There’s no question that we’re going to be changed by this COVID pandemic. You can’t go through something like this and not be altered in some way. Sadly, some of us will lose a friend or loved one to the virus. Some will have had a major life event (perhaps a wedding or graduation) cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Millions will lose their livelihoods. Savings will be eviscerated. We will all suffer hardship to a greater or lesser degree.
Some self-reflection may come out if it as well. Maybe we’ll discover a resilience in ourselves that we didn’t realize we had. Maybe we’ll find out that we actually enjoyed our solitude more than we would have thought. (Or maybe we’ll realize that we hated it more than we would have expected.)
We’re rediscovering the value of our personal connections too, reaching out to check on people who are alone; perhaps spending more time with our children and our spouses than we ever have before. How is that working out? Will the changes in our relationships extend beyond this current crisis?
Perhaps by the end of this (and provided we can buckle down and use our time wisely), we’ll have improved ourselves in some way. Maybe we’ll have read all the classics or watched every Oscar-nominated movie. We may have mastered a new skill like bread baking, or quilting, or learned another language. On a less profound level, maybe we’ll have finally organized our garage or painted the dining room.
Or maybe (if this past week is any indication), we’ll have gained 30 pounds.
We’ll be changed as a nation, too. Previous upheavals have reshaped our political and social structures and altered our national zeitgeist. The terrorist attacks of September 11 profoundly transformed America. For one thing, we’ve been at a perpetual state of war ever since. Our political climate has changed too, as has our nation’s relationship to the world. We’re much more xenophobic and racist than we were before the attacks. And we’ve accepted restrictions on our freedoms, surveillance from the government and private companies, and intrusion into our privacy as a trade-off for our supposed safety.
The turbulent Vietnam War years, the Great Depression, and World War II also fundamentally changed our society and our political and economic structures. (The First World War didn’t have the same impact on America, but Europe was transformed by it: maps were re-drawn and the social structure was permanently altered.)
Now hundreds of millions of people all around the world are in various stages of lockdown including at least 158 million people in the United States alone. People all across the globe are having to figure out news ways of working, shopping, and getting on with the business of living in an entirely new paradigm.
Of course there are the anticipated financial and emotional consequences of this global crisis. But there are unexpected results too. Planet Earth is reacting: Animals are returning to places they haven’t been in years. The air is cleaner. The water in Venice’s canals is clearer than it has ever been.
Many of the changes that we’re seeing will be temporary. Once the danger has passed, people will start living their lives again. They’ll start traveling. Vacations and weddings will be rescheduled. Restaurants will open back up. Sports will return. We’ll go back to holding our book club meetings in person rather than over Zoom. News anchors and late night talk show hosts will thankfully stop broadcasting from their kitchens and go back to their studios.
But I imagine that some of the changes will become permanent. Some people might continue working from home. If productivity remains high during this work-from-home experiment, some employers may embrace the remote workplace in a way that they were reluctant to do before. Might it be that this terrible pandemic ends up providing an unexpected solution to some of our worst problems such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and overcrowded highways?
I wonder if we’ll ever go back to shaking hands. Or will the the elbow bump become the new normal? Or perhaps by the time this is over, we’ll have settled on a new gesture. Will we adopt the Namaste greeting? The bow? Or maybe the Roman Centurian Salute?
There are bigger questions too. What changes will be made to our health care system as a result of the weaknesses that have been revealed? What about our pay structures and sick leave policies? I wonder if we will re-assess the value of our agricultural workers, grocery workers, custodians, waste management workers, and delivery people — all of the people who provided essential services during these cloistered days.
And will we have a new appreciation for the value of government? By the time this is all over many people will have realized that there are some things that only a government can do in a time of crisis. Only a government can mobilize the military, command the production of supplies and equipment necessary to combat a national emergency, provide economic relief on a massive scale, or coordinate disease tracking, vaccine development, and testing. Maybe this pandemic will result in the end of the era of shrinking government.
One thing that I sincerely hope is that we will have developed a new appreciation for the arts.
By now, you’ve probably seen the video of Italians singing together from their windows across a narrow street, or this video of Germans singing Bella Ciao in solidarity with Italians coping with their quarantine:
In Mallorca, Spain, police sang and played guitar to entertain and lift the spirits of people in lockdown. Nineteen musicians from the Netherlands’ Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra came together virtually to perform Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ All over the world, musicians are performing for us in their living rooms and kitchens. Bands, orchestras, and ensembles are making their performances available online. All of this is because music has a unique ability to unite us: it is both individual and collaborative at the same time.
But it’s not just music that is helping us to get through these difficult days. Movies and shows are sustaining us. Comedians and clever graphic artists are keeping our spirits up. Museums are offering free virtual tours so that people locked in their homes can enjoy the world’s great art. Theater companies are providing broadcasts of performances. And Patrick Stewart is reading a Shakespeare sonnet every day. These moments help keep us sane, assure us that we’re not alone, and remind us of our shared humanity.
The arts have a way of providing emotional healing in a way nothing else can. They can distract us and comfort us. They bring people together and lift the human spirit. And they bring us hope.
When this crisis has passed and the curtain has been lifted and we go back to life as usual, I hope we remember the role that the arts played in helping us get through the darkness.