“If this thing spreads to the US and schools get shut down, we should just head to the Grand Canyon,” I told my husband a couple weeks ago.
That was before Italy went into complete quarantine. That was before states started reporting case after case. That was before countries started closing borders. That was before the entire world fell to its knees.
Everything is happening so quickly. Two weeks ago, as we prepared for traveling to Costa Rica, we heard plenty of concerns about this novel virus that was finally making its presence known in the United States. Parents were concerned about us traveling to another country but we were going to a place that didn’t reportedly have it. If anything, we were more of a threat to fellow humans in Costa Rica than they were to us. While we were building a house and exploring nature, Austin canceled South by Southwest. While we were preparing to board a plane, Houston canceled the rest of the rodeo. I joked with our group that we were probably safer staying the country than we were returning home. Five days after our departure, Costa Rica closed its borders.
The hourly changes in local, national, and international news have left most of us feeling dizzy. Nobody knows what is going to happen next and the future looks bleak.
But does it have to be?
Yes, the next several weeks and months are going to be difficult. Every part of our lives have been disrupted. I know people who have lost jobs or had hours cut back due to a total stoppage in the workforce. I’ve moved all of my classes online and I have to figure out how to finish a yearbook without a finished school year while also helping my own children continue their school work from home. I have family and friends who work in the medical field and who will be at higher risk simply because they are exhausted and overexposed. I have loved ones for whom this virus would be devastating and we are doing everything we can to keep it away from them because their lives matter to us.
But there are still things that make me optimistic. Why? Because sometimes it takes catastrophic events to force changes that needed to take place anyway.
Clouds of pollution are disappearing around the world.
A glance at satellite images over places that have gone into complete shutdown demonstrate just how quickly the air can clear when humans stop pumping pollutants into the atmosphere. We know that the air clear isn’t going to last because eventually people will return to work and normal activities. We are far from finding the solution, but maybe this time of isolation will give environmental scientists time to continue working towards different solutions that will benefit the whole planet.
We are having to reevaluate every aspect of our workforce.
Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg are right: we have not moved into the 21st century. It may be 2020, but we are behind in so many different ways. Low wage workers in grocery, transportation, and the food industry are keeping us from societal collapse. Our minimum wages have not kept up with inflation and we’re discovering that low wages and lack of guaranteed sick leave not only potentially increased the spread of illness in our country, but means that any time off during a nationwide shutdown is going to be devastating to millions of Americans who were not making enough to have any kind of safety net. And for those who still have jobs, they are discovering what it means to work at home. American business has been slow to offer flex time and options for working from home and now their employees are going to finally learn whether they are more productive in or out of the building. Some businesses are playing with work hours, experimenting with different shifts and four-day weeks instead of five. These were all things that needed to be considered but businesses were slow to do so. Being forced to actually look at this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
American education is being forced into the 21st century.
The year before we moved to Texas we experienced some of the worst snow of our adult lives. I went six weeks without teaching for a full week. By the second week of the new semester I was making adjustments to teach my AP classes online because it was the only way we were going to get everything done before the end of the semester. For the last seven years of teaching I have used online course management systems and my current students are pretty used to using Google Classroom and Google apps for all things English. But I know that isn’t the norm. Teachers are being forced to try new tools, parents are learning just how hard a teacher’s job is, kids are being forced into tech proficiency instead of just dependency, and states and national organizations are having to reconsider how they do standardized tests. And it’s not just K-12 education that is being challenged. People are now discovering online options for higher education as that is the only option available to them for now. Time will tell what the long term effects of this will be, but my hope is that it will increase skills and open up conversations that have needed to happen for a long time.
After years of debating “Medicare for All” we are being forced to look at everything health care.
Italy has proved that having socialized medicine does not prevent the spread of pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that the US is superior in any way. The lack of insurance for so many was actually keeping people from seeking medical attention or testing. Our medical personnel in places around the country are already overworked trying to keep up. People are just now starting to realize just how little our first responders–who are on the front lines as we try to control spread–are getting paid. Many of us have known for years just how important public health is. Now most of our country is being forced to confront the weaknesses in our system and how those weaknesses can endanger everyone, not just those who are struggling.
Families are being forced to slow down and spend time together.
We are on day five of limiting our time out of the house. My husband, who normally works from home, is trying to figure out how to deal with all of us in the house with nowhere to go. I’m teaching from home, the kids are learning from home, and while I know we have several more weeks of this, I’m trying to keep myself from cramming as many things onto my to-do list as possible. After today I’m going to work on keeping a strict work schedule, fully aware that this means that I may reach 4:00 every day with work that is still undone. As a family we are working on consistent chores, conflict resolution, and not spending all of our time in front of a screen. Yesterday the kids pulled out a board game. This morning my son and I took a short walk together so I could get some steps in. We know that this is not going to be easy, but many of us are being forced to prioritize family time. I know that for some families this forced togetherness may also cause more harm than good, but I’m hopeful that for many of us we will still be able to see some positive outcomes when this is over.
We are being challenged to put others first.
We’re not all succeeding at this. After all, look at the toilet paper situation across the US. But for the first time ever in our lives, we are being forced to look at how we are individually and together handling a genuine crisis. It is far from over. It is going to get worse before it gets better. We are finally facing the dangerous implications in the distance between the haves and have-nots in this country. But we are also seeing individuals and groups stepping up. We are seeing who cares for others and who does not. We are learning what happens when the vulnerable are not cared for and the dominoes that fall when we allow that to continue. And I pray that we will not forget those who took care of the least of these and remember those who put themselves first.
Make no mistake. This worldwide pandemic is going to devastate our global economy, cost lives, and make most of us uncomfortable–at best–for the next several months. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better and it is this loss of control over our lives and fear of the unknown that is driving a lot of the current panic. But when we finally come out of this, no matter how bruised and battered, my prayers is that we will be able to see a silver lining. The quick warnings and actions of doctors and scientists around the world demonstrated that they had learned from history and determined to see a better outcome in the 21st century. I believe that the rest of us can do the same.