Humans lack good mirrors. It is very hard for us to see ourselves honestly. Our preference is to look away.
Pandemics serve as a mirror of our society. Frank Snowden in his book, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, observes that “Epidemics are a category of disease that seems to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are.” The honest reflection is not always pleasant.
Pandemics have been a common occurrence in human history. Our historical amnesia, social media frenzy, and Western society myopia tends to distort our current crisis out of historic proportion. All of a sudden the one line in our Western history textbooks about the 14th century (1346-1356) bubonic plague takes on a new meaning. It killed half the population of Europe (50 million). And there have been many other epidemics from which the world has survived in spite of our lack of historical memory.
But this is perhaps the first global pandemic to have occurred under the conditions of a globally connected world of airline travel and social media. This accelerates the contagion, fear, conspiracies, and anxiety. Digitally we walk the crowded hospital wards of Northern Italy. We cheer the arrival of the USNS Comfort in New York City harbor.
The mirroring effect of this pandemic is real.
There are numerous images of masked and gowned health care workers providing heroic front-line medical care to those seriously ill with COVID-19. The masks hide the bone-crushing fatigue and the gnawing anxiety that most live with in hospital ICU’s across the country. It may be an invisible enemy distanced by an array of ventilator tubes and blinking monitors, but it is an ordinary person behind the mask and lying in the hospital bed. In this most human of social contracts, doctors and nurses fight against grim odds to save each patient.
There are images of students at the kitchen tables working on their lessons in a national experiment in homeschooling. What was once viewed as an educational extreme is now a public necessity. Ironically, now homeschoolers are in the position to tell all Americans how it is done successfully.
There are teddy bears in the windows. Taking a page from Michael Rosen’s 1989 children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, members of a number of communities across the globe are placing teddy bears and other stuffed animals in their homes’ windows to create a scavenger hunt-esque activity for kids who are stuck at home. While taking walks or drives around the neighborhood with their parents, kids in participating communities can have some fun by keeping an eye out for any number of stuffed animals that have been put on display at other houses. Social distancing has spawned a host of creative expressions of making human connection.
But there are darker images as well. Perhaps none so troubling as the picture of the homeless being socially distanced in a parking lot in Las Vegas. The casinos are deserted and thousands of hotel rooms are empty. But when the city needed space for a temporary homeless shelter, officials chose an outdoor parking lot where they marked off squares in order to reinforce social distancing. Pope Francis lamented about this image, “We see it in the way people are selected according to their utility or productivity: the throwaway culture in practice.” One has to admit that there is something grotesque about this image. What it says about our national priorities is deeply troubling.
There is talk now about “returning to normal.” Perhaps this is a mistake. This is to miss the opportunity that the pandemic affords. The normal was not that great for a lot of people. The pandemic has exposed the health care disparities among the poor and people of color. The mortality rate of people of color who have contracted COVID-19 is disproportionately higher. This is symptomatic of a long recognized and rarely addressed structural health care crisis among American minorities.
Efforts will be made in the coming months to restart America’s economy. We will then immediately shift to the November political presidential campaign where gloating and recriminations will abound. China and the W.H.O. are ready candidates for partisan scapegoating. And within months our fragmented news cycle and shortened attention span will move on to the next “News Alert!” And so the value of this pandemic serving as a reflective mirror of our national soul will be lost.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a culturally defining event. It will end soon. What will be our new normal? Simply going back to the way things were would be a big mistake. Rarely do we get such a prolonged and thorough look in the mirror at our national soul. Now is not the time to look away.
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