The current pandemic has brought to the fore a host of issues and harsh realities that we have failed to address in our country. Economic, societal and educational problems reached a critical stage. Many people are still unemployed, many businesses have closed, and many more will close; our nation and the world have suffered economic hardships and psychic turmoil in the face of an altered existence. The marginalized of our nation march again to protest the barely suppressed bigotry, the physical attacks resulting in permanent injury or even death, and the open hostility that they all too often face. A soporific public is awakening to the consequences of its own inaction; its ignorance of science and gullibility to purveyors of lies, illogical and unfounded theories; and its unacknowledged prejudices. And our children face a greatly altered educational experience in the future. These and other economic and social stresses will bring some people to their breaking points.
Our government must take an informed and educated long-range and global view of the future to ensure healthy and productive lives for its citizens. While new avenues of commerce and technology will certainly emerge, a fair and supportive social fabric must be woven. The well-being of society must involve caring for its individual members. It must become a priority, indeed a necessity, if only, in the crassest terms, to keep this virus from becoming pandemic again, and emerging ones from bringing humanity to its knees.
We cannot afford to avert our eyes. As I travel around my town, it pains me to see children walking and playing outdoors in winter in thin shirts, to see the premature sadness in their eyes, to see adults who have given up on life and on finding employment, to see people in this nation with no teeth, to see the elderly leaving their food for children and going without enough to eat, to see minorities even in my little Pennsylvania town still living in basically a segregated society. It pains me when the deprived must depend solely on donations that may dry up with an economic downturn.
It pains me when I see our church’s free dinners swamped with the hungry — elderly, children, parents, the infirm, and the disabled. How long the church will be able to finance these meals is a question no one can answer for certain, but the longer people are out of work and youth are departing for better economic conditions elsewhere, only an aging population on limited retirement incomes remains; it will not be long until the church cannot afford to feed these people, let alone financially sustain itself.
Sadly, these stark facts are true in many other communities. Many people are desperate and without hope. These societal ills have waited too long to be addressed. The pandemic has only made them more obvious to us, to those of us who may have forgotten and become complacent, those of us who have never experienced racial injustice and discrimination.
Unfortunately, economic development and societal inequities are not the only problems that have re-emerged. The next pandemic may be closer than anyone can, or wants to, imagine. Time is not on our side. Humanities’ hubris is exceeded only by governmental hubris, and its lack of planning for health care, vaccines, drugs, and supplies. Scientific experts were scoffed at, their advice unheeded, and health agencies were dismantled. We all are witnesses to the outcome of that neglect. We can only hope that our government will rectify the misguided actions of the past year and that we will be able to resume a normal life, albeit different than it was before the current pandemic.
If we had not acknowledged it before, we must now: the world has shrunk with improved methods of transportation and new technologies. We watch war being waged as it happens, we witness events occurring thousands of miles away, we consume products from across the globe. We are not insulated from what happens continents away. Thus, the world is only as big as our hometowns. We cannot withdraw from the rest of world. We must remain engaged. We must remain in global organizations such as the WHO and the Paris Agreement and work toward a better world. The plagues from the past and new ones in the future will surely occur as the world’s climate changes.
Some people will say that we have conquered many diseases in the past, such as smallpox, that we will quickly defeat and eradicate new infectious diseases. Certainly, we have made many strides in that direction. But to name just one example, after decades since the last recorded case of smallpox, scientists have discovered that it actually has not been eradicated: as the permafrost has thawed with global climate change, live smallpox virus has been found in the bodies of its victims buried generations ago. This is a grim warning that we must heed if those that follow us will not face extreme hardships and continued struggles with both new and old pandemics.
We all face a future forever changed; the COVID-19 pandemic has altered how we will live from now on.
Jill Dix Ghnassia, Ph.D., lives in Milton.