Learning from the Pandemic: Opportunity for a Do-Over

A year ago, researchers at Brown University and the University of Connecticut came up with a great idea and made it real: they established a digital diary of the pandemic to which anyone could contribute. So far, more than 1500 people have participated, sharing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, producing possibly the most extensive experiential data base on the pandemic to date. This data will no doubt prove tremendously useful in understanding peoples’ experiences during the pandemic. Interpreting the data, however, should also reflect an understanding that contributors had to have the technological means and the time to contribute, which could limit the number of lower income individuals who contributed, and that only a select subset of diary contributions has been made public as of March 2021.

Nevertheless, looking at available samples of the diary as well as various published articles on peoples’ “pandemic insights” produces a number of takeaways, ranging from banal to profound. Some folks realized they can’t cook, don’t like spending time alone, or really enjoy spending days on end in pajamas. Fortunately, many respondents described the more important observations they felt would impact how they live their lives once the pandemic was over.

Observation 1: The “real” world became impossible to ignore, providing epiphanies

Commentators report that their normal routines were altered if not destroyed, routines which kept them from paying attention to a lot of what was happening around them. That’s when the “real” world emerged for some. Folks recognized that you can’t escape horrendous weather during a lockdown unless you’re Ted Cruz; acknowledged the downside of failing to weatherize infrastructure; and some finally accepted the fact that climate change exists.

People also “faced the internal”, confronting the anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness that came from being cooped up, physically constrained, and restricted from doing the things they did before the pandemic. Thankfully, there’s been a partial technological fix: telehealth and Zoom calls to therapists, friends, family, and work, as well as cultural offerings and entertainment online, lessened the pain.

Some would say that suddenly having to face unpleasant realities about the world -and oneself- is an upper middle class/rich person problem, since lower income folks have always had to deal with the “real” world. As with other natural disasters, the pandemic provided the privileged a taste of what the rest experience all the time: pain, frustration, and helplessness. At the same time, it also increased the economic differences between rich and poor, a chasm that had already been growing for years. The pandemic thus provided the possibility of increased awareness, while increasing the economic disparities that ultimately separate the haves from the have nots.

Other epiphanies abound — the pandemic helped many commentators realize and define what mattered to them, ranging from addressing racism and achieving social justice to promoting Trumpian values and maintaining white privilege. The pandemic presents an opportunity to hunker down, sure of one’s attitudes and values, but it also presents an opportunity to change.

Observation 2: Human connection is more important now — generally.

People are sharing a disaster — and know it. This realization helped some folks develop heightened reactions, positive and negative, towards their relationship with others. Most express a greater appreciation for the friendships and meaningful relationships they have, and long to reestablish connections they may have lost during the pandemic. Some developed increased feelings of resentment that influence their attitudes and behavior toward friends and family, as well as towards “other” socio-economic/racial/ethnic groups with whom they do not identify. Desire for connection seems to be able to drive folks together — or apart.

A curious exception are individuals who lived a solitary or isolated life before the pandemic, who sometimes seem to be the least impacted psychologically, reporting their day-to-day existence hasn’t changed much over the past year. These folks feel things are “ok”, although their more social and engaged friends and family may deeply disagree.

Observation 3: Concern for self and others has increased and decreased.

The pandemic has brought greater voluntary sacrifice on some people’s part as well involuntary sacrifice for many others. Increases in volunteer activity and non-profit financial support, as well as the largely involuntary longer hours required for many workers still gainfully employed, became more common.

Individual comments sometimes reflect a selfishness that one might normally think respondents would not want to share with the world. Diary postings and public comments expressed anger and resentment at having to follow rules and restrictions, to the point where not wearing a mask or following lockdown became a badge of honor for some. Perhaps nothing represents that self-centeredness better than claims that the personal freedom to do what one wants during a pandemic, no matter how it might potentially hurt others, was a right, not a privilege that for the duration of a pandemic might have to be suspended.

Of course, the pandemic began during the 2020 presidential election, perhaps the zenith of Trumpian values permeating public discourse. Pandemic and election worked hand in hand to reinforce an increase and decrease in concern for others, depending in part on personal ideology.

Observation 4: The future cannot be seen

Many commentators had questions, and some had views, about how the future will unfold post pandemic. Although no one could know, there is no shortage of ideas of what might happen.

What seems certain in commentator perceptions is that there is less certainty about the future. The predictability of life has been disrupted fundamentally, with many diarists feeling that the “new” normal is unlikely to be much like the old normal. Yet some expressed a feeling that it could well be an iterative process — getting back to normal bit by bit. Lots of hope for that outcome.

Observation 5: Resilience, and Tolerance for Uncertainty, are key to navigating the world post pandemic — and to survival.

Routine and predictability are comforting to be sure. Yet reflection about one’s life triggered by the pandemic resulted in epiphanies -and perhaps eventually behaviors- that will help reinforce and build the resilience necessary for surviving and thriving in whatever future might unfold.

Part and parcel of resilience is tolerance for uncertainty, a good thing given the potential for a future that is likely to be increasingly uncertain based on a range of continually evolving factors, including world politics, climate change, and demographics, to name just a few.

It’s curious to this writer that more commentators don’t address strategies to adapt to potential futures. Many commentators seem despondent in the face of uncertainty, but don’t see a path to navigate through it. However, comments sampled for this essay were made before vaccination was widespread. It’s possible that when a majority of folks are vaccinated there will be more widespread hope, with a corresponding greater number of comments articulating a more optimistic future in detail.

One aspect of accepting an increased level of uncertainty is a commitment to explicitly make tradeoff decisions that help establish the level of risk tolerance folks are willing to accept in an uncertain world. Perhaps tradeoff analysis and benefit cost analyses can finally become a more explicit part of everyday life, not only for wonky policy makers but also in personal decision making, accepted as a crucial activity necessary to survive in an uncertain world.

Observation 6: The pandemic allows for a do-over for some, and perhaps many.

In the end, pandemic instigated soul searching and greater acknowledgement of reality allow for more conscious decisions to be made about what kind of a person one wants to be — and what kind of a life one wants to live. As Frank Bruni pointed out in a recent op-ed in the New York Times: “… we don’t have to do everything as we once did”. We now have the opportunity to live, or at least try to live, our lives differently going forward. We have the opportunity for a do-over. Perhaps this will ultimately turn out to be the most positive aspect of the pandemic — an opportunity to set one’s life on a different, more meaningful course.

I’m interested in health policy, wine, travel, and lessons learned.

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