“When things get back to normal…” By Jackson Silvanik

It’s the refrain that we’ve heard from everyone, everywhere, for the entire past year – the qualifier preceding every hypothetical situation as events get cancelled, postponed and endlessly re-scheduled. At this point, what do we even mean? Normal has come and gone, and quite a while ago, too. 

The scenes of the summer thus far have been pretty familiar; crowds of angry citizens shouting at each other, charts and graphs with arrows and red zones of all sorts, cell phone videos of service workers on the front lines of angry customers upset at just about everything, countless instances of mistrust and bickering over science and medicine – things we thought were settled a while ago.

At this point, the unrest is here to stay. As the pandemic eventually, someday, starts to taper down, the arguments over masks and vaccines will continue. The year(s?) of pent-up negativity seems to have been unleashed all over the country, and truth be told, it’s going to be very, very hard to get back out in front of it. It almost seems as if, in many cases, people just sort of like to fight with each other.

And there’s plenty to fight about. Among the many rippling effects of the pandemic, we also seem to have laid bare many of the uglier wounds that the country has tried to paper over for the last century or so. It’s not really that unusual; in fact, it’s kind of what makes us American.  

History consists largely of constant periods of upheaval, unrest and recovery. “Smooth sailing” is an unfamiliar concept when it comes to our civic nature. The important driving factor as we work through these tense periods is simple: what did we learn along the way?

Usually, it’s not much – or it’s lessons that are quickly and easily forgotten. The human lifetime, as it plays out, is just long enough to touch different eras of progress, but precisely short enough that we mostly compartmentalize our experience, leaving the “big issues” for other people to solve in their own time – if we can’t fix it quickly and easily, someone else will figure it out at some point. 

The past couple of years, though, cannot be time wasted – but it looks like we’re already on that path anyways. The virus numbers are surging again, and they likely will sometime in the future, too. The ebb and flow of at least a partially unvaccinated society mean we’ll see variants and mutations no matter what other precautions we take. As the same headlines about overflowing hospital units start to run once more, it’s worth considering what we spent the last year doing.

Did we press our manufacturing infrastructure into producing more ventilators and life-saving ICU equipment? Did we settle into some simple, targeted messaging about how to eventually squash the pandemic? Did we perfect our remote learning and work technology? Did we make any progress in terms of helping disadvantaged communities catch up in terms of online education, access to healthier food and resources, and basic medical necessities?

It mostly seems like we hunkered down, waited for things to clear up, and pent up some serious anger and frustration. You’d think after a year of limited socializing, missing out on pivotal life moments and skipping simple pleasures, like concerts and movies, we might come out of things with a little empathy – is it really worth your time and energy to berate the clerk at the grocery because they don’t have the toilet paper you like to use? Public-facing workers are saints for what they have to put up with in order to keep things functioning, and if they don’t want to work for pennies as servers at your favorite restaurant, you’re going to have to accept that.

We tend to compartmentalize history into decades-long swaths of facts and trivia. Real life unfolds at a stranger, more disjointed pace. The wheels of progress stop and start and shudder and jerk left and right. It may feel like we’ve hit some potholes over the last few years, but those potholes leave scars for historians to pore over and learn from.

We’re in a historical moment, even now. A century from now, this little stretch may be glossed over as something like “the pandemic years” or the “covid plague”, and they’ll mean it to cover like, 2018-2030. Maybe by then, we’ll have made some progress on the climate, the economy will be booming, wages will be more fair and equitable, and we’ll handle these bumps in the road a little differently. 

It can feel like the pandemic has already lasted forever, though in the larger scheme of things it’s really just begun. The story of Covid-19 is far from over, and the impact that it’s really had is quite a ways from being determined. 

But what have we learned? It’s too early to tell in the big picture, but we can start by having a little more respect and love for everyone that makes the wheels of society grind forwards, bit by bit, and especially the people that make everything you appreciate about our day-to-day life possible.