Lessons Learned from the Pandemic


 

There are events in every person’s life that rise above the norm and leave an indelible mark on how one views the world. It will be interesting to see how our children will process the current dilemma and how that will color their view of our world. The very young are asking why they have to talk to grandma and grandpa on Facetime and why they cannot just visit them. Watching people on television and in their neighborhoods walking around with masks like aliens has to be confusing and scary. The initial elation of having what seems like an extended snow day turn into the realization that they miss their friends and their teachers has to be troubling. This period in our history will surely be etched in their memories.

Despite the fact that many parts of my childhood are fuzzy, I have a vivid memory of the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy. I clearly recall watching all of the television coverage following the shooting and trying to process all of the collective sadness and dark pageantry that occurred for several days. The most vivid memory was watching on live television as Jack Ruby stepped out of the crowd and shot Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being escorted out of the jail by deputies. That singular image, and all that surrounded it, has stayed with me since, as I am sure it has for many people. Other events have since had a similar effect. Certainly, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are etched in our national memory as well.

The early lessons that these events illuminated had to do with the evil that existed in the world. I was too young at the time to know anything about Hitler and the atrocities of World War II. The killing of Martin Luther King Jr. opened my eyes to the existence of the hatred and racism that existed in our country. Before the assassination, I think that I simply viewed racism and discrimination, or what I knew of it, as the natural course of things. As was the case with many white families at the time, people of color were spoken about disparagingly and referred to in terms that today are not acceptable in many households. Sadly, in too many households that language and hatred is still passed on to new generations. The aftermath of the assassination was the first time that I was able to see just how deeply rooted the prejudice and hatred was and I was compelled to examine the reasons for it.

The tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that took the lives of seven heroic astronauts was another national event that brought the country to a standstill for several days. I was forced to process that event through a different lens. I was teaching at the time and watching the launch live with my students. The first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, was one of those brave astronauts and her colleagues world-wide watched with excitement and pride. Not only were we as teachers dealing with our own shock and grief for one of our own, but we had the responsibility for helping our students process what they had witnessed.  I am positive that beyond the sadness were lessons about courage and the lengths that individuals will go for exploration.

The most recent national tragedy that has forced us all to question our lives in many ways are the events of 9/11. Those events have had as much to do with reshaping our lives and our politics, as well as our relationship with the rest of the world, as any other historical events before or since. We have been forced to redefine the muddied lines between our allies and enemies. The boundaries between personal privacy and national security have been stretched. Most importantly, the limits to which we are willing to wage war around the globe, costing trillions of dollars and immense human suffering, is constantly in question. For many the attacks exposed a vulnerability that most had not experienced and made us all question just how safe and insulated we really are.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a new emergency that has drastically altered our daily lives and created real questions about our future. The actions and circumstances associated with our approach to fighting this battle are unique in my lifetime. Not since World War II have Americans been asked to sacrifice as much of their daily lives for the greater good. Almost every normal aspect of our lives has been obliterated causing us to do what Americans do best; identify alternatives and push the limits of the restrictions forcing a dialogue about personal freedom vs. collective responsibility.

Just as there are lessons in every event, large and small, these major life-altering events continue to provide lessons and issues to ponder and argue. As with almost everything in American life these days the lessons will depend on who you are listening to and what side of the political divide you find yourself on. The lessons are personal as they can only be at the beginning. The degree to which we share the lessons, or at least can understand the facts and feelings surrounding them, will be the degree to which any dialogue and actions that result can help us move forward.

Lesson #1

Political expediency seems to outweigh governing for the well-being and safety of our citizens – all citizens. This is not a phenomenon unique to our country or the times. Human life, especially the lives of those who do not yield power or control, is secondary to the economic well-being of the wealthy and the power that accompanies wealth. Despite the stark examples of the effects of the virus from China and Italy as far back as early February, our leaders ignored the signs and publicly claimed that we would not face the same fate. Those who claim that China was not forthcoming with the severity of the virus should not have needed the honesty of the Chinese government. They only needed to view their actions. Cities with populations as large as Wuhan are not shut down overnight unless there is a fear of wide-spread infection. Our government ignored the signs because to acknowledge them and act would have meant causing disruption to the economy and facing potential political fall-out. That delay or inaction has clearly added to the confusion and lengthened the isolation while costing additional lives.

Lesson #2

Because those presently in power ignore science, especially as it relates to the realty of globalization, our country is unprepared for the inevitability of global pandemic. Global pandemics are not a new phenomenon. The Black Plague in 14th century Europe killed 100 million people and changed the economy of Europe at the time. 14th century Europeans did not have the benefit of scientific knowledge to battle the Black Death. They had no understanding of germs, bacteria or viruses. The one thing they did know was that people in close contact with the sick seemed to catch the sickness and quickly die.

We have known that global pandemics are not only possible but probable. We have seen them in recent years; SARS and N1H1 are the most recent examples. As a result of these pandemics, and the respect for the science that indicated that more would follow, the government created a pandemic task force as part of the National Security office and developed a detailed plan of action to protect our citizens when the next pandemic arose. The office charged with monitoring and planning for future pandemics was recently eliminated and the report that was meant as a roadmap for action has been largely ignored.

We live in a time when the ease and frequency of global travel makes isolating a serious virus virtually impossible. If people in one part of the world are getting sick in numbers that are alarming, that sickness will soon reach every part of the world and rapidly. Quick action is imperative. Eliminating the means to effective planning and action is irresponsible, careless and places all Americans at risk.

 

Lesson # 3

Enduring wisdom such as “penny wise and pound foolish” and “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” seem to be universally accepted ideas. They are the bedrock of the strategy for lessening the curve. The disciplines of math and science make obvious the idea that keeping the sources of the virus separated from each other will steadily rob the virus of places to settle and grow and hasten its demise. Employing the strategy of social distancing takes political courage and a genuine understanding of its benefits as well as a fundamental value for every human life.

Ignoring this obvious wisdom in the name of maintaining a strong stock market and protecting business is a trade off that can be argued and has been by many. Some have argued that the elderly, or those with vulnerabilities due to health conditions, should not prevent the rest of the population from maintaining a healthy economy. The elderly have lived their lives and those with underlying health issues could have prevented their personal situations. Avoiding the temptation to judge these arguments as morally reprehensible, they are simply scientifically unsound. Although those that are more vulnerable would be susceptible in greater numbers, too many in the rest of the population would still be vulnerable and could possibly die as well.

Lesson #4

Bad people will be bad people. No matter how serious or potentially dangerous a situation is, there will always be those nefarious characters who are set to take advantage it in some way and cheat people out of their money. As soon as there was any discussion of the virus coming to this country individuals were engaged in price gouging on personal protective equipment as well as other items that were in demand. There have been individuals posing as CDC personnel to get into people’s homes in order to rob them. Services that offer to shop for others bargain with those people for the highest delivery price. During emergencies your focus is understandably diverted and you let your guard down. There will always be those lurking in the shadows to take advantage.

Lesson #5

There are several related ironies in this scenario. When people are confined to their homes, they still have basic needs. Food is chief among them. When discussions of raising the minimum wage have occurred in the past, some have argued that anyone who is working full-time should make enough in wages that they do not need to supplement their pay with assistance from the government to be able afford basic needs like housing, transportation and health care. The counter argument is usually that the rich companies like Walmart and other groceries chains would be less rich if they had to pay a fair wage. The Walton siblings may no longer inhabit four spots on the list of the ten wealthiest people in America. The other argument is often,” If the person wanted to make more money, he/she should have done better in school or demonstrated more ambition to get a better job.”

We are now relying on these same people to feed us. They are the ones who are forced by circumstances or choose to continue working in a place where others must come to get their groceries or prescriptions, or worse, have just decided to get out of the house and do a little shopping. They are the ones that are picking the fruits and vegetables or packing the meats that we are still able to get.  They are the ones that are preparing or delivering the take-out that we are occasionally ordering to save us from gastric boredom. And by the way, we have been applauding nurses and doctors, and rightfully so, but let us not forget the orderlies, CNA’s, maintenance workers and many others who work in those hospitals as well. Many of them are the people who cannot afford child care and are forced to make decisions about going to work and leaving their children home alone or not going to work and possibly losing their jobs. When the crisis began, it was sad and alarming to read that the Hartford Police Department, recognizing this tough choice some parents would have to make, offered to check in on children who were forced to stay home alone. When the social distancing is finally over, these people are the ones that we will more than likely once again dismiss as being unimportant or unworthy of fair compensation for the dignity of their work.

Lesson #6

As an educator for thirty-eight years I know all too well how underpaid and under-appreciated educators are. The level of accountability has risen exponentially while the compensation has sorely lagged behind. Those who know me well would be the first to accuse me of strongly championing accountability in teaching. But I would also argue that those who struggle every day to ensure that every child gets an opportunity to experience high level learning are not fairly compensated for the stress, worry, personal expense and extensive planning required to provide those opportunities.

I will admit that teachers and administrators in Connecticut are closer to fair compensation than those in many other states. We also live in a state with a much higher cost of living. The vast majority of Connecticut teachers are not forced to take a second job to make ends meet. That is the reality in many other states.

The closure of schools, resulting in home-schooling, has been a rude awakening for parents. Many are trying to home school while working from home. That is an impossible task. Exercise a bit of perspective on the situation. Take your personal situation of home-schooling two or three kids and multiplying that by seven, eight or even ten or eleven in some places. Then add on factors such as students with special needs and students who come to school with trauma (it is actually far more than you think). That is what the typical teacher faces each day.

We were alarmed when schools were closed. How much of that alarm was created by a need for child care and how much of it was created by the obvious interruption to learning? Both are legitimate concerns. In how many households are they at least equal concerns?

Lastly, there is a great deal of consternation about on-line learning platforms. There are some legitimate concerns centered around equity and accessibility. Poor urban and rural districts struggle for a variety of issues. Student access to the internet is not universal and some districts lack the funds to provide students with one-to-one access to hardware.

Having said all that, providing and utilizing digital platforms for instruction and learning have been a priority for at least the last decade or more. Despite the funds and professional learning opportunities that have been provided, too many educators have been reluctant to take the plunge despite all that we know about 21st century learning and preparing our students for a different world. The reasons for the reluctance vary. Some are afraid of new technology. Some simply let prefect get in the way of good, uncomfortable with getting started and letting the knowledge and skills grow together with their students.

The present situation should show us that it is critical that we embrace digital learning as a necessity. Districts must find a way to ensure that all students have access to the internet and the necessary hardware. The actual learning benefits will be demonstrated as well once it is embraced and utilized on a regular basis.

Lesson #7

Universal health care is a primary issue for Americans in the current election cycle. Most Americans see access to quality and affordable health care as their number one concern. Whether you agree with the vehicle or not, the Affordable Care Act has made it possible for millions of Americans who previously lacked health care to access coverage. There are issues with some of its components, but, overall, it has increased the number of people who are covered. Unfortunately, there are still those who cannot afford any level of health care coverage.

Those living in poverty also tend to struggle disproportionately with underlying health issues. There are several reasons for that, but chief among them is the lack of a nutritious diet due to a lack of money and living in food deserts. Many poor people are limited to buying food at the local corner store or places like Dollar General where nutritious options often do not exist.

These are the same people who may work in your grocery stores or deliver your food and cannot stay home when they are sick. They do not have paid sick leave. They cannot stay home nor can they seek medical care. That means they are left to possibly spread the virus, or worse; they are left to die in greater numbers. How can any reasonable person not see the injustice in this? And even if you cannot, this pandemic must demonstrate that it is impractical to allow this realty to continue.

Lesson #8

Let us end on a positive note. Despite all that we are faced with, we are adaptable. Many, forced to stay home, have seized the opportunity to reconnect in a deeper way with family. Many have found or exhibited a sense of humor evidenced by the multitude of memes and videos that have been posted to social media. Our late-night TV hosts and others have found unique and interesting ways to keep us entertained. People may have actually taken up reading again.  We also have time to delve into some of those home improvement projects we have be unable to get to.

Many have demonstrated ways to help others in need. They have donated goods or volunteered services. And we have found a renewed respect and appreciation for those we often take for granted especially our nurses and other medical staff, our teachers and the many service workers we rely upon daily.

Despite the decisions made by our government, we will survive and move on. When we do, I hope we do so having reflected on our own lessons learned and commit to acting on whatever level we can to change some aspect of our attitudes or the decisions we make, on whatever level, and in any way that we are able.

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