Several months ago, most Americans did not envision this kind of future. In fact, it wasn’t until the effects of the coronavirus were felt close to home that its severity began to be recognized by many. Initially, I ignored the potential consequences of the virus up until the moment Wesleyan opted to move to remote online learning for the rest of the Spring semester. In the week that followed, I made plans for a semester at home that involved time spent with friends, extended family, and traveling instead. Yet, several days later, Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order for San Francisco residents. I thought, “This is as far as it goes, right?” In hindsight, I consider my attitude optimistic at best and, at worst, foolish. Regardless of its nature, my naive view of the situation was indicative of its unprecedented nature: This prolonged global shutdown is something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel and hardly a situation we would expect to be experiencing in our own lives.
Now that the initial shock has waned, my attitude has sluggishly progressed from denial to disbelief to resigned acclimation and eventually to a fixation on the future; and, while the proverbial light can be seen at the end of the tunnel, it also seems like each day brings more uncertainty than the last. The anxious anticipation that accompanies forward-thinking at this time is founded in a fervent desire for a return to normalcy, or at least something resembling it. As our lives were turned upside down, so was our awareness of the things that we so often take for granted.
Seeing friends on the way to class, enjoying a night out on Main Street, or even spending a Sunday studying in the library were ways we defined our individual and collective college experiences as members of the Wesleyan community. The result is largely the same beyond college campuses. People have been thrust from the lives they know into ones that perversely revolve around the coronavirus, and the absence of our normal routines serves as a constant reminder for all that has been temporarily lost. Of course, for some the situation is much more dire than a loss of routine, and the virus has brought about new waves of hardship, change, or unwelcome uncertainty that pervade this difficult time. Those who are solely afflicted by the absence of their normal lives surely have it easier than those who now not only face an absence, but an onslaught of new and unfamiliar challenges as well.
Now, we all urge the future to hurry up its course, for the pre-pandemic days to come back along as quickly as possible. Even the admission that these days, the ones of “true” normalcy, are far off does not change the fact that we yearn for them and eagerly await their arrival. At some point, institutions, politicians, and those in power will call for such an arrival; by encouraging us to return to these pre-pandemic days they will simultaneously be encouraging us, the people, to move past a deadly black swan and allow it to be lost in the horizon of our collective memory.
Like the Great Recession, COVID-19 is not good for those in power; it delegitimizes institutions that in many respects serve as bedrocks of our society by uncovering the fragility of society itself. Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, it makes people scared, and fear is bad business. The surest way to bring back the “good old days,” then, is to restore the circumstances that preceded their upheaval. This, of course, is a bit of an oversimplification.
The coronavirus won’t be forgotten from a scientific perspective, or a public health one. Beyond that, though, the incentive to foster a collective memory that recognizes the weight and severity of this crisis is nonexistent for those in power; going a step further, its negative effects encourage its erasure from public thought. This can be achieved in any number of ways: commercials, speeches, private corporations’ unchanged ethos or business practices, and so on.
While the public’s perception of issues is not completely controlled by those at the top, a rhetorical framing of issues by powerful institutions (occurring in the aforementioned mediums, to name a few) is certainly a powerful tool that sways people’s attitude towards current or past events. In a way, this framing allows long-term institutional responses to be addressed only partially, lacking any tangible and formative political, economic or social adjustments. Will the coronavirus really push CEOs to adopt compassionate capitalist practices? Not unless they are held to that standard. I am not saying that the onus for formative change lies squarely on the back of the individual citizen, but instead, pointing to a reflexivity between the retrospective attitudes of people in remembering crises and the large-scale changes that come about after they happen. To accede the call to “move past” this virus is to allow it to squirm out of our minds and onto the pages of history, nothing more than an event that came and went.
There is no telling what the future holds. We have yet to solidify a vaccine timeline or completely squash “the curve,” and there are no guarantees whether people (and the economy) will continue to listen to scientists in the days, weeks, and months to come. Furthermore, the long-term political, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic feel as uncertain as ever. That said, there will come a day where normalcy will begin to creep back into our lives. It may be a slow and painful process, but the sense of order and predictability that we are missing so dearly will return. When that time comes, we may either wholly move beyond the hardships or hold them close, using them to forge a future that productively builds off of our shared past.
Not all the lessons that can be learned from this crisis are obvious. To unearth some of them we will have to dig, a process that begins introspectively with recognition of and appreciation for any thoughts and feelings that appear in this moment, and ends with newfound attitudes being held close, occupying a special place in our memories moving forward. This critical remembrance can materialize in myriad ways. Maybe its presence will influence the names we check off in the voting booth, the organizations we choose to support and fight for, or even the time we spend with friends and family.
Right now, forward-thinking isn’t nearly as important as weathering the storm. Caring for the emotional and physical wellbeing of ourselves and those around us is more than enough responsibility in this moment. This troubling time doesn’t have to offer a moment of clarity, mark a turning point, or reveal some larger truth. And while it will be traumatic, it can also be constructive. Take a moment to turn your attention inward and identify the ways this crisis has affected you, or your perception of the world around you. I hesitate to use the world “reflection,” as it implies digging deeper than what is on the surface, while this instance of contemplation can be quick and cursory.
Moving forward, hold these thoughts and feelings close, even when others urge you to discard them in the name of progress. To better our individual and collective futures we should allow what is an unprecedented event to hold an unprecedented place in our hearts and minds.
Lucas White can be reached at email@example.com.