By Roxanne RobertsMay 1, 2021
Could the pandemic make us better people?
For those of us lucky to emerge from the past year intact — physically, mentally, financially — there are many reasons to be grateful. Theoretically, we could use this experience to become more thoughtful and intentional, less judgmental and reactive. We could appreciate more and criticize less. We could, in a word, be nicer.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been awash in feel-good stories about celebrating essential workers, uplifting local businesses, appreciating what we have — all shining a light on our better angels. A year ago, Kelly Ripa told The Washington Post, “I think we’re all going to be better off for this” because “we’re all being satisfied with less.”
But, if experts in history and science are any guide, this altruism is probably not going to last. We are more likely to put this behind us as soon as possible, dive back into life with abandon and push boundaries. If anything, we will probably be less concerned with what other people think. Carpe diem, baby.
Dorothy Paredes, a 42-year-old Austin resident, has lived with cancer for the past 15 years. The pandemic didn’t fundamentally change her — if anything, it made her more determined to savor every day. “It made me say, ‘Life is short. Things can happen — cancer, covid, whatever,’” she said. “Why are we waiting? Why are we holding back?”
If past is prologue, the deadly flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919 should help us understand how we will navigate the post-covid years. “I think it’s fair to say that people want to forget as soon as possible,” said Laura Spinney, author of “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.” “That is pretty much the pattern for pandemics throughout history. If you talk to public health experts, they talk about us going through this cycle of panic and complacency: We panic when a pandemic declares itself, and then we forget about it as soon as it’s gone.”
In France, where she lives, there are more than 170,000 monuments to World War I. They were built in the 1920s and 1930s, a ubiquitous reminder of the millions who died. But she couldn’t find a single monument to the 1918 pandemic in the country, even though it killed more people — 50 million to 100 million around the world, according to estimates.
How to explain such a discrepancy? Humans make sense of life through compelling stories, explains Spinney — that’s why some events are recorded in our historical memory but others are not. War lends itself to great novels, poetry and movies: It has good and evil, and a more definitive beginning, middle and end — all the components of human drama. Pandemics are harder to understand, and defy simple narratives. Another factor, said Spinney: “Wars destroy people and they destroy infrastructure. It takes much longer to rebound from a war than from a pandemic, which only kills people.”
Historians used to believe that the Roaring Twenties were the rebound from the Great War, but some scholars now consider the pandemic an equally significant factor in the rush to seize the day, to defy fear and death, whether consciously or not. The emphasis was not on introspection, but experience and moving forward. The 1918 flu did launch a number of public health reforms, but was rarely discussed outside of scientific circles.
There’s a chance the 2020 pandemic could be different. “Infectious diseases were the major killer of humanity in 1918,” even before the 1918 flu pandemic, said Spinney. “Since then, they’ve been taken over by the chronic diseases of old age. So that’s a major change in the way that we think about how our lives are going to end and what are our greatest vulnerabilities. We’re far more obsessed with Alzheimer’s than with measles. And you can see that in the vaccine hesitancy movement.” We might remember the coronavirus more because it’s so different from the diseases that usually kill Americans.
Another factor that might help this pandemic buck the trend of being forgettable: computers.
“Anybody with access to the Internet in the world could, if they were so inclined, watch infection rates and death rates in almost real time from the beginning of this pandemic,” Spinney said. “From the very beginning, we’ve had a sense of it as a global phenomenon, at least to much greater extent than in 1918.” In other words: We all have a story this time.
Pennsylvania State University historian Ran Zwigenberg studies trauma in Holocaust survivors and victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. Holocaust survivors struggled to cope with a horrific past; Hiroshima survivors had to live with the ongoing trauma of an uncertain future. “Radiation stayed in the bodies,” said Zwigenberg. “They didn’t know if they were going to get sick. And every time they caught a cold, it was like, ‘Is this it?’”