The Things I Wish COVID Had Taught Us
But it seems after three years we still have so much to learn
In Embracing Curiosity, I step away from writing about travel to comment on the bigger journey of life, exploring my faith and politics with curiosity and nuance.
I sat in a Costa Rican airport waiting to take return home with a group of teenagers and a former teaching college. We had built a house, visited farms, and rafted down a river, and now we were ready to return home to our families and normal life.
Only, the life we would return to in Houston, Texas was far from normal. The Houston Rodeo had just shut its doors. The NBA had cancelled games. A few days after our return to the States, Costa Rica would close its borders.
Life wasn’t going to return to some semblance of normal for a long time.
It is hard to believe that it has been nearly three years since the entire world shut down due to COVID-19. Our experiences with the pandemic depended on so many things: health risk, geographic location, family situation, job, etc.
When I wasn’t trying to figure out how to help my students pass the AP exam or tearing out pieces of my house, I was writing about the pandemic. I knew no other way to process what I was experiencing as we watched the constant shift of news and symptoms and the rise in cases and deaths. I look back at the hopefulness and some of the naivete of those early pieces and reflect on how much we have learned, and how much we have refused to learn over the last three years.
It’s become an uncomfortable reality that, like the Spanish Flu of the 1918 pandemic, we are going to have to learn to “live with COVID.”
But “living with COVID” doesn’t have to mean throwing our hands up in the air and accepting a decreased quality of life for the entire planet. What if, instead, it meant learning the lessons that COVID tried to teach us? What if it meant figuring out how to live better? What should we have learned over the last three years?
Essential workers should be treated like they are essential
Early on, we saw the grocery workers, Amazon drivers, and food delivery personnel as the heroes we never knew we needed. We praised the nurses and doctors working long hours (and sometimes dying after exposure) to bring loved ones back to health. We praised teachers for doing their best to suddenly change the way they had taught for years, adopting new technology and methodology to attempt to keep their students on track without losing more than the kids already were losing by not being in a school building.
These were the people ensuring our survival, and then we decided to not show them our appreciation by showing them that they matter. We turned a collective blind eye to the need for quality health care, sick days, childcare, and reasonable working conditions for many in the service industry who had been keeping our economy going for months. Doctors and nurses have been accused of lying and exaggerating hospital conditions, of being vaccine pushers who want to harm the public, all while they were working with reduced staffing, dangerous conditions (to their own health), and inability to treat everyone that they wanted and needed to treat for a variety of conditions other than COVID. And teachers, working in a field with an increasing shortage of teachers and substitutes, have continued to work with significant lower wages than their similarly educated peers while being villainized for either not doing enough to educate their students (a result of complex problems the public doesn’t want to solve) or doing too much by brainwashing and grooming children to a particular ideology (it’s not happening, people).
For a society to thrive, the people who keep it running need to be treated like the essential workers that they are, and this is what we should have learned in 2020.
Public health matters to all of us
It isn’t just the move by some to oppose the COVID vaccine that worries me, it’s the move to oppose most, if not all, vaccinations. Even before we were hit with a novel coronavirus, there were increasing numbers of measles outbreaks and the rediscovery of polio in the United States. Here is an undeniable truth: if the people around us get sick, we’ll get sick. Maybe not right away. Maybe not with every illness we’re exposed to, but our health is dependent on the health of others.
Masking when potentially sick with any illness never should have become controversial. No matter the airborne virus, the more barriers we put up between ourselves and others, the healthier we will be. There is a reason why I, as a teacher, did not see the flu or colds during the 2020-2021 school year. Everyone was wearing masks. People should not just be offered sick days, they should be encouraged to take them. We should no longer celebrate perfect attendance, but instead make it both expected and accepted that people do not come to work or school if they are sick.
And we need to overhaul our health care system to ensure that people have the ability to get the care that they need without going bankrupt for treatment. The better we are at keeping people healthy, the better off we will all be.
We all need to practice more humility
In a recent episode of The Problem With Jon Stewart, they brought up Jon Stewart’s comments from nearly two years ago when he was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He had spent over a year treating the pandemic as the serious threat that it was. But he also made comments about how there was a strong likelihood that the virus that had shut down the globe had somehow leaked from the lab where the pandemic started, and he was blasted for it. As his co-hosts said on his podcast, by the time he made the comments while talking with Stephen Colbert, any discussion about how the pandemic started (just like with masking and vaccines and even social distancing) had become politically toxic, with clear lines drawn between one position being Red and one position being Blue.
But nothing was ever that easy.
Recommendations and our understanding of the virus changed because science changed, the virus changed, treatments changed, and instead of learning to work with new information, we all dug in, usually dependent on our political alliances and the way we viewed the world before the pandemic started.
When we know better, we do better. And when people change their minds or posture because they know better now, it is up to us to give them the grace to keep learning.
We are all interdependent
We depend on the health of others to remain healthy. We depend on strong systems to keep us safe, fed, and supplied with all of our needs. We need each other.
Personal freedoms matter, but not at the expense of the whole. When we prioritize our freedom to do things for ourselves that could impact the health and well-being of our neighbors, we are ignoring the reality that we may someday need our neighbors as well. When we say that masking is a personal freedom but then get sick with an autoimmune disease, we suddenly realize that the freedom for the vulnerable to move around is affected by those who do not choose to prevent the spread of their own germs. But this extends beyond health care: education, gun control, book banning, LGTBQ+ issues, are all impacted by a belief that our personal freedom trumps our relationship with others.
And when that is the way we see our position in the world, we all lose.
There are many other lessons that I wish the last three years of a global pandemic had taught us, but as we are still learning information about the last pandemic that shut down the globe over a hundred years ago, I have a feeling people will be learning new things about our own unprecedented times long after we are dead. And maybe that it knowledge should give us all a healthy dose of humility as we continue to puzzle out how to move forward to something different and better, because I’m all for discovering a new normal.
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And despite recent reports that the intelligence community might now believe that there is a likelihood that it started in a lab, does that really matter? It affected the entire globe and what matters now is doing our best to make sure to continue minimizing the risk to future generations.
Very poignant reflection ♥️ it’s so hard to believe it’s been 3 years- and there is so much I wish we had learned as individuals and as a collective. Sadly, I can’t say I’m surprised by the way the pandemic polarized us given that we as a country were already polarized and not really holding space for critical conversations with one another. Even now, when the collective capacity for change seems smaller than ever, I continue to have hope- and I think I’m not alone in that- that small groups of people dedicated to growth and change can make all of the difference.
Thank you for this post. I had really hoped that people would learn from this. I also watched in my community as groups that depend on outrage and anger to fundraise slowly went back to that strategy. There was such an initial sense of us all being in it again. In my community, we're more divided than we've ever been before. There are a handful of people who profit from the division.
The pandemic gave each of us individuals to have more time for ourselves and our families. I see now that was a test of so many. I know many young people who are divorcing. I am grateful I was single and was able to devote my life to my calling as a journalist. I'm still putting everything else in my life on my hold to serve my community. I'm a better person for this experience, though one potential cause for the rise in violent crime in my community is the quick pivot from pandemic support to a realization that our support network is in tatters.
Thank you for this post. I think I need to do a lot of writing about this myself but I find so many people have already forgotten those early days. It is crucial we talk about it in the hopes of maybe figuring out how we can still get things right.