What I Learned at the Pandemic
Emerging from the fog, we step forward
I was lucky; I didn’t get COVID-19. Plenty of friends did, however. A common symptom of those and others was what became known as a COVID fog: a general fuzziness, inability to think clearly, or to project thoughts forward.
Disease or no disease, it feels as if we have all been living in a fog for the past 18 months. The gauzy nature of the time, however, comes into stark focus when we contemplate the death involved: 605,507 people in the U.S. have died from the disease as of July 7, 2021. The Vietnam War lasted 12 years and claimed 58,220 American lives; the U.S. involvement in World War II lasted almost four years and cost 407,316 lives. What we often think of as the most cataclysmic event of the last century, and one that took two atomic bombs to end, doesn’t even come close to the devastation caused by this tiny virus. How tiny? You’d have to line up a thousand of them edge-to-edge to stretch across the diameter of a strand of hair. That’s a different kind of atomic bomb.
That being said, we are emerging from the fog. This is what I’ve learned:
Families are still the touchstones of our lives. Whether by choice or necessity, millions of people rediscovered the joys and challenges of living as a family. College kids moved back in, high schoolers spent giant stretches of time at home, toddlers soaked it all up. I, for one, know I learned things from my kids, laughed with them, watched them mature through a crisis, and otherwise enjoyed every second together that I never would have had absent COVID. That is not a unique experience. Amid the great losses, siblings bonded, parents listened to their kids, talked to each other, and found a way forward together. All of the pre-pandemic discourse about the death of family life proved to be all sound and fury.
Smart people come to the rescue. For the past few years, it has been fashionable to distrust, even disparage, the elite, the educated, the smartest guys in the class. The fact is very smart people saved us from total ruin. Our arsenal of vaccines has proven to be the only tool that will potentially clear us of this mess and save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. Masks, social distancing, and moving outdoors work for a while, but they are not sustainable over time. People just get tired and give up. While it is not as sexy as a moonshot, what all those scientists and engineers did to create multiple successful vaccines in a year—with some using an entirely new technology, mRNA—is just as miraculous. Traditionally, vaccines have taken, on average, nearly 10 years to develop. Thirty years in, we still have no vaccine for HIV.
Sometimes the smart people are also the brave people. I am thinking of one friend, an ER doctor—of which there are many, and nurses, too—who went to work in the ER, day after day, when the infection rate was out of control. In helping others, not only was her health at risk, so was that of her husband and children. That is a rare sense of duty and a true belief in equality that many of us would struggle to live by. It is a display of valor that played out in hospitals and clinics across the nation.
Choosing ignorance is a luxury we cannot afford. I have a friend who during the height of the pandemic was driving through a rural area of Idaho and stopped for some gas. He masked up, went into the convenience store at the station and was greeted by a clerk, an elderly woman. “Hey, what’s with the mask?” she bellowed.
“I don’t know, I’m just doing my thing,” my friend replied.
“Don’t you know, those masks don’t do shit,” she said. “That virus can go right through porcelain.”
Well, no, it can’t. And how hard would it be it be to verify that? Certainly, there are structural and socio-economic reasons for ignorance that are excusable, but when we choose ignorance because it is an easy path, or it nicely fits what some other clown is telling us, then that’s when we’ve lost our way.
What you can’t see can kill you (and maybe save you). There was a book I was fascinated by as a kid: “The Microbe Hunters,” by Paul De Kruif. It details the pioneers of microbiology, including the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who fashioned the first microscope in the 1670s and began looking at life invisible to everyone else around him, and Louis Pasteur in the 19th century who was the first to hypothesize a theory of vaccination and then actually formulate one (for rabies).
Much of the world is starting to appreciate now what these guys understood several hundred years ago: There is a complex universe of life existing at scales we cannot see—bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, viruses (debatable as to whether technically “life”), prions, and a few other creatures. Some can harm us; others can help.
But if we’ve learned anything over 18 months, it is that biological life is increasingly interconnected. There is no longer a distinction between the human world and the natural world, whether macroscopic or microscopic. I live in the West, which is wrapped up with the part-myth-part-fact idea of self-reliance and the “independent” man, or woman. It seems a bit of a canard in a shrinking world. No one is truly independent anymore. We all share air, land and water more intimately than ever before. As our habitats increasingly overlap with the habitats of the natural world, so will these microbes increasingly enter our lives. We’ve already seen it: HIV, Ebola, avian flu, bubonic plague, COVID-19. I suspect others will emerge.
Hopefully, our means for dealing with them will improve. Maybe a new awareness of the invisible world will help. Maybe we’ll continue our now more vigilant personal hygiene practices. Maybe we’ll remember the value of hard facts, the scientific method, and independent thinking. Maybe we’ll be more aware and caring of the vulnerable. Maybe we’ll make a little space for others. Maybe.
Viruses we are not. If there was ever any doubt that we are social creatures, it has been dispelled by this disease. Zoom calls were sort of novel at the beginning—cocktail parties by computer, meetings in pajama pants and button-down shirts. But so much is lost when we are not in the same space, literally. Spontaneity, social cues, humor, body language—all of the things that help us navigate and enjoy life are muted to death in a Zoom call.
What’s more, innovation and creativity demand human spark. And commerce depends on relationships, which, in turn, depend on real, physical interactions. I have no doubt our lives will return to pre-pandemic vitality. Our social nature is irrepressible.
In the end, what is a virus? It’s a bunch of genetic material, basically proteins. Its sole directive is to reproduce, be alive, if you will.
Humans, too, are a bunch of genetic material trying to live and reproduce. But we want more. Where we differ from our little cohabiters is that we are conscious of life. We know that we are alive. And with that comes a universe of emotion, the true distinguisher. Unlike other creatures further back on the evolutionary path, we want and need to feel the world, feel others in the world, know anguish, heartache, joy, grief, pride, and all the rest of it. Take away that, and we’re just a speck in someone else’s microscope.