The virus is affecting millions directly: those infected, those on the front lines, those who are essential workers, parents and their kids at home, those who have lost their income. Many of us, however, are only indirectly affected by it. We who are fortunate enough to be able to get by almost entirely online do not face what others, who are directly affected, have to face. We don’t risk infection like they risk infection. We don’t experience frustration or financial insecurity like they do.
But even those of us in this position of pandemic privilege feel something. We feel it despite our being able to remain, for the most part, at a distance from the places where the virus lurks. It might be a specific worry for friends and family members. Or it might be an abstract sense of dread, some uncanny, subconscious feeling that things are not right, even when our mind is on something else. Given how little we have to fear compared to those directly affected, these feelings may be mixed with guilt. And this is messing with our heads.
People I know, whose energy normally never wanes, are clearly having a harder time dipping into what used to be their endless supply of zest. They don’t feel as efficient as they used to be. One friend confided to me that she worries she's losing her edge. Another echoed this sentiment online when she tweeted that: “Corona is like an app that operates in the background and constantly drains your batteries.” The result, as writer Molly Jong-Fast put it, is that the “pandemic makes easy things slightly complicated, complicated things hard, and hard things near impossible.”
The need to beat the pandemic propelled us forward, and helped us deal with the threat in our own ways.
When the pandemic first swept in last year, there was a feeling of determination in the air. The sense of urgency of the first wave enabled us to put everything else aside, try to fix the situation and cope with its challenges. The need to beat the pandemic propelled us forward, and helped us deal with the threat in our own ways. Late night television was suddenly produced in the hosts’ own homes, with their families serving as crew. Teachers figured out how to teach and keep their pupils engaged remotely. Families and friends organized web parties, and later found ways to grieve together online. It was a time of looming danger and many cruel strokes of fate, but also one of hopefulness that we could beat this thing.
With that sense of determination largely gone now, replaced with a resigned acceptance that this, for the time being, is the new normal, we could really do with getting that sense of hope back. The emergence of the vaccines is certainly our primary source of optimism right now, although problems with the rollouts sometimes make us forget how grateful we should be that science has been able to indicate a path out of the pandemic so swiftly.
The post-COVID world may never feel quite as free and safe as what we had before, at least for those who lived through it. But it will surely seem incredibly free and safe compared to what we have now. With the fresh memories of what COVID took from us, and with the pandemic fog lifting from our minds, this may be a world in which we are more prepared to take risks and try novel things.
Maybe, looking at what happened after the last time the world faced down a pandemic, the 2020s will match the 1920s in an explosion of creativity. Maybe the success story that is the rapid, innovative development of the vaccines will inspire a new generation of medical researchers. Maybe the ease with which many of us were able to shift our jobs from analog to online will cause a permanent change in how and where we work, freeing up office space and potentially entire downtown districts for new, non-business purposes.
We must never forget how devastating the pandemic was, that many died, that many will continue to suffer after it is over, physically and psychologically. But we must not live in its shadow either. Once it is over, it will have cost us a year or two of sorrow, fear, stress, and lockdown. That’s tribute enough.