I remember those early days back in March 2020. People said that we would be shut down for a few weeks, maybe a month, and then things could go back to “normal.” Then a few weeks turned into a couple months and by summer the social divide grew between those who maintained social distancing and those who went about like hospitals weren’t filling up and people weren’t dying by the thousands each day.
Suddenly, “normal” started to feel like a pie-in-the-sky wish that would never be achieved.
We are caught in a difficult stage of a global pandemic. People are getting vaccinated but the rates are entirely dependent on region and country. People are tired of being cooped up and not gathering with others (even though some never really stopped) and are jumping at opportunities even when the activity seems to be ill-advised (see the reporting on the opening game of the Texas Rangers). Many are still wearing masks but increasing numbers are deciding to forego extra protection as they increase socialization. Families are gathering more frequently, friends are meeting up, and sports activities are returning to the way things were before everything initially shut down.
The pandemic isn’t over but we can see the faint light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, we still don’t know just how far away that light is.
I want my fellow citizens to take a collective, masked breath before jumping right back into some version of normalcy because I fear we may be doing it too soon.
But more than that, I think we need to take a moment to ask ourselves if we really want to return to the way things were before March 2020.
Don’t get me wrong. I miss going out on the occasional dinner with just my husband. I miss sitting in a movie theater, eating buttered popcorn, and enjoying the communal act of watching a new movie release with a theater full of people. I miss seeing live theatre and going to concerts. I miss regularly worshiping and not worrying about whether or not everyone in the building is wearing a mask and doing their best to keep fellow worshipers healthy.
But not everything about living through COVID-19 has been negative. And instead of taking stock of the lessons that could be learned from the last year, we are eagerly returning to bad habits and questionable practices. We are so ready to put the last year behind us that we are forgetting the value of quiet and sitting still.
Just ask teachers how much has been forgotten. In the spring of 2020, parents all over the country sang the praises of educators, claiming that they deserved pay raises because no one really understood just how difficult their jobs were until parents had to step in. Teachers all over the country learned new technology overnight, collaborating with educators in different states and sometimes different countries to find out best practices for online and distance learning.
But as we got closer to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the criticism of teachers once again reached a fevered pitch. Parents and tax payers complained that teachers wanted to get paid for doing nothing, demanding that schools reopen without additional funds for precautions that would keep teachers and students safe. The concerns of all were legitimate. Parents needed to get back to work, students needed safe and effective learning environments, and teachers were worried about getting sick, or worse yet, dying because they had done what had been asked of them. Most teachers thought about the many doctors and nurses who had already paid the ultimate sacrifice to help their COVID patients live another day; they didn’t want to be the next to put their lives on the line.
In the last year, “normal” has come with a price.
Which is why I ask, do we really want a return to normal?
I don’t want to go back to a world where we stop seeing all the people who make our lives run smoothly (grocery clerks, medics, food delivery drivers, farm employees, doctors and nurses, and teachers and child care workers) as insignificant and unworthy of both respect and a meaningful living wage and benefits.
I don’t want to go back to a world where it is not only normal but expected to show up for work when we are sick. I don’t want to go back to believing that it is always better to work in the building than at home, even if that means infecting our coworkers with whatever illness ails us.
I don’t want to go back to a world where parents feel like they have to send their sick children to school. I want schools to stop rewarding perfect attendance and instead encourage parents to leave their sick children at home while offering the ability to still participate in class and continue learning until fevers and symptoms subside. And I want those parents to be given the flexibility to do so from their employers.
I don’t want to go back to a world where people don’t consider their illnesses before they go into public. I want masks and frequent hand washing to be the norm during cold and flu season, not the exception. In the last year, cases of influenza, RSV, and the common cold have plummeted. I want us to see public health as something that all of us are responsible for and continue the practices that have kept my family the healthiest that we’ve been in years.
I don’t want to go back to a world where we worship being busy and not taking the time to be in the moment. Our family is getting a taste of that as we let our son play two sports this spring, bringing us to two practices back-to-back and three games on the weekends. As Americans, we have worshipped the idea of “busyness” for years, and many of us got a taste of what our lives could be without every moment schedule out. We should hold onto that and give each other permission to make that a regular practice in our homes and lives.
I don’t want to go back to a world before the video of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that stemmed from that. I don’t want to go back to being too busy to care about the injustices that plague our neighbors and make the world less safe for all of us. I want to actively remember that our lives are intertwined and our communities are only as strong as our weakest members. A global pandemic showed us that the health, safety, and well-being of our neighbors impacts our own families as well.
When fire destroys a forest, it burns away the old growth and decay; the forest always grows back, but it never looks the same. It is fresh, new life changing the original landscape into something slightly different and often improved.
Even those least affected by COVID-19 and the ripple effect of its presence will be forever changed. It is understandable to desire a return to “normal.” It is human to look back on the past with a sense of clouded nostalgia, remembering things as we want to remember them, not as they actually were. But before we jump into a return to the way things were, we should take a moment to imagine the way things could be.
Because if we’re being honest, it could be so much better than the way it was before.
* Piece also featured on Scary Mommy.