There are certain historical events that we remember vividly all our lives. My mother has recounted the one day in her life when people were literally dancing in the streets. It was Flatbush, Brooklyn on VE Day when Allied Forces declared victory over Fascism. For many Baby Boomers, it was the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. My generation has 9/11. These events leave deep and lasting imprints and often end up serving as book ends to the various eras through which we live.
By contrast, COVID-19 crept up on us furtively, almost in slow motion at first, and then suddenly lurched forward. We won’t remember where we were at a single moment. There was no single news flash, no second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. What we will remember are those last moments of togetherness, little mundane experiences that now feel precious. For me, it will be singing “Irene, Goodnight,” at the end of the annual Fellowship Dinner at our church, slightly flush from red wine and the warm sense of community. It will be a different memory for each of us. Perhaps we could collect them all and weave them into a tapestry of stories at once pedestrian and now full of meaning.
Crises don’t bring out the best or the worst of us; they reveal and magnify traits that were always there. COVID-19 has exposed racial and social inequality as well as the gaping holes in our social safety net. The issues are not new, but many have been hidden from those with the privilege of not seeing them. At the same time, many are pulling together in creative and inspiring ways. Through new Mutual Aid Networks, people are sewing face masks, making wellness calls to the elderly, and delivering meals and groceries to those most at risk from the virus.
For many, the current situation has inspired a new sense of hope, a feeling that we have within our power the ability and creativity to radically reshape our society for the better. If we can fundamentally change the way we live our daily lives to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we could also make significant changes to address systemic racism, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and myriad other goals that have long eluded us.
On a deeper, more philosophical level, there is something about being required to stay physically apart from one another that has affirmed our common humanity. This new way of living has given us a new appreciation for things we perhaps took for granted: the ability to meet a friend for coffee, hug close friend or relative, or chat with your neighbors at the Farmer’s Market.
We have tremendous challenges ahead, but the current crisis also presents an opportunity to re-calibrate our priorities, to rethink what is truly essential. My hope is that it will finally help us understand how closely we are all connected, how much we need one another, and how much better we are when we work together.
Roy Lincoln Karp, April 8, 2020