Do we dare believe that we are on the downward slope of this pandemic? We are cautiously optimistic that we may have turned the corner, but lesser so than the glee we felt after the mass vaccination rollout began at the start of the year. One by one, the precautions that returned when COVID-19’s Delta variant surged appear to be loosening their grip on our lives as the number of new cases drops.
This may be a good time to reflect on the lessons we learned as a society. Failure to do so dooms us to more disruption the next time we face a public health crisis. Here are some of the conclusions I’ve reached…
It pays to prepare for the improbable
It’s important to prepare for the next crisis, even after this pandemic becomes a distant memory and we’re tempted to divert spending on things we want instead of hypotheticals that may not happen anytime soon. It’s safe to say we were “caught with our britches down” since the last pandemic to kill millions of people in a matter of months was more than 100 years ago. The powers that be failed miserably in terms of our supply chain keeping sufficient inventory of goods in reserve, including the Personal Protective Equipment that our healthcare providers needed when they were suddenly slammed with the onset of cases. It didn’t make sense to invest in a ton of such items that would probably wear out and just get thrown away when there are so many other things we need to throw money at. In the decades ahead, it will take discipline to stockpile things we’ll need rather than arrogantly concluding that mankind has struck the final blow against germs seeking our extermination.
Don’t assume the best
We pay a terrible price for blind faith based on the reputations of institutions that protected us in the past, the degree of previous luck we fail to recognize or the skill of the players involved. Mixed messaging and political interventions led to catastrophic outcomes. We must also be skeptical when those eager to prevent a panic or wreck the economy in an election year offer us assurances that it’s not that serious, it’s not going to get very bad and they’re containing the worst of it. Liars lie to cover their incompetence and people die.
Don’t assume the worst
Conspiracy theories abound, fed by disinformation that’s been seeded by those who benefit from creating chaos and outrage. Although we celebrated them early on as heroic, nefarious intent was ultimately projected upon everyone from philanthropists to nurses and doctors to scientists to school boards. In times like these, cooler heads do not necessarily prevail as comments about complicated topics requiring nuance to properly understand get deliberately taken out of context. So many institutions failed us in the years leading up to this, so naturally some lacked credibility. When trust is missing, people don’t know who and what to believe, and cynical manipulators are more than happy to fill in the blank spots.
Unknowns are terrifying, but past experience gives us a foundation for learning and adapting
What made COVID so scary at the start of 2020 were all of the unknowns about this powerful virus, including its effects, the severity of its contagiousness, how it transmitted from person to person, how it started, and especially the lack of effective treatments. With the benefit of time and clinical studies, we now know much more about this disease. Infectious disease doctors built on what they already knew about pathogens in general to reach conclusions about this one and its variants. They’ll build what they’ve learned into new models that they can refer to with the next virus.
We must expect some percentage of the general population to fiercely resist disruptive changes – especially if they are inconvenienced for more than a short time
Some revolt when they’re told dramatic actions are needed in the interest of public safety and will dismiss such pleas and mandates as unnecessary burdens imposed upon them just for the sake of, I suppose, pissing them off. There’s a limit to their empathy, compassion, and tolerance when the self-determination of the individual is pit against the needs of the collective. Today, people have become bitter and hateful. They’re angry about anything and everything. Because they feel entitled to those reactions. I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to reset things and stop being such assholes to one another.
Technology is a vital tool but an imperfect substitute
Zoom and FaceTime allowed us to stay connected to friends and family during a difficult time when seeing them in person was just too risky. Broadband Internet allowed some of us to work or go to class remotely. And telehealth enabled a lot of folks to get medical checkups or online therapy for the stress and depression rather than missing appointments or having to risk catching a contagious virus sitting next to strangers in cramped offices. As useful as it was, as the pandemic dragged on, pixelated images couldn’t fully satisfy that basic human need to be alone in a crowd and catch all of the subtle nuances conveyed by body language. And every conversation that lagged due to slow connections revealed far our tech infrastructure still needs to go to be ready for prime time. For those of us who were single, we understood for the first time how painful it is to not be touched for months on end by another human being. Technology also provided a lifeline to some people who found themselves out of a job or looking for a way to make money online.
Popular entertainment, paired with social media, is the new water cooler
Sheer boredom and the need for distraction from so much suffering and death made streaming services on apps on our television sets the great shared sanctuary. But as the pandemic dragged on, most of us couldn’t wait to get back out to bars, live shows and dine out just to feel normal again. We were premature in assuming that just because we got the vaccine that it was safe to dive head first back into the waters of being social creatures again.
Clarity was a side effect of this crisis
America’s transition from a manufacturing to service-based economy came into sharp focus as millions of people realized that their low-paying jobs in the hospitality and food service industries, often without any health insurance or benefits, weren’t worth the risk of catching a disease, putting business owners between a rock (few applicants) and a hard place (reduced sales volume making it tough to pay employees more). It’s a tough thing feeling forced to order someone to put themselves at risk, especially when the public is behaving so rudely and defiantly. The pandemic magnified the disparities that have long been an issue for a variety of people. We gained a new appreciation for how important truck drivers, grocery store workers and nursing home staff are to the social fabric.
COVID was an insidious foe
It’s no wonder many people suspect the coronavirus was created in a lab, designed specifically to be underestimated. Let me explain what I mean… Everything about this disease made it deadly. The way it took advantage of underlying health conditions. The way it barely affected some people, causing them to dismiss it as no more serious than the flu, while absolutely destroying others. You could have it and feel fine, unknowingly spreading it to others, whereas a disease less camouflagued – say, something universally terrifying like Ebola – tends to motive its victims to isolate because you know it when you get it and if you still go out and knowingly spread it to other people, you’re some sort of monster. For months and months, I heard people reject the warnings and say that they did not personally know anyone who had gotten sick or died. Until we all knew people who’d gotten sick and died of it. I attended the funeral of a family friend just a month and a half ago. Even as I am tempted to declare we are willing this struggle, the coronavirus continues to stalk humanity, producing variants and causing “long” symptoms in some who survive it just to spend months or years never quite returning to the health they formerly took for granted. God knows what the longer-term impacts will be or if even more savage and contagious variants are lurking. You give COVID chances to regroup at your own peril.
As much as they’ve been attacked, vaccines remain powerful for preventing disease
No vaccine is a magic bullet, nor 100% effective, and these came with some very unpleasant side effects (still nothing compared to the actual illness), yet the numbers don’t lie when revealing who ended up hospitalized or died of COVID vs experiencing milder results. The fact that scientists were able to work in unison to develop multiple effective vaccines in such a short period of time is incredible. And the long-term unknowns are why so many people were hesitant to get the shot, along with a lot of deliberate disinformation. Is it just me or has it seemed like some people have jumped at every opportunity to mislead us and compound this tragedy? The whole debate over mandating vaccines is pretty confounding when we recognize that most of us Americans have been required to get vaccinated for a variety of things for most of our lives. Google “smallpox” in Google Images if you want to understand the horrors that vaccines have almost extinguished from existing.
COVID attacks the body, but the larger impact of the pandemic affected our mental health as well
Having to cope with uncertainty provoked anxiety while juggling work and childcare, isolation and losing loved ones to the disease (being unable to sit at their bedside at the moment of a horrible death or be comforted at the funeral home in such a time of great loss) understandably led to a spike in stress and depression.
As horrible as its been, we are stronger and more resilient for our troubles and trauma
Most of us didn’t appreciate how good we had it compared to the struggles of our ancestors who went through catastrophes such as wars, famines and economic depressions. The silver lining to tough times is that they make us tougher people with a renewed sense of perspective. Everyone who has endured the hardships of the past two years now knows that they survived a pandemic, so surely they can handle a lot of things that maybe used to feel unbearable.
What lessons have you learned from the pandemic?
© 2021 Steven Stiefel