What if normal is the problem? And other coronavirus questions

The pandemic diaries

Eleven months ago, I flew home to Sea-Tac as coronavirus dug its claws into the flesh of the world. Shelves emptied, businesses closed, panic began to set in. In March 2020, I wrote in my notebook a snippet of conversation I overheard in the grocery store:

“Are we going to die?” A young woman asked.

After a long pause, from behind his mask a man reassured her with two words: “not today.”

In my notebook, I added:

Apocalyptic thoughts rush forward when uncertainty is the only certainty.

Nobody knew how bad it would get. Sitting at the gate for the flight back to Reno, I listened to my pilot talking to a flight attendant:

The media is freaking out about the virus,” the pilot said.

For twenty minutes, he described overreaction that was hurting the industry. On the flight back to Reno, I crouched over the tray table to write a few more anxious pages.

Suddenly, life is no longer normal. How did we get into this mess?

I didn’t share my thoughts back in March. The pandemic felt too fluid, evolving, unknown. My reaction felt too, well, reactionary, to be accurate. Maybe I was overreacting. I needed patience, perspective.

We’re nearly a year in. But looking back at that notebook, I’m shocked by how little has changed:

US leads the world in coronavirus cases by far. We haven’t even seen the worst of it. The virus is underscoring so many pre-existing problems in the country and stressing every aspect of our constitution.

Today, over 100 million people have contracted the virus. Over 2 million have died. The United States still leads the world in both categories.

This irrefutable proof could—should—spread the realization that we can’t ignore our connection to each other, everyone, and everything.

bright orange beach at sunset
Distant strangers on a beach in Washington in December 2020.

Coronavirus and climate

Those long months ago, it felt insensitive to invoke comparisons between climate change and the terrible human crisis that would soon be declared a global pandemic. But here’s what I thought in March 2020:

The coronavirus crisis shares many similarities with the other social-environmental crises of our time; although we can see these crises approaching, elected leadership happily ignores them while the impacts fall on the poor and disadvantaged. Mitigation only comes into consideration when the privileged are affected.

I’ve long been weary of being “too political” on my website, in my newsletter, or on social media (perhaps a side-effect of a non-confrontational personality). But the politics that shape these social and environmental issues are undeniable.

We have an opportunity to move in the direction of empathy and compassion and those with power and privilege must help move in that direction.

At the beginning of the pandemic, people wondered how coronavirus could change society forever.

The coronavirus pandemic is such glaring critique of current global leadership that pundits call for a new paradigm.

But they see the opportunity for a sea-change without grasping either the meaning of term or the institutions that precipitated this crisis—and still feed many others.

Although the coronavirus seems like a blip, an unforeseen disaster, this pandemic isn’t an aberration. Some researchers understood how industrial agriculture created other epidemics and knew that a pandemic was not only possible, but a matter of time. Our flawed relationship with nature—and each other—is setting us up for these disasters.

The virus spreads invisibly onward, exposing deep flaws in society. The wealthy receive special treatment or are insulated altogether. “Leaders” act on their own financial, egotistical, or re-election interests, rather than those of real people.

Last spring, the world was unified in shelter-in-place orders, bonding together in our joint suffering through quarantines, virus testing rollouts, and new ways of going to school and work. Coronavirus gripped people more suddenly and acutely than any other crisis: faster and more widespread than the Great Recession, more visibly and indiscriminately than the opioid epidemic, more immediately than climate change.

Most other crises develop so slowly or so long ago as to be inseparable from “normal.” They are all as interwoven in modern life as to be reality’s true identity, accumulating everyday tolls, but never reaching COVID-19’s immediate global shock.

COVID-19 is both unprecedented and incredibly sudden. Its impact on society will change the way we view and interact with each other for decades. I can only hope that impact is a good one.

Today, I see few signs that even this sudden and shared shock will change society for the better, that it will force us to improve healthcare, environmental, or social relationships and government programs. And if this unprecedented pandemic doesn’t teach us all how we need to fundamentally change, I asked:

Will climate change/species extinctions/landscape transformation/natural resource depletion/pollution ever stoke widespread feelings of an environmental apocalypse?

Even if we do collectively awaken to an environmental apocalypse, are our leaders too insulated from this and other crises to act?

Will the coronavirus subvert the current status quo enough to make lasting change in across more than just disease-preparedness?

Can it teach us all of the importance of sensible expert-driven leadership, long-term risk planning, and global coordination?

I’d add: can it teach us the pitfalls of industrial agriculture, the persistence of systemic inequality, and the mythology of endless economic growth?

Covid and the stable status quo

It appears now, almost a year later, that the impact of Covid-19 will not include as many constructive lessons as I once hoped. The virus has further divided us. It has disproportionately hurt the marginalized and vulnerable.

But hope remained then and remains now:

Coronavirus scaled so explosively that it even forced regularly uninterested governments—which prefer covering up to planning ahead—to take action. Springing from Capitol Hill was expanding paid sick leave, supporting small businesses, and improving social programs from healthcare to food security.

If the trillions of dollars quickly mobilized can teach us, we have the resources to help everyone live better lives; to help the elderly, disabled, disadvantaged; to transition to a cleaner, more sustainable, more equitable way of life.

This January, the highest levels of the federal government finally began taking the pandemic seriously: immediately creating a coordinated and comprehensive plan, bringing together a full-time task force made up of disease experts, enabling the Defense Production Act to manufacture more PPE and vaccines, rejoining the World Health Organization, and a enacting a mask mandate.

These much-needed measures will save thousands of lives. But they will not solve the systemic, deeply rooted injustices that made this pandemic possible and make its effects uneven.

In the life pre-pandemic, what was stopping us from taking advantage of the then-abundant economic growth to make the world more fair, peaceful, healthy? Answer: A complacent and privileged sense that when the stock market is growing and unemployment is low that everything must be okay.

I often hear people say, “I wish life was normal.” Frankly, I feel that way everyday. It’s a sign of how good normal life was for me before the pandemic. But what if normal is the problem?

After and during many crises, we stop short of changing the status quo. Governments fail to enact policies that solve the underlying causes, that do more than just cover up the symptoms until the problem fades out of minds.

We assumed the shared suffered of the virus would make us better people, make us more compassionate, caring, grounded. We assumed that this experience would fundamentally change the way people related to each other and to the natural world.

But if we go back to normal, what is stopping us from reverting to old habits?

What happens when a crisis so dire, so unexpected occurs that there is no coming back, no “this too shall pass”?

What happens when one day there is no normal to go back to?

The COVID-19 pandemic is still changing by the day. I don’t know how it will end, but we hope that the global community rallies to save as many lives as possible.

We will overcome this pandemic, with time. When we do, what will we learn?

When this is declared “over,” will we jump back into the same shark-infested waters?

Everything in italics I wrote in March of 2020. It’s never seemed more true than it does now, a year later.

It’s our responsibility to ensure that things don’t all go back to normal.

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