Update and Reflections on Coronavirus from Head of School Dr. John Austin

February 4, 2020

As you may have heard, over the weekend the US Government imposed some restrictions on travel into the country in response to the novel coronavirus. I hope that these will not be in place for long, and our hearts go out to all of those whose lives have been affected by this outbreak. As a school, we too, have taken what we hope are some cautious and reasonable steps—following the practice of other schools and colleges and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization—always keeping in mind our most important goal: the health and well-being of each of you and the community. We should all follow Dr. Benson’s commonsense suggestions for staying healthy and well.

I have another thought that I want to share with you: Perhaps as dangerous as the virus itself is the fear that that an outbreak like this can create. I was sorry to read that a number of news outlets have reported incidents of harassment and racial panic on school and college campuses—as close as Boston and as far away as France. I am reminded of the days following the attacks of 9/11, when many Arabs and Arab Americans were targeted, bullied, and harassed—and other moments in American history when events have given rise to increased xenophobia and fear of others. Research in psychology tells us that emotions—both positive and negative—travel, multiply, and infect—just like biological viruses. They call this the contagion theory of emotion. These contagions can affect our judgment; they render us more vulnerable to misinformation—of which I am told the there is a lot on social media and the internet right now. They can surface latent bias, kindling expressions of unkindness, or worse, prejudice and bigotry. We are all vulnerable to this.

Most importantly, fear can clog our powers of empathy and reason. By empathy I mean our ability to imagine the lives of others, the knowledge that other people’s suffering can, given different circumstances, be our own, that we are all vulnerable to misfortune and in need of one another’s support, care, and love. By reason I mean the ability to think clearly and deeply and make sound judgements. Our community is strong; Deerfield is strong because we embrace the values of empathy and reason. Deerfield is strong because you take good care of our friends and peers, and because you seek actively and intentionally to inspire those values in others.

So, thank you, as always, for your leadership.