One day (hopefully very soon) this pandemic will be in the past. We will look at this time with distance, sadness and relief while trying to piece together how the experience of self-isolation changed our lives. Now that the recent vaccine news brings hope that the pandemic may soon be behind us, the next few months seem like a countdown back to ‘normal’. So, what have we learnt from this pandemic so far?
The pandemic taught us the value of freedom – the freedom to move around, to be with those we love, to travel, to attend (or not attend) classes. Being forced to stay indoors for the most part and only being able to meet a certain number of people has forced us to acknowledge the importance of having the choice to make these decisions for ourselves. For many of us, with friends and family living further than a drive away, the advent of the holiday season during this pandemic is a bitter-sweet experience. Online classes, no matter how well-conducted they are, cannot make up for the human connections that form during lectures on-campus.
Another valuable lesson we will take away from this pandemic is the danger of ignoring our inter-dependence and the importance of global cooperation. The virus has forced us to confront some important questions: if we know what must be done to overcome this pandemic – along with other challenges that lie ahead, in the form of climate change, financial crises and cyberwarfare, among others – then why do we spend so little time facing these problems? Why, at this time of global threat, do so many countries retreat to populist nationalism? How has this pandemic divided our nations rather than bringing us closer together?
The stark contrast between the political failure to collaborate and the immense cooperation within the science and medical community is painfully clear. So far, we haven’t witnessed much international unity to solve global problems; the climate crisis shows how stubbornly politicians refuse to accept drastic measures that might endanger their support with voters and economic interest. ‘We are all in this together,’ they say, and technically, it is true. We are all affected, but not in the same way. ‘Covid is not an equal opportunities virus’ as Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it. It is unequal in terms of who gets ill, who dies and who survives the policy responses to it.
This pandemic has exposed inequalities as much as it has created new ones. At first, it seemed older people were most at risk. Then those with pre-existing health conditions or ‘co-morbidities’. Then frontline service workers. Then, in the UK and US at least, we noticed that people from ethnic minorities featured disproportionately in the death tolls. Each day brought new evidence of how social and economic disadvantage was a deciding factor for who lived and who died.
How could people living in crowded or multi-generational households protect themselves by socially distancing; how could the millions of people who still lack sanitation follow the ‘wash your hands often’ rule? Low-income workers in informal or service sectors could not work from home. Home-schooling and online learning is not a feasible option for children without the resources to get digital access. As the disease spread, the pattern of disadvantage could be seen across the world. It is having a disproportionate impact on those with low incomes. The less fortunate and those on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder are suffering more while the rich make their way through this pandemic with better medical facilities and greater comfort. People fighting the disease on the front line, – nurses, delivery personnel, supermarket workers – are currently among the most poorly paid. As António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, put it ‘We are all floating on the same sea, but some are in super-yachts and others clinging to drifting debris.’
We will inherit the political and economic systems that are now being reshaped in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The choices we make now and in the near future have the potential to change the world for the better or make it worse. What we do next will determine whether we create a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable world or sink further into the swamp.