A friend recently sent me my awkward senior picture and asked what the girl in the photo would say to the present-day quarantined me. “She’d probably spread her annoying optimism all over the place,” I wrote. My friend said, “Ugh, send that sh*t back in time before I barf.” I agreed. Staying positive feels about as easy as buying a roll of toilet paper right now.
A week before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, an EF-3 tornado wreaked havoc on my community. Amidst a backdrop of toppled trees, crumbled buildings, and tarped roofs, people scrambled to buy supplies to shelter in place — that is if they even had a shelter.
Now, more than a month into self-isolating at home, I’ve watched as COVID-19 cases and death tolls continue to rise, and, like many others, I don’t know when I will see my parents or other loved ones again. The toll the virus will take on the economy also looks grim.
I’m just taking things day by day, but I do wonder what the future holds. And through my wondering, hope does have a way of sneaking in. Any glimmer of that is worth holding on to.
So here I go spreading some annoying optimism for anyone who wants it. But don’t worry. I’ll temper any leftover teenage idealism with the realism of a 41-year-old who faces the facts and some harsh truths.
We know for certain life won’t be the same after COVID-19. But how will things be different? I corralled 21 perspectives on the potential for a brighter 21st century yet to come.
The pandemic is forcing us to reshape how we live, work, and connect. We’re going through this difficult metamorphosis now, and even after the threat of COVID-19 has passed, life will be altered. We just don’t know how that will look yet.
Michael Weakley, 43, describes his take: “I am a gay male living in Mexico City,” he says. “My hopes after recovering from all this, is new light. I hope everything is different, from how we communicate to how we approach education and employment, class and countries. A dream would be for this to tear us down to the bare minimum and allow us to evolve beyond so many labels, expectations, and busy-ness.”
Many of us are separated from and worried about parents, grandparents, siblings, or people we consider kin. We don’t know when we’ll see them again, but we can’t wait to have the all clear for a big hug. “I hope folks will value family time a bit more,” says Jenny Wilde L’Heureux, 44, of New Brighton, Minnesota.
We canceled everything. Aside from the occasional Zoom happy hour from the couch, our social calendars are empty. We have only our devices or the people (and pets) we’re quarantined with — or if you’re an essential worker, your coworkers.
When we’re allowed to get back out there and go to concerts, sporting events, our favorite bars and restaurants, or just hang out, will we enjoy the present without worrying about our social media feeds or to-do lists?
“One thing I am certainly hoping for,” says Mary Ganser, 20, of Carmel, Indiana, “is a new appreciation and priority for true relaxation with loved ones without the distraction of what’s next on the schedule.”
Even though we’re staying away from each other, the efforts to flatten the curve involve teamwork. We all have to do our part to slow the spread of the virus, protect those around us, and avoid further overwhelming the healthcare system. If we see these efforts working, it’s an indication of how great we are as a society when we cooperate for the greater good to impact the future.
“I hope just in general that people can start working together more,” says Lauren Glover, 32, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “I have a 6-month-old, and basically I am terrified he is going to be turning 21 in a ‘Mad Max’ type universe.”
News of the pandemic prompted panic buying. But the problem with overfilling one’s cart is that it doesn’t leave enough for the next person, or the next. And not everyone can afford to stock their fridges, freezers, and pantry shelves with a surplus of food and essentials.
Bare grocery store aisles have meant many have had to go without.
“It saddens me to see what has been happening with people hoarding more supplies than they need, trying to make a quick buck off someone else’s misfortune, and not taking necessary precautions to prevent spreading the disease to others,” says Sheri Gartner Fleck, 41, of Edgeley, North Dakota. “My hope is that this crisis teaches us that our own actions affect so many others, and that we need to be respectful of that, so we don’t hurt others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”
Panic buying cleaned out shelves, and we shifted to spending all our time at home. Those two factors have created a serious disruption in the supply-chain of toilet paper and paper towels. People are pivoting to alternatives, like bidets for the bathroom and reusable cloths for household cleanup. Plus, with travel and commuting at a screeching halt, we’ve got cleaner air.
“My hope,” says Sasha Pruss, 23, of Los Angeles, “is that, environmentally, we will see how the world has started to heal now that we’re not polluting as much and that people will continue once this is over to search for more sustainable practices that are affordable.”
The coronavirus is scary stuff. It’s taken lives young and old all over the world. And as we seek supplies, take precautions, and hunker down, the pandemic is a good reminder that many individuals face threats to their lives every day.
“My hope for the post-COVID world is that we prioritize giving,” says Sarah Calloway Brown, 41, of Cape Town, South Africa, “that we don’t give only when it’s easy or fits in the budget. And that we always act, regardless of whether the threat at hand could affect us directly.”
Calloway Brown is a co-founder of Mighty Ally, a nonprofit and B Corp hybrid that shapes growth-stage NGOs. “Now is not the time to spout stats about the preventable disease and suffering out there,” she says.
“But the toll from waterborne illness alone is staggering. It’s a daily reality that’s easy for us with privilege to compartmentalize as ‘other.’ Perhaps now that we are being forced to live with uncertainty and fear with no clearly defined end, we can authentically find a new level of empathy and understanding for the suffering of ‘others.’”
We’re witnessing the incredible value of grocery store workers, delivery drivers, custodians, first responders, childcare providers, farmworkers, and more. These are just some of the essential workers that are keeping people fed, safe, and stocked with supplies. In many ways, they’re running the world right now, but can they pay their bills?
Andy Earthman, 54, of Pembroke, Virginia, says he hopes the coronavirus will shine a better light on the need for fair compensation. “The people on the ground should be paid and paid well,” he says. “I do believe the minimum wage needs to be increased to a more livable wage and needs to be regionally adjusted.”
Early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on hospitalized COVID-19 patients indicates the disease disproportionately affects African Americans.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speculated in a White House task force briefing that health disparities are to blame, such as a prevalence of underlying health conditions and a lack of medical access. But the root goes deeper. Systemic racism holds blame when communities can’t afford healthcare. And we can’t overlook workplace exposure.
“There also seem to be a lot more white folks than people of color in positions where we can work from home,” says Maisha Z. Johnson, 33, of Vallejo, California.
“We’re recognizing discrepancies now in how people of color in ‘essential’ industries are being underpaid, underappreciated, and put at risk to ensure that the rest of us can keep on living,” Johnson adds. “I hope it’s clear now that that’s always been the case, so we can shift toward less exploitation of vulnerable people with this knowledge of just how harmful it is.”
“Shelter-in-place” and “safer-at-home” directives have left many people unable to earn an income, especially in industries where it’s impossible to work from home. With employees furloughed from jobs, the unemployment rate in the United States, according to experts, is at a towering 13 percent, the highest since the Great Depression.
In just 4 weeks, more than 17 million Americans filed to receive unemployment benefits; more than 20 million since the shutdown started.
Food banks are being inundated, and states are seeing a surge in applications for welfare assistance programs like food stamps. The pandemic and its immediate economic toll highlight a demand for better safety nets in the United States.
“I would like both a greater understanding of the need for more robust disability and poverty based government programs as well as improvements to them — both with expanding access to them and changing the algorithms for benefits calculations so people are not kept in poverty by the same programs meant to help them escape it,” says Charis Hill, 33, a disability activist in Sacramento.
One question that begs an answer as we move toward our post-COVID life is: Could more people work if employers made working from home an option?
You’ve seen the memes. All of those meetings really could have been emails. Yep, probably. Or a Zoom. We’re working from home, we’re teaching from home, and we’re learning from home. It can be done, and in many cases, it can be done well and with greater productivity than in a cubicle.
Employers will need to take a hard look at their accessibility measures and see if they’re truly being accessible to all.
“A lot of the adaptations given for workers and students are the same things persons with disabilities have called for, for a long time,” says Kerry Kijewski, 36, of Ontario, Canada. “Hoping it continues even after the virus subsides.”
We’re also learning through the pandemic that some of those in-person doctor’s appointments aren’t really necessary either, like the ones where you have to just check in to get your same old prescriptions refilled.
“As someone with a disability and a chronic illness, I am looking forward to a future with readily available telemedicine appointments,” says Jeannine Hall Gailey, 46, who lives near Seattle.
“As someone who has had a chronic illness for 30 years this month,” says Lauren Jonik, 43, of Brooklyn, “I hope people will have a deeper understanding that sometimes being home is not a choice, but a necessity.”
Jonik’s statement highlights an important perspective. People with chronic and invisible illnesses often go through periods of social distancing as part of self-care and wellness. Now that the whole world is undergoing such an experience, perhaps there will be more support for those who identify as “spoonies.”
We can support the health needs of others by altering ingrained behaviors, too. In “The Journal” podcast, Dr. Fauci suggested making changes to social norms to protect us in the future.
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” he said. “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”
Amy Dimeler Lerner, 44, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, says she likes that plan. “I’m the parent of a child who’s immunosuppressed,” Dimeler Lerner explains. “A minor illness for some can be life-threatening for others. I hope that this heightened awareness of not spreading germs continues in some less-stringent, but still beneficial, form.”
The pandemic is more than just a physical health crisis; it’s a mental health tsunami, with depression, anxiety, stress, grief, and insomnia whipping up a wild storm.
Heather Holloway McCash, 39, of Nashville, Tennessee, says we need to focus on having better systems in place for taking care of our well-being. “I want mental health to be provided with all insurance plans and encouraged,” she says. “And patients should be rewarded rather than punished by their insurance companies for taking part. Health and happiness go hand in hand. If we have an accessible, clear path to a healthy lifestyle, we will be a healthier, happier nation.”
Just because we’ve placed all hands on deck to fight a major health emergency doesn’t mean the other threats have subsided. We’re still in the throes of the opioid crisis, both epidemics taking lives at the same time, and one stealing major resources from the other.
“As someone who works in addiction medicine,” says Willow Rose, “I hope the emergency measures we’ve introduced (in British Columbia so far) that essentially amount to safe supply end up being permanent and ending the war on drugs.”
“I hope that the pandemic forces the adoption of Medicare for All and better health education and welfare,” says Greg Bartik, 55, a nurse at the Veterans Health Administration in Chicago.
Bartik isn’t alone in this sentiment. Almost everyone I interviewed who lives in the United States mentioned some form of universal healthcare as a must for the future.
We currently have a system that ties many workers to employer-sponsored healthcare plans. But a huge portion of the millions who lost their jobs because of the pandemic also lost their health insurance at a time when they might need it most.
Healthcare isn’t the only system that’s broken. The coronavirus highlights need for change across a swath of issues.
“I can offer a well-informed political perspective,” says Amy Roost, 57, of San Diego. “But what I think will happen and what I hope will happen are very much at odds.”
Roost gives us a wish list: “Student loan forgiveness, universal basic income, a unity party or ticket, mail-in ballots, Keynesian economic stimulus plan including huge infrastructure funding, mandatory 3-day work-from-home requirement to reduce carbon emissions, corporate income taxes, wealth tax, law forbidding members of Congress from owning stocks… I could go on,” she says.
Some policies hold prejudice, and the coronavirus may be a catalyst for permanent change.
“As a gay married man and a parent,” says Steven Sunga-Smith, 40, of Las Vegas, “my hope is the stigma around blood donation from gay men diminishes since they eased the [deferral period] during the coronavirus pandemic. Especially with people that have recovered from the virus and now have antibodies, you never know whose blood can help develop a vaccine or whose plasma with antibodies could help people now.”
Judy Wilson, 69, draws a parallel to the AIDS crisis and her experience living in San Francisco from 1983 to 2000. AIDS was a death sentence in those early years, she says. “As a gay woman, as a proud activist, it was morally essential to me that I involve myself in our community’s resistance to — basically — going quietly to death,” Wilson remembers.
Ronald Reagan was president from 1981 to 1989, but he did not publicly mention AIDS until 1985, Wilson adds. “He could have done so much, especially in those early critical years,” she says. “I see this same callow disregard for the human condition in Donald Trump.” Wilson says she tries not to be cynical, however, and expresses her vision for the future.
“Ultimately, my hope for the post-COVID-19 world, if that ever fully happens,” she says, “is that more Americans begin to see one another not as ‘the sinister other’ but as any member of society, each worthy of a good life — food, shelter, health insurance (regardless of affordability), information availability — and no more intrinsically vulnerable than your best friend to the wrath of this virus. We need kinder voices in our world.”
We’re all in this together, and we need community now more than ever, so embrace yours in any way you can.
Forced to close doors for the safety of customers and employees, small businesses are also a potential casualty of the coronavirus. But many communities are collectively stepping up in hopes that online purchases, patronage of delivery services, and the buying up of gift cards for future use will help keep beloved businesses open. They’re even putting together virtual tip jars for service industry workers. It’s an uncertain and scary time in so many ways — from a health perspective and an economic perspective.
But that’s why I want to close with this comforting thought from Joelle Herr, 45, owner of The Bookshop in Nashville, Tennessee: “I’m hopeful that the heightened level of empathy and compassion for others that we’re all witnessing continues into our new ‘normal.’”
My intention with this collection of interviews is not to disguise the situation that we’re in with glittery visions of unicorns and rainbows. This pandemic is traumatic, and I won’t deny that. But across this great wide roiling sea that we have to swim, I do see potential for it to change us, and for the better at that.
If any, or all, of these 21 ideas have struck a chord with you, dig a little deeper. Research it. Find out what’s being done or what you can do to join a collective movement to effect the change you hope for.
Hope can be a lifeline to get us through, but it can also be a powerful call to action. And if my optimism has indeed made you barf, I extend a virtual offer to hold back your hair.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.