One month into pandemic lockdowns and many of us are still disoriented, waiting for a return to normal. But accepting the strange new normal is a prerequisite for shaping a better world.
Many have portrayed our current world amidst the coronavirus crisis as “on pause.” There are articles that will tell you what to spend your time doing while life is “paused,” there are protestors in several states calling for the economy to reopen from its pause, and there are photo collages of empty city streets, major landmarks, and tourist attractions sitting vacant. Meanwhile, time goes on—healthcare workers, sometimes working for weeks straight, fight to save patients. Grocery stores remain packed. Public transit continues on its normal schedule (as of this writing, three CTA employees have died of COVID-19).
But there has been no pause. Despite the closure of many businesses and nonessential workers being confined to their homes, this is not a hiatus or a momentary anomaly. All of us, wherever we are right now, whether working grueling shifts in a hospital or confined to a couch all day every day, will be shaped by this pandemic. We will not go back to how things were—not just because social distancing could be around until 2022, but because we, and our society, are being fundamentally changed even now. The ways we spend our days and hours during this pandemic are just as consequential (or more so) as the days before. This past month—of grief; of separation; of new methods of connection; of being alone; of sharing small spaces; of washing our hands until it hurts; of checking the news; of dread and uncertainty—will live on inside of us, whether we like it or not. The question is: how is it sculpting us? Who are we becoming?
In Chicago, we’ve had over a month of the “stay-at-home” order. In that time, we’ve seen a horrific death count and its obscene racial inequality, confirming that, contrary to the constant refrain that the virus “doesn’t discriminate,” racism remains the organizing principle of our city and larger society. We’ve seen officials continue to keep people trapped in COVID-19 hotspot Cook County jail. We’ve seen a demolition of a coal plant in Little Village which produced enormous dust clouds amidst a respiratory disease pandemic. Not only are the forces against us not on pause—they don’t skip a beat. We’ve seen them embrace many other abhorrent policies and grave missteps. We have, too, seen signs of care and solidarity. Mutual-aid networks, car protests. Strikes at Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods.
Our society as a whole has changed, though in remarkably meager ways. There has been no major reversal of course. Rather, we are seeing the worst possible effects of years of austerity, disinvestment, and racism doubling down to shape our future. While the pandemic hasn’t given us a pause, it has drawn new lines: before, during, and after. We obsess over “after,” dream of it, strain to picture it.
And we should dream of what comes after. Will everyone have healthcare, and somewhere to live? Will those who are “essential workers” today still make poverty wages? Will prisons exist? Will we have a just, actually effective public health system? The sheer magnitude of this event, its brutal hold on every single part of our societies and lives, demands that we completely rethink everything that came before. But we can’t forget that although right now we are living an abnormal life, in abnormal times, the abnormal world can and will become the normal one. Indeed, the world we lived in before the pandemic—one full of terror, violence, prejudice, and inequality—lived out its days under our tongues as normal.
Many have pointed out the ways in which this pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the climate catastrophes that await us, from massive flooding, food shortages, titanic natural disasters, to, yes, more pandemics. Imagine Chicago winters that are like summer. Imagine summer as an entire season that’s too hot to go outside.
It’s easy (and quite reasonable) to despair in the realities that we inhabit, to become lost in the confines of our disaster-world. Certainly, the opposite—denial—is not an option. The situation cannot be fixed by optimism or, worse, by hope in the ineffectual leaders of our time. There may be no comfort in the ways that the world is changing, but there can be relief in acceptance. Acceptance can also bring focus, initiative, and action. We’re not going back to our old lives. We’re not getting the old world back (the one that racists are desperate to return to).
Instead, let’s bring on the next one. The one with enough care and safety to go around. The one that doesn’t force us to choose between getting sick or being hungry. The one the racists are afraid of.
These pandemic days are real life—however unsettled and ephemeral they feel, we won’t get them back. They are days that are profoundly shaping us, days we will never forget. We must use them: fill them not with memories of the past, but with a luminous, meticulous, loving vision for the future.
Nisha Bolsey is a writer and activist from the Pacific Northwest living in Chicago. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Columbia College Chicago.