I am an optimist by nature. Plenty of people have pointed that out to me, sometimes as criticism, but most of the time with a sense of humor. I count myself lucky to have a ‘glass-half full’ mentality. It feels like a suit of armor I can take out and put on during dark days. But I also have a very pragmatic streak in me, combined with an uncanny ability to see patterns.
During the course of this past year I have experienced moments of disappointment when others I know and love have either ignored or minimized the severity of COVID. Initially, I was among them, so I cannot hold myself out as a shining example of purity. But once I got COVID, I started to pay close attention.
Shouda Woulda Coulda
I felt a sense of shame that I had discounted information suggesting that cruise ships were petri dishes for all kinds of viral issues, and COVID was surely among them. Several of my close friends had cautioned me about taking a cruise while COVID was causing such havoc in that industry. But I went ahead anyway. In retrospect, I probably would have acquired COVID at some point, but just much later. As it was, I was among the first diagnosed on the West Coast back in March, 2020.
Now, almost a year later, after 500,000 deaths and a little over 28 million Americans having tested positive, the post-mortem has started. How did we get here? What could we have done differently? Who is to blame?
Heroes and Villains
The pandemic has exposed gaps in services, holes in infrastructure, and frightening levels of denial in individuals, institutions, and leaders. It has also resulted in amazing innovations, rapid development of vaccines, and incredible demonstrations of kindness, generosity, and sacrifice for the greater good. Heroes and Villains.
The list for both is long. The usual suspects include price gougers and hoarders (remember the toilet paper shortages?). And let’s not forget folks who took advantage of the confusion and filed false claims for unemployment or preyed on vulnerable people with offers of miracle cures or protective devices. Villains include elected officials who ignored or disregarded public health warnings and needlessly caused the deaths of some who voted for them and others who did not. Influencers who parroted and promoted conspiracies resulting in people delaying getting vaccine when it became available are also on the list.
Thankfully, the list of heroes is longer. Friends, families, and neighbors who checked in on family members and isolated elders. Medical personnel and first responders who continue to put their lives on the line and wrestle with this virus. Community-based organizations who fed hundreds of thousands, and continue to do this. Researchers who pushed the edges of science and created new technologies as well as vaccines. Delivery folks who found ways to get the job done. Teachers who pivoted on a dime and continued to provide opportunities for learning the basics. Everyday folks who found ways to adjust to the new realities of life in a pandemic and just kept on living.
Patterns Are Beginning to Emerge
Now that we are almost at the year mark, we can look back and see patterns emerging. We can identify those decisions and actions taken that were helpful and those that resulted in poor outcomes. It is still too early to assign blame, however.
Things that stand out and scream for attention include our system of healthcare, especially as it relates to older adults. Quality of care and access to care are two different things. Public health systems are woefully understaffed and handicapped by outdated rules and regulations, not to mention computer systems that are archaic. Hospitals in cities and hospitals in rural areas are very different beasts. Nursing homes were deathtraps. That cannot be denied. All these systems co-exist but are not well integrated, and because of that, people suffered.
Uniting the States
We may have 50 states, but we are far from being the United States. Leaving it to individual states to determine how to distribute vaccines and how to implement health guidelines has resulted not just in a faster spread of the virus, but in inequitable access to the vaccines. This pandemic is making us look at rights of the individual and rights of the whole. This is one of the most difficult of issues to address, but given the fact that over half a million Americans are dead should be incentive enough to begin the conversation. Patrick Henry’s cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” has been answered. And too many have been given death.
Our school systems have demonstrated incredible capacities to adapt and meet ever changing demands. They met the challenge of pivoting from providing education in person in a classroom to delivering lessons online. In many districts, they found ways to provide students with computers, lap-tops, or screens of some kind, but weren’t always able to get internet service. Internet services providers stepped up and found ways to expand hot spots, but some students still needed to go to unsafe and learning-inappropriate locations just to do their class work. Still, educators, parents, and students alike have persisted.
Other areas where gaps exist include housing, nutrition, employment, as well as getting your spiritual needs met. The lack of affordable and adequate housing is an issue around the globe. Because there is such a lack of it, it calls into question just what can be done? Who is able to step in and who should lend a hand? The answer to these questions has roots in both politics and culture. Ability has little to do with willingness without incentive. Some cultures operate from a belief system that interdependence is a strength. Others, such as ours, tend to favor independence.
Adequate nutrition, like housing, is not a simple challenge to address. It becomes the focus of effort and energy when supplies are interrupted or cut off completely. The squeaky wheel, if you will, gets the attention. Without adequate nutrition, individuals and whole populations become more vulnerable to disease and illness, which then overwhelms the systems in place and further taxes reserves. Risk increases not just for those who are hungry, but for those who are in close proximity.
Employment has been incredibly impacted by this virus. Our economy will take decades to recover. Those who are good at entrepreneurship will find ways to prosper. Those without skills or access to funding sources will be marginalized. Their vulnerability will impact systems that are already broken or breaking under strain. These are not good indicators for stability.
Many believers have had to call on their G-d for assistance during this past year. For some, a crisis of conscience has occurred, as predictions have not come to pass and promises made have not been kept. For others, while ritual and routine may have been interrupted or made to adapt to the situation, faith has been strengthened.
We have such an opportunity to investigate and explore these issues. We have time and are still raw enough from the pandemic experience to risk giving up our firmly held opinions and listen to each other and find different ways to live in community. Doing this will serve us more in the long run than seeking and assigning blame.
The point of doing a post-mortem is to identify what contributed to the death of the individual. We need to identify what contributed to our not being able to manage the challenges we have encountered in the past year. We need to take stock of what worked and plan for better ways of caring for each other, while making sure we don’t relapse and lose the momentum for change that we have now. We need to confront our own short-comings and find ways to accommodate them and not perpetuate them.
Then we can decide where blame lies.