Written back in August 2020. Boy, I was very angry when I wrote this. Dealing with the loss of a parent, as well as the loss of your former life and former self, is a lot to handle in just one short year. That kind of pressure and emotional stress causes you to behave and think in ways that don’t really speak to who you truly are as a person. While I don’t exactly disagree with anything I argued here, I do in hindsight take issue with the overly bitter and resentful form with which I decided to articulate my thoughts. But I’m sharing anyways, at the very least as a manifestation of how mainstream culture’s response to the pandemic unnerves those who might feel the effects of COVID-19 far more acutely.
Do you remember back in the Spring when your effervescent friends, Coca-Cola, and practically every car company in the country battered you over the head with this bravely optimistic message?: “Things look pretty scary right now, but look on the bright side!” And out poured the whimsical fantasies:
We would all stay home for a few weeks to reset and stay safe (staycation, am I right?!), and as a result, we would become more enlightened, less materialistic; we would learn to slow down every now and then. Families would be brought closer together. Thanks to the pandemic, those who survived would emerge from it better people due to sacrifices made and hardships endured.
We would find inspiration in front-line workers’ everyday heroism. We would repay the favor by making FREE painted rocks. Thanks to the pandemic, humanity would come together like this, united by the simple fact that an undiscriminating virus affects all of us equally.
Nature would heal. After just one month, maybe two, of people mostly staying home, the environment would begin to bounce back. A significant — albeit partial and temporary — reduction in carbon emissions would somehow undo roughly two and a half centuries of unfathomable ecological destruction.
Now several months into the pandemic, we’re a bit less naive than that. We know the pandemic has not necessarily brought out the better angels of our nature. Masks are irritating, they’re hard to breathe through because I never learned how to breathe properly, and they make it hard to talk because I never learned how to enunciate and project. And hang on, grocery store workers want hazard pay to become permanent? Nurses are traumatized and exhausted and fed up with the public’s platitudes? Teachers would rather live than babysit little super spreader Kenny so that I can be freed up to work my far less stressful job in which I make double their salary? I’ll have my pretty rock back, thank you very much.
We also know now that a pack of blue whales could reclaim Times Square for nature and it wouldn’t change the fact that the Arctic is melting, forests around the world are on fire, failing oil and gas companies are haphazardly abandoning wells across the country and leaving ordinary people to suffer the environmental fallout…all while deadly heat waves and freak hurricanes continue to kill thousands.
For the most part, anybody still peddling early Corona fantasies are rightly dismissed either as damn fools or charlatans. Yet some optimism remains that something good is bound to emerge from the pandemic, that there’s inevitably going to be some sort of revolutionary political or socioeconomic change — or both.
For proof that things are going to change, we apparently need to look at history. In search of parallels to our own time, some pundits will point to the Second World War — a cataclysmic global event that strengthened the cause of social welfare in Western countries. Given that we’re “at war” with a deadly virus, the logic goes, maybe we will come out of this fight with a renewed commitment to equality and social justice.
The WWII analogy almost makes sense until you step back and realize that it’s actually absurd. We’re dealing with two very different contexts: WWII was a war; the current pandemic is not. In fact, it can’t even be characterized as a figurative war anymore, as that would imply a shared sense of sacrifice that is clearly belied by the selfish hostility towards mask-wearing and closures.
Fine, maybe we’re not engaged in total war with the virus. Would it be fair, though, to suggest that our current situation is very much like the Great Depression? Given the economic disaster wrought by the virus, this does seem like a fair comparison. It would also then seem fair to assume that we should anticipate a host of drastic systemic change a la New Deal. Once again, though, I think our current context is too distinct. During the Depression, it was easier to make the claim that the crisis was produced by fatal flaws within the economic system itself, thereby making reform essential. But because today’s economic crisis is so inextricably tied to the virus, it’s too easy for those opposed to reform to say that there’s actually nothing wrong with the system. Their arguments, however flawed, are helped on by the fact that the economy was in decent shape before the pandemic hit.
These erroneous comparisons to other historic events is symptomatic of a common problem: the tendency for people to draw the wrong lessons from history. Lessons that are most amenable to their hopes for the future, but perhaps not grounded in harsh reality. The unfortunate truth, that which many of us would like to ignore, is that the best historical antecedent we can find to the current pandemic is, of course, another pandemic — the Spanish flu. Unfortunately, the lessons we can draw from this much more relevant event are desperately lacking in any kind of silver lining.
To sum up a complicated story, Americans emerged from the influenza pandemic of 1918–1920 understandably exhausted: worn out from the death, tired of shortages, sick of uncertainty. On the whole, ordinary people did not choose to see their brief intervention in WWI and the public health crisis that followed as opportunities to refashion society and the political system. Instead, after all the suffering and hardship they endured, most Americans hungered for a return to the status quo. The 1920s became an era of small, business-friendly government; rampant stock market speculation; rising income inequality; retrenched racial divides — seen perhaps most clearly in the resurgence of the KKK. It was precisely what people were after: a “return to normalcy.” A return, in other words, to all America’s ugliness.
Over 600,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu. Sadly, their deaths turned out to be as meaningless as the millions of deaths caused by the First World War. Despite these losses, little changed. That’s the key lament of the disillusioned artists who came to be known as the “Lost Generation.” So many people died for nothing.
In our own time, are we doomed to cry a similar lament? What ultimate lesson is to be drawn from history’s closest parallel to the present crisis?
The most pessimistic argument would be that, just like the Spanish flu, COVID-19 will inevitably push people to return to what’s comfortable rather than do whatever is necessary to address the glaring socioeconomic issues that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief. We can already see signs that we’ll be reverting to the status quo once the virus is under control. The proof is in the angst over a possible second lock-down, the outrage over remote learning this fall, and the apparently massive appeal of a boring, moderate presidential candidate. It is after all Joe Biden’s “normalcy,” rather than any hint of progressivism, that accounts for his popularity. (That and the fact that his clear competence makes him a thousand times more palatable than the sitting president — who appears hell-bent on driving us towards failed-state status.)
In this scenario, we confront the same harsh reality that people faced 100 years ago: sometimes, bad things happen and there’s no silver lining. A new virus emerges and — like our own species — it does everything it can to adapt and survive, even at the expense of other living organisms. We are so disturbed by such a merciless act of nature that we want nothing more than to forget what happened as soon as possible. The outcome is a society firmly retrenched in the familiar — despite, or perhaps because of, the experience of mass death.
I would rather argue, though, that what the 1918–1920 pandemic teaches us is not that we’re doomed to an equally dreary outcome, but that events are not the most significant catalysts for change — it’s people. When disaster strikes, people choose how to react, and those choices determine our future trajectory.
People who choose to believe that certain seismic events will inevitably produce change fall into a dangerous passivity. They tend to believe that they’re powerless to alter the future — history is going to do what it’s going to do. To think that everything, for better or for worse, is inevitable, is to accept complacency.
Yet most historians would contend that absolutely nothing is inevitable. Rather, the outcome of events is contingent upon what people choose to make of the manifold crises and tragedies that unexpectedly befall us. For instance, it was not inevitable that the murder of George Floyd would produce the largest mass protests that this country has ever seen. Activists chose to make George Floyd a new rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, and millions of ordinary people chose to listen. Without this human action, Floyd’s death would’ve been nothing more than another example of racist police violence, but not necessarily a catalyst for civil rights protests.
By the same token, it’s a fantasy to think that COVID-19, in and of itself, is not only a deadly virus, but also somehow a harbinger of miracles. If we choose to believe that the pandemic by itself carries enough momentum to bring about the change we desire, then, just like the previous pandemic, all the death will indeed be meaningless.
There is no silver lining to this pandemic unless you make it so. Things aren’t going to change just because you sat at home for a month, learned a new hobby, painted a rock, and let your gas-guzzling SUV hibernate in the garage. You want change? Let the people in power know that you’re angry and fed up. Continue to show up as an ally for your oppressed friends. Do whatever it takes to get your ballot in this November. If Joe Biden wins, don’t rest on your laurels; it will be tempting to take your eyes off government and Congress once the professionals are in charge again, but don’t fall into that complacency. Keep the pressure on Biden and other moderate Democrats to pursue genuine change. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that events alone will do the work for you. And — for God’s sake — don’t wish so desperately for things to go back to normal that you lose sight of how gravely ill the world already was under the status quo.