sell his catch. The restaurant is part of a food chain.
In Israel as elsewhere in the world, when businesses close or reduce operations, hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to take leave or being made redundant (what a harsh term).
Figures show a leap this month in the number of those seeking unemployment benefits, from some 6% to close to 20%. According to Globes, more than 657,800 new jobseekers registered since the beginning of March, making a total of more than 815,700 unemployed.
It reminds me of the old joke: “The definition of ‘an acceptable rate of unemployment’ is that the person collecting the statistics still has a job.” But it’s not funny.
Not surprisingly, the number of people calling ERAN, the country’s largest mental-health hotline, has reportedly doubled. These are tense times.
THE CORONA crisis has showed us the strengths and weaknesses of the global village and the technology on which it relies. Children are studying by remote, employees – those who still have jobs – are working from home and prayers are being held in cyberspace. There is even talk of Orthodox rabbis approving Seders being conducted via Zoom (as long as it is turned on before the start of the holiday) to enable families to celebrate in what passes for “together” in the days of social isolation – days in which grandparents can’t hug their grandchildren and aunts can’t plant a kiss on the cheek of a niece or nephew knowing that it will be wiped off within seconds and only be recalled affectionately years later.
This week, I had a particularly surreal corona day. Courtesy of Facebook Live, I was able to watch a friend get married in a beautiful and moving ceremony. I watched, I “liked” and I commented. It was joyous but remote. I longed to share their love with them in person.
Later in the day, I cried my way through a funeral – no need for sunglasses to hide my weeping eyes, nobody could see me. David Ehrlich touched the lives of so many and yet so few were able to pay their last respects in person; his partner, his pre-teen twins, his Holocaust survivor father and mother and not many more.
Ehrlich, a published author, was probably best known as the co-founder of Jerusalem’s iconic Tmol Shilshom restaurant and literary salon, combining food and thought. It was an extraordinary place where intellectuals and novelists could spread their ideas; many couples met, dated and proposed there; religious diners sat next to gay couples. It was warm, welcoming, fun and interesting, much like Ehrlich himself.
A week before his sudden death of a heart attack, Ehrlich and his business partner Dan Greenberg had closed the restaurant in keeping with the coronavirus prevention regulations. It’s hard to talk of Ehrlich – a former neighbor and friend – in the past tense; I hope Tmol Shilshom survives and bounces back after the pandemic. If nothing else, this disease – or the restrictive measures taken to slow down its spread – has shown that we all need real human touch and contact: A real hug at a funeral, shared laughter at a wedding.
A major problem facing us all is how to gradually return to normal life – albeit battle-scarred – after the war is over.The political fighting is exacerbating the situation. The country literally and figuratively cannot afford this. The challenges are enormous. People need to see an economic vision.
I don’t remember who first introduced me to the idea of the biblical Joseph being the first world-class economist but I owe them a debt. The idea that during the seven good years you must save for the seven bad years is ancient, invaluable advice. The proverbial rainy day caused by the corona butterfly wings has turned into a hurricane. After the storm passes, we will have to pick up the pieces, clean up the damage and learn to build stronger homes.
Butterflies can symbolize both the stomach-churning sensation of nerves and the fluttery feeling of love. Such is life, the mixture of pain and pleasure, set in motion by events not always under our control and not always close by. Right now, we are being required to stay home – stick in our cocoons. I look forward to the time when we will be able to emerge, spread our wings and bring more beauty and color back into the world.