The world just stopped.
Looking back at the life we were living a year ago is surreal, at best.
It seems like a lifetime ago that I was in a Costa Rican airport declaring that I didn’t believe we would be returning to school after our spring break was over, possibly even for the rest of the year.
Masks have become such a normal part of our life now that it feels odd to take my vaccinated self into public without it covering my face.
After declaring that we all needed to take a deep breath and remember the lessons of our ridiculous busyness in the “before times,” our family has jumped right back into the fray. Sports for one kid, hanging out with friends for the other, sports camps, and plans for a full vacation complete with our extended family along for most of it, have filled up our calendar.
While I know this isn’t the case for some of my friends and family, individuals still living in understandable fear of what COVID-19 could do to their medically compromised loved ones, for our family, we can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Our family is the healthiest that we’ve been in years (thanks to consistent mask-wearing and social distancing). My husband and I are both vaccinated. Our 12-year-old has had her first dose and we are all eagerly awaiting her second dose. Our nearly 10-year-old son is jealously sitting by, waiting for his turn to finally be approved, hopefully before school starts again in the fall.
We’ve had close brushes with the disease, students in my classroom, classmates of my children, and most recently one of our son’s best friends on his soccer team that was quarantined for two weeks when his little sister brought it home to nearly the entire family. We’ve had friends and geographically distant relatives who have gotten sick, and while some have been serious, no one close to us was one of the half-million who have died. (Although we do have several friends and family members who did have friends and family who died, so we were repeatedly made aware of the seriousness of the disease.)
But our family can see the light. Our family now has the freedom of movement with minimal risk. Our family feels like we have done our best to do our part in all things public health for the good of our household and the greater community.
So why do I still feel equal parts hope and dread when I think about the future?
Because now that I can see past this pandemic, I can’t stop thinking about the pandemics of the past, the metaphorical pandemics of the present, and the pandemics of the future. Because now that I’ve seen how my fellow human beings have treated the health and well-being of others when it inconvenienced them, I can’t stop thinking about how things should have been since the moment our country shut down but it wasn’t. Because now that I’ve seen the ugliest parts of American isolationism and individualism, I can’t unsee how it impacted the lives of so many, how it held us back from preventing the deaths of hundreds of thousands, how it hurt the weakest members of our economic system.
And I have to wonder if we have really learned anything since March of 2020.
I recently finished reading The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, a book that gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the 1918 pandemic that killed up to 100 million people across the globe. Since the initial spread of COVID-19, people have made comparisons to this deadly pandemic that gripped the world in much the same way, but until I read the book, I didn’t realize how similar the two events really were. Misleading reporting by the press, ignorance of public officials, doctors seeking answers to a virus that was unlike any influenza they had ever seen, etc. History may not repeat itself, but it certainly echos. It is almost like we didn’t learn the lessons of the past to prepare for the challenges of the future.
And I fear that we’re in danger of doing it again.
Scientists had been warning of a dangerous global pandemic for years. George W. Bush read a pre-print edition of The Great Influenza and immediately decided to start a pandemic task force, a task force that his immediate successor continued to use during his presidency. (The task force was ended during the Trump administration because it was considered a waste of money and resources.) When we were finally hit with a deadly virus, one that most experts had not expected to be the next great pandemic, we were so unprepared, despite the decades of expert warnings. We have been warned that this is not the last deadly pandemic that current generations will face and we need to be preparing for the next.
But the painful truth is that we couldn’t handle this one; how will we handle another?
Survival of a global crisis requires that the vast majority of global citizens agree that it is a crisis and agree to work together for the common good in an effort to end the crisis and protect as many citizens as possible. The same goes for a national crisis, and we are facing multiple crises on both fronts.
We can’t fight a crisis when so many people were able to look past the death of over 500,000 fellow Americans and continue denying the significance of a potentially deadly illness.
We can’t fight a crisis when the people on whom we depend for survival (nurses, paramedics, store clerks, truck drivers, teachers) are burned out, vilified, and told that they should be happy with their working conditions and not ask for more.
We can’t fight a crisis when historically marginalized groups suffer significantly more than others and we don’t use the crisis as an opportunity to do something about it.
We can’t fight a crisis when half of our government is bickering instead of working to find real solutions to protect the American people.
We can’t fight a crisis when we refuse to acknowledge our role as global citizens and the impact that a virus or climate change has on all of us because viruses and climate have no respect for imaginary borders.
For our family, the pandemic is nearly over. While we haven’t come out of this unscarred and the future is still cloudy for us, my fear of the immediate future has subsided some.
Instead, I’m interested in healing the wounds, a healing that can only happen if we actually learn from the past this time. I really don’t want to fear the next pandemic. I don’t want to fear the next crisis. I want to be able to trust that my fellow citizens will look out for each other and not just their own interests. I want to believe that more of us understand that we are interdependent and that this interdependence makes us stronger, not weaker. I want to believe that we are better than our social media accounts say that we are.
Because the only way to fight the next crisis is to fight it together. And I’m beginning to wonder if that’s even possible.