We are living through a crisis that will get worse before it gets better. However, it is important to ask what happens in the aftermath. Here is Ed Yong’s take at The Atlantic.
“The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world.
The cost of reaching that point, with as few deaths as possible, will be enormous. As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock ‘more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.’ About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections. Diseases have destabilized cities and societies many times over, ‘but it hasn’t happened in this country in a very long time, or to quite the extent that we’re seeing now,’ says Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley. ‘We’re far more urban and metropolitan. We have more people traveling great distances and living far from family and work.’
After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger. People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus.’ Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes. Children, whose bodies are mostly spared by the virus, may endure mental trauma that stays with them into adulthood.
After the pandemic, people who recover from COVID-19 might be shunned and stigmatized, as were survivors of Ebola, SARS, and HIV. Health-care workers will take time to heal: One to two years after SARS hit Toronto, people who dealt with the outbreak were still less productive and more likely to be experiencing burnout and post-traumatic stress. People who went through long bouts of quarantine will carry the scars of their experience. ‘My colleagues in Wuhan note that some people there now refuse to leave their homes and have developed agoraphobia,’ says Steven Taylor of the University of British Columbia, who wrote The Psychology of Pandemics.
But “there is also the potential for a much better world after we get through this trauma,” says Richard Danzig of the Center for a New American Security. Already, communities are finding new ways of coming together, even as they must stay apart. Attitudes to health may also change for the better. The rise of HIV and AIDS ‘completely changed sexual behavior among young people who were coming into sexual maturity at the height of the epidemic,’ Conis says. ‘The use of condoms became normalized. Testing for STDs became mainstream.’ Similarly, washing your hands for 20 seconds, a habit that has historically been hard to enshrine even in hospitals, “may be one of those behaviors that we become so accustomed to in the course of this outbreak that we don’t think about them,” Conis adds.
Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. ‘This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’’ says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.
Aspects of America’s identity may need rethinking after COVID-19. Many of the country’s values have seemed to work against it during the pandemic. Its individualism, exceptionalism, and tendency to equate doing whatever you want with an act of resistance meant that when it came time to save lives and stay indoors, some people flocked to bars and clubs. Having internalized years of anti-terrorism messaging following 9/11, Americans resolved to not live in fear. But SARS-CoV-2 has no interest in their terror, only their cells.
Years of isolationist rhetoric had consequences too. Citizens who saw China as a distant, different place, where bats are edible and authoritarianism is acceptable, failed to consider that they would be next or that they wouldn’t be ready. (China’s response to this crisis had its own problems, but that’s for another time.) ‘People believed the rhetoric that containment would work,’ says Wendy Parmet, who studies law and public health at Northeastern University. ‘We keep them out, and we’ll be okay. When you have a body politic that buys into these ideas of isolationism and ethnonationalism, you’re especially vulnerable when a pandemic hits.’
Veterans of past epidemics have long warned that American society is trapped in a cycle of panic and neglect. After every crisis—anthrax, SARS, flu, Ebola—attention is paid and investments are made. But after short periods of peacetime, memories fade and budgets dwindle. This trend transcends red and blue administrations. When a new normal sets in, the abnormal once again becomes unimaginable. But there is reason to think that COVID-19 might be a disaster that leads to more radical and lasting change.
The other major epidemics of recent decades either barely affected the U.S. (SARS, MERS, Ebola), were milder than expected (H1N1 flu in 2009), or were mostly limited to specific groups of people (Zika, HIV). The COVID-19 pandemic, by contrast, is affecting everyone directly, changing the nature of their everyday life. That distinguishes it not only from other diseases, but also from the other systemic challenges of our time. When an administration prevaricates on climate change, the effects won’t be felt for years, and even then will be hard to parse. It’s different when a president says that everyone can get a test, and one day later, everyone cannot. Pandemics are democratizing experiences. People whose privilege and power would normally shield them from a crisis are facing quarantines, testing positive, and losing loved ones. Senators are falling sick. The consequences of defunding public-health agencies, losing expertise, and stretching hospitals are no longer manifesting as angry opinion pieces, but as faltering lungs.
After 9/11, the world focused on counterterrorism. After COVID-19, attention may shift to public health. Expect to see a spike in funding for virology and vaccinology, a surge in students applying to public-health programs, and more domestic production of medical supplies. Expect pandemics to top the agenda at the United Nations General Assembly. Anthony Fauci is now a household name. ‘Regular people who think easily about what a policewoman or firefighter does finally get what an epidemiologist does,’ says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Such changes, in themselves, might protect the world from the next inevitable disease. ‘The countries that had lived through SARS had a public consciousness about this that allowed them to leap into action,’ said Ron Klain, the former Ebola czar. “The most commonly uttered sentence in America at the moment is, ‘I’ve never seen something like this before.’ That wasn’t a sentence anyone in Hong Kong uttered.’ For the U.S., and for the world, it’s abundantly, viscerally clear what a pandemic can do.
The lessons that America draws from this experience are hard to predict, especially at a time when online algorithms and partisan broadcasters only serve news that aligns with their audience’s preconceptions. Such dynamics will be pivotal in the coming months, says Ilan Goldenberg, a foreign-policy expert at the Center for a New American Security. ‘The transitions after World War II or 9/11 were not about a bunch of new ideas,’ he says. ‘The ideas are out there, but the debates will be more acute over the next few months because of the fluidity of the moment and willingness of the American public to accept big, massive changes.‘”
Read more from The Atlantic
“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”
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