Standing the Pandemic on its Head

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Newton’s third law of motion — that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — applies to the COVID pandemic.

So for every crappy, awful, scary, tragic, frustrating thing that has happened because of this highly contagious and all-too-often deadly virus, some really good things are emerging because of it.

Here are my top four:

1. Public health is a real thing.

Before COVID, nearly every state in the country had been cutting its public health budgets for years. Training for the profession has also been declining because it’s not considered a sexy field. Public health is, at bottom, about preventing disease and injury. Unfortunately, prevention is a tough sell. You can’t see what doesn’t go wrong. But now we know: we need public health experts around to track the spread of nasty viruses, coordinate with hospitals, and come up with policies and strategies to “bend the curve,” as we now like to say. Hopefully, Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others, will inspire a new generation to consider a career in public health and federal and state governments will commit to ramping up public health’s decimated infrastructure so that we have the people and equipment in place to deal with COVID’s successor.

2. Compassion is a renewable resource.

People talk about “compassion fatigue” as a way of saying that empathy really wears you down after a while. Caring has become like a job many people long to quit. But in the “equal and opposite reaction” category, I believe compassion for others, including total strangers, is at an all-time high. Compassion 2020, for example, is a youth-led effort launched in Spokane, WA, encouraging people to do kind things for others. Back in May, the respected medical journal The Lancet reported that “In some ways, the pandemic has brought populations together, generating an understanding that our health is interlinked and that we could all be at risk.” (See №1, above.) And consider the outpouring of goodwill that translates into action everywhere — not even counting hospital staff and emergency responders. For instance: checking in with struggling friends, bringing food to someone recovering from the virus, opening up your home to form a quarantine pod, making art and music to cheer up a neighborhood, teaching grandparents how to use Zoom…the list goes on. People still care an awful lot. Despite all the doom, gloom, and mask-deniers, hearts everywhere are still wide open.

The opportunity to slow down by moving around less, and staying put more, is extraordinarily nourishing.

3. Dire social inequities are caught in the glare.

It’s no secret that adults working at the low end of the hourly-wage service economy are barely scraping by and cannot afford unpaid time off even when they are sick. Or that our public education system is failing millions of students, especially those living in low-income communities and jurisdictions with majority Black and Brown populations. Or that these students, and many adults besides, do not have reliable or affordable access to the internet, let alone a functioning computer. Or that hunger in America, and food-insecurity in general, is very real. We know all this already. But COVID has stripped away layers of pretense; it’s harder to look away and ignore these problems as we watch them deepen all around us — sometimes next door to us — every day. The pressure to address inequality in meaningful ways has been mounting for some time, and the fissures widened by COVID have only added to that pressure, not just politically, but as a normal part of social discourse. Something’s got to give — and soon, I hope.

4. Pressing “pause” reveals new possibilities.

For families with means and steady incomes, the abrupt disruption in commuting life, living at the office, business trips, and chauffeuring kids to a mountain of extracurricular activities has definitely yielded benefits. To be sure, the challenges of working from home full-time with kids underfoot who are struggling with online school are real. But looking at the flip side of Newton’s law, the opportunity to slow down by moving around less, and staying put more, is extraordinarily nourishing. Walking home in the middle of the day from an outdoor meeting recently (which took place in a public park — nice), I cut through an alley and saw a group of children racing on skateboards, a son tossing a football with his father, and mothers drinking coffee and chatting. Before COVID, all of them would have been scattered — to offices, to school — and this chance for casual play and a chat in an urban alley would not happen. This genie is now out of the bottle, and I don’t think it can be stuffed back in, or not completely.

Despite all the doom, gloom, and mask-deniers, hearts everywhere are still wide open.

I am not a Pollyanna by nature. But we will not fix what is broken — and plenty is broken — by obsessing exclusively over everything that is going wrong. We need to look at what might be going right, or at the very least, shows some promise. That promise, for now, may be little more than a glimmer of hope, a fresh expectation, a masked smile aimed a stranger, or a five-dollar donation to a cause you care about. We must start somewhere, and perhaps looking for that equal and opposite reaction to the negative energy that threatens to engulf us is a good place to start.

I write to learn — how to think, how to live, how to be — in a world that has never made much sense to me. Novels, essays, poems. Whatever the moment demands.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store