It has been a year since coronavirus became a household word, and in long months that seem like years, more than 500,000 of our fellow Americans succumbed to the virus, more than American civilian and military losses in World War II.
Many of us lost friends and relatives, whose final moments were spent in a sterile hospital room without family and friends, but hopefully with a sympathetic nurse at the bedside for comfort. Many of us who stayed healthy, adapted to a world in hibernation and the indistinguishable blurring of work and home life.
This pandemic reminds us that we are social creatures — that being human means to touch, to kiss, to laugh, to cry with others, even to high-five strangers to celebrate our favorite team’s success in a crowded arena. Now, when we make contact, it is with a cautious elbow bump and an unseen smile beneath a face mask. Just not the same as a handshake or a hug.
“Table for six” fell out of our lexicon. We watch movies streamed on a smartphone or home television, not as a communal experience in a darkened movie theater. Every day became Casual Friday.
Most of all, we learned that technology isn’t always an able substitute for personal contact, that our mental, physical and economic health rely on personal interaction that we can’t duplicate on screens. In the early days of the pandemic, public health officials advised everyone to stay at home except to get food or other essentials, a level of isolation that walled off people from family, friends, community activities and work.
Students lost time in classrooms and struggled to learn remotely without a friend at the next desk, and even worse, simply fell off the radar, raising questions about whether we have created a lost generation. Zoom calls replaced morning coffee chats in company cafeterias and boardroom huddles. Our favorite bistros closed; that waiter we knew on sight, if not my name, vanished from our daily routine.
Most of us hunkered down and wore masks to protect ourselves and others from the deadly infection. Doctors, nurses and countless medical workers braved an unseen danger to help the sick, often without adequate protective equipment, scant knowledge of how to treat patients, and the fear and emotional carnage that comes with being overwhelmed by grief.
We also learned that those who had long struggled for inclusion in the workforce fell backwards. More than 2 million women left the labor force last year and now are at the lowest workforce participation level since 1988, a decline tied partly to the widespread closings of schools and day care centers. The wage differential between those who could work at home and those who could not unveiled yet another racial and economic fissure in our society. Many non-medical people who we also called essential workers — grocery clerks, those at the cash registers, delivery workers, trash collectors, farmers and manufacturing workers — found themselves caught between keeping a job and risking their health.
What remains to be seen is how we adapt to a post-pandemic world. Upheaval accelerates change and some changes brought on by the pandemic may become permanent. COVID-19 revealed that some parts of life are more adaptable and resilient than others, that the world will not be constant, and that change will not occur only on our terms. The answer is evolving, and in some respects, we don’t even know the right questions to ask.
Indeed, by necessity, we have made adjustments and will make more, and a return to normalcy — whatever that now means — may actually be a step backward. The coronavirus recession highlighted chasms between the haves and have-nots with wide-reaching consequences. The financial markets and the Main Street economy moved in different directions. Financial markets rebounded but on Main Street, millions of livelihoods and businesses, small and large, bore the brunt of the disruption.
The digital divide also is real and the pandemic exposed disparities and challenges of working and learning remotely. The impact of stress and loneliness has yet to be fully appreciated on our health and emotional outlook about our place in the world.
The pandemic led to points of severe divisions within our society. But let’s not forget that the coronavirus mostly brought out our best instincts — generosity, compassion, kindness to protect the most vulnerable and countless acts of selflessness. Millions of us called relatives, ran errands and renewed friendships with former classmates and colleagues over Zoom.
Each of us made sacrifices, some heroic, and found ways to cope with tough times and now are eager to return to doing the things we used to do without trepidation. But anyone who says they haven’t thought about how they will do things differently isn’t being frank.
We work and play differently and in some ways we will continue to do so but with hope and optimism replacing a year of uncertainty. Hope and optimism (as well as grit, ingenuity and a dynamic market-driven system) gave us vaccines in record time and hope and optimism will be guiding stars as we go forward.
After one year, our struggle isn’t over but science and shared experiences as humans in an uncommon crisis as well as inherent kindness embedded within our people have brought us this far. And it is this mix that will get us to a world that won’t be dominated by a virus.
— THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS