Thursday, March 19, 2020

Pandemic ponderings

What a difference a week makes. This time last week, I was trying to figure out how our Teaching Federation’s work sanctions would affect my daily work routine; now, I’m wondering what happens for the rest of the school year and whether it’s time to consider changing careers and what the world will look like in 2021. But I've also been thinking on a macro-level about this pandemic and what it could mean, so I wanted to share some of those thoughts more widely.

I guess I knew it would just be a matter of time before life changed drastically, but I never thought it would be this soon that action would be taken, even when it was clear that COVID-19 was making its way to our prairie province. I had assumed that we would carry on for at least another month or so, even though I also assumed that there would be cases popping up here in Saskatchewan by the end of the week. (There were six cases in the province between confirmed and presumptive cases by the end of Sunday, all from travel and in self-isolation and sixteen by Wednesday.)

In just over a week, everything is being cancelled, everywhere is closing, and everyone’s suddenly an expert epidemiologist and virologist, and the phrases “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” are commonplace - although not necessarily common practice yet, judging by the pictures and videos from various places throughout the United States (in particular).

I’m sure that there will be a lot of analysis of how this all unfolded so quickly once the immediate fallout is not completely consuming our collective consciousness. But regardless of what it was that flipped the switch, up until a week ago, COVID-19 was something foreign, elsewhere, other - until suddenly, it was here, present, immediate, urgent, all-consuming.

And now, we are all just trying to figure out what to do and how to do it and how to solve the kind of problem that we knew was coming but for which we were not really prepared, even though we should have been. After all, in the past two decades alone, there were a few scares - SARS, avian flu, H1N1, swine flu, Zika, Ebola - but there was nothing like this. There were voices in the wilderness, warning us that a pandemic was coming, but they were not heeded with much regard, even in the past few months, as COVID-19 started to spread and shut down entire countries.

I suppose it's not that surprising that this has caught us collectively unprepared. The 2010s were kind of a difficult decade for a lot of people, and it’s hard not to be cynical and to see that in many ways that the advancements in technology over the past decade have helped bring out some of the worst tendencies in humanity, many of which have been very present thus far in the way that the pandemic has unfolded in the western world.

Sure, we’re more connected and immediate and there are a lot of benefits to all of the advances in our world, but it’s easy to have our vision of the good parts of the world blocked by the challenges that have arisen: the presence of increased political polarization, the normalization of extreme radicalization, myriad bad faith actors spreading disinformation, the erosion of institutional authority, the accumulation of wealth by an ever-shrinking group, the increasing rate of climate change and irreversible environmental damage... and now a global pandemic wreaking havoc with woefully underfunded health care instutitions.

And now, we have no idea what the world will look like in six months - much less for the next year or decade. It’s possible that it could be business as usual by the fall - school will start and businesses will be open and sports will resume and life will go on as it did pre-pandemic - but somehow I don’t think that’s going to be the case. It seems like things will be different after this is over, regardless of the eventual death count and whether the curve is flattened or not. The world will be a different place politically, economically, socially, technologically, and it will take generations to see the full impact of this pandemic, however long it lasts.

Maybe we’ll look back on this as a corrective period in our collective history. Maybe this is the kind of event that we will have needed as a society to wake us up from our stupor and to make us see the world differently and to make a difference. Maybe, as we pause and grieve the many losses of lives and livelihoods and hopes and dreams, and we then process all the ways that the world will have changed, and we work collaboratively to problem solve all of the issues that this will create not just in the immediate future but possibly for generations to come, we will gain some perspective and make some of the shifts that we need to make in order to move forward together.

Or maybe not. Maybe this exposes the raw, indigestible, inconceivable truth that humans are selfish and self-consumed, and that even the threat of a global pandemic is not enough to shift our focus to the collective good. Maybe the individualism and self-aggrandizement and polarization and the hoarding of wealth increases to an even more unbearable point, even accelerating as some bad faith actors find ways to profit from this life-changing event.

I sincerely hope for the former rather than the latter, especially because I am of the school of thought that this will not be final such trial that we will face as a species. I’m not trying to be overly pessimistic here, but I think I have long assumed that there will be multiple life-altering events in my lifetime, and that at some point in the next fifty years that I hope to live that my life - and everyone’s lives - will look very different as a result of those changes.

I was already preparing to some extent for a different world for my 13-month-old baby, even though I didn’t know what that world was going to look like in the future. I think I was assuming that we would be able to work together to solve the problems of the world; now, based on what I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, I’m a little more skeptical of our ability and willingness to do so.

But I have also seen enough good from people and from institutions to know that we’re not outside the realm of hope. Right now, I have hope that enough people are making the changes that we need to make in order to flatten the curve, and that this pandemic may not be as bad as it could have been.

I have hope that this will collectively teach us the value of social institutions and local community, and that some of those aforementioned ills that have risen so sharply in the past decade will begin to wane.I have hope that this is not some kind of Pandora’s box that is opening us up to all of the ills of the world along with our hope. And I have hope that this will bring all of us a better tomorrow.

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