What we have individually and collectively endured for over a year with Covid-19 has yielded many learning opportunities if we reflect on what has happened to, and around, us. The worst of circumstances usually contain embedded lessons so that we come out of them stronger. I would like to believe that whatever we learn here will inform our choices going forward because there will be future pandemics to contend with. Here is a brief list of lessons that I believe merit some thought:
Lesson 1: Historical events are invaluable reference points that help us keep current events in perspective. For example, any discussion of pandemics must include the H1N1 virus of 1918-1919 and the Black Death of 1347-1352. With regards to the former illness, approximately 1/3 of the world’s population contracted it and 50 million people died according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 675,000 deaths occurred in the United States. Both young people and the elderly were incredibly vulnerable. Unfortunately, a vaccine did not exist. Moreover, effective medical treatments were not available at the time. The University of Michigan Library has created an online encyclopedia where we can learn about how officials in cities like San Francisco responded when it struck. There are similarities to what we have experienced since early last year (e.g., facility closures, wearing of face masks). As for the Black Death, this bacterial infection killed 20 million people across Asia. Then, after making its way to the European continent aboard ships, 25 million died there – roughly 2 out of 5 people. Here it is crucial to remember that medical professionals had little understanding of not only the disease, but also how to treat someone when symptoms manifested.
Lesson 2: Consuming a disproportionate amount of bad news simply is not healthy. While the media landscape has changed in recent decades, it is often a business that wants to sell a product. If you will notice, much of the daily coverage is incredibly dramatic because that is part of how companies generate an audience that can be measured in clicks and views. Covid-19 has created many opportunities for people to be drawn to their news outlet of choice: the panic buying of goods, the availability of respirators, political disputes over wearing masks, state lockdowns, the rising number of cases, the capacity of hospitals, the rising number of deaths, and fears about the vaccine. Eventually, absorbing a steady stream of this kind of information alters our perception of what is happening around us. As people become increasingly distraught, their understanding is severely diminished. Furthermore, continuous stress taxes the human body, thereby inducing serious medical conditions ranging from migraines to a heart attack.
Lesson 3: While our respective communities have endured, they are nonetheless vulnerable for multiple reasons. Some people do not know how to handle disruptions to their daily lives. This threatens the social contract under which we live. Initially, I noticed the various cleaning products (e.g., bleach, disinfectant wipes) were gone from store shelves. Then, different items like rice, pasta, paper towels, and toilet paper disappeared as many bought more than what they needed. It left me with an eerie feeling. The pandemic induced a wave of panic buying that swept the country and other parts of the world. In addition, the unemployment rate spiked as millions of people lost their jobs. It exceeded what happened during the Great Recession, which now feels like a distant memory. Many turned to foodbanks to sustain themselves. Some faced homelessness when they could not pay their rent. Without question, the coronavirus illuminated problems with our social fabric and flaws in the brand of capitalism that we practice.
Lesson 4: Covid-19’s environmental impact has been mixed. Since I am fortunate enough to work remotely, I have not regularly commuted to the office in over a year. Moreover, I just attended a virtual conference. Undoubtedly, my fuel usage has decreased, thereby temporarily cutting my personal greenhouse gas contribution to climate change. It never occurred to me that there would be negative effects to consider. Last summer, an important study broadened the ongoing conversation. Yes, burning less gasoline is good for the planet, but this is only one dimension of a multifaceted issue. The authors discuss how there has been a major increase in the amount of biomedical waste such as syringes, masks, and gloves that hospitals produce. It must be immense given the sheer number of people who have been hospitalized since the pandemic began. Do the companies that handle its disposal have the resources necessary for the volume they must collect? Also, what about the amount of plastic that will not be recycled since most of what is accumulated is either incinerated or buried? This is a serious concern that warrants more attention.
Lesson 5: Unfortunately, medicine has been politicized, thereby undermining the work of the professionals we need to usher us through public health emergencies. This must be addressed. Here people need to understand that while knowledge is never perfect and the latest research may challenge previous findings, that does undermine the work itself. The more data collected, the better we understand Covid-19 and the greater the likelihood that lives will be spared. Yes, human beings are imperfect, but I have not seen any reason to doubt the work of scientists whose peer reviewed research we benefit from. Furthermore, guidelines such as wearing a mask in public advances the common good because it protects the people around us. A similar point can be argued about the vaccine. Thankfully, reluctance to obtain it has declined over the last several months. My hope is that this trend continues.
This pandemic should induce a change in the way people think and behave after they have time to process. We have the capacity to learn from the experience if we so choose.
John A. Duerk, Ph.D., is the contributing editor of a new anthology, Environmental Philosophy, Politics, and Policy, published by Lexington Books. Find him online at www.johnaduerk.net.
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