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Can We Admit Some Things Are Better Now?

It’s gauche to talk about the upside of the coronavirus — but it may be necessary if we want our country to face its failures

The novel coronavirus has taken an immeasurable toll on humanity. Beyond the almost 700,000 deaths worldwide (including more than 150,000 in the U.S. alone) and a global economic collapse, there are long-term effects we’ve barely begun to understand — like what prolonged social isolation is doing to our children. Day after day, the news is unrelentingly grim.

But that hasn’t stopped us from looking for silver linings. Early in the pandemic, feel-good hoaxes about animals returning to urban areas as humans stayed inside spread virally. These posts may have been fake news, but with decreased car and plane traffic, pollution was visibly reduced. Though air quality hasn’t improved as much as we initially thought, this could accelerate the current trend of cities reducing car use and sometimes banning automobiles outright. At the height of lockdown here in L.A., living near a normally busy boulevard, I could actually hear crickets at night. It was an eerie example of how the pandemic has opened the door to some appealing possibilities, even as it ravages us. It upends every kind of “normal.”

Personally, I’ve already forgotten what it’s like to commute 45 minutes each way to the office, and I doubt anyone misses those tedious drives. I’m spending next to nothing on gas, too. My food expenses have also plummeted, since I’m not eating at restaurants and only occasionally picking up takeout orders; I’m cooking more frequently and creatively at home, trying new recipes and getting the hang of kitchen techniques. Working from the bedroom, I have the flexibility wear anything and to exercise whenever I want to — and with a face mask on, I’m going out for runs and walks like never before, chatting with neighbors I once barely knew, gaining a whole new appreciation of everything around my home. On the weekend, my girlfriend and I will pack a picnic cooler and choose a new city park to explore. It’s… bizarrely nice.

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There’s a guilt attached to this, of course: People are struggling, unemployed, behind on bills and in some cases sick or dying. How dare I appreciate the benefits of such a catastrophe? Are we allowed to talk about the upside if not everyone is experiencing it?

That American billionaires added $434 billion to their wealth between March and May of this year certainly gives me pause. But to look at it another way, the failures and inequities of Western capitalism have never been plainer, and it’s led younger generations to push harder for socialist solutions. (The capitalists have noticed.) We must always be wary of the Silicon Valley fetish for “disruption,” yet with millions in the U.S. now on the verge of eviction, we are going to see what happens when the most basic concepts of property and debt are rejected by the masses. This is where the rubber meets the road and the option of a general strike enters the consciousness. 

We are also, at long last, thinking beyond the problem of Trump to address the ills he represents.

Black Lives Matter has mainstreamed the call to defund violent, militarized police departments, rather than continue limp efforts to “reform” them.

As the ruling class forced employees back to work in dangerous conditions to keep the stock market healthy, and the Dow climbed hundreds of points despite staggering jobless numbers, we could not help but recognize the phony, cruel abstractions of finance — and the Jeffrey Epstein saga has opened our eyes to the greater moral rot of those enriched by it.

Most of all, we have seen precisely why the U.S. health care system cannot continue in its present state if we care at all about the well-being of our citizens.

In the meantime, we’re learning the benefits of telemedicine, which we should have promoted long ago: It increases access to care, enhances the quality of care, cuts down on costs and hospital admissions and makes for engaged, satisfied patients.

And although a segment of the population continues to deny the reality of COVID-19, there’s been a definite positive shift to the culture as we adapt to the threat. It’s everything from paying closer attention to personal space and etiquette with strangers to increasing our tips for service workers and empathy for anyone on the front lines in an essential role. The power of communal action has been demonstrated again and again, in health initiatives, fundraising and coordinated protest. The coronavirus presents a crisis that is, in some ways, as vast, ongoing and complex as the existential issue of climate change, and it forces us to deal in scientific truths — because the consequences of ignoring these can be swift and dire. Whatever successes we achieve in battling the disease may provide a road map for collective response to bigger challenges ahead.

Too optimistic?

Well, maybe. But it’s not like defeatism gets us anywhere. It’s very easy to be depressed by how much we’ve gotten wrong, and the mistakes we seem to insist on perpetuating. To resist this temptation, and speak of surprisingly welcome effects or newfound opportunities, is a little outrageous. It also might be what saves us in the end. 

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