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Lessons from the 2020 Pandemic

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When we suddenly learned in mid-March 2020 that we were in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, we found ourselves experiencing something like a war being fought on our soil—one in which the enemy is a virus hiding in those around us. Strangers, neighbors, friends, those within our support systems, even relatives and immediate family suddenly became potential threats to our health and very life. Social and cultural institutions—structures and systems that we had taken for granted and perceived as safe, secure, stable, and constant—were dangerous places to be avoided. Our movements and contacts were, and still are, restricted, and many continue to live in lockdown and quarantine; some, like the elderly and the disabled who live alone, are practically in solitary confinement.

For many of us, it seems as if we have been living for the past year in a twilight zone. Until now, pandemics had been a thing of the past, remembered, if at all, as little different from fiction. But now our country has suffered more casualties than in all of World War II; and people continue to contract the virus and die in significant numbers while many survivors suffer serious long-term effects, both physical and mental. We have all been traumatized and continue to be: particularly those who have lost loved ones, suffered evictions, or lost businesses, income, and educational and career opportunities. All our lives, to a greater or lesser degree, have been on pause.

When it’s all over, what will we have learned? How will the pandemic have changed our lives; or how could it change our lives?

Early cases of COVID-19 were linked to a wet market in Wuhan, China, in which live wild and farmed animals are kept for sale in deplorable and depraved conditions. The transmission of viruses to humans in such circumstances was inevitable and entirely predictable (indeed, it had been predicted), a result, in fact, of humankind’s foolishness and irresponsibility.

When I first thought of writing this article, the Godspell lyric “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways” came to mind (a lyric based, of course, on Clifford Bax’s hymn of the same name, which was written in reaction to the folly of World War I).

Will we forswear our foolish ways? Will we learn that all of God’s creation is interconnected; that all people are interdependent?

One lesson from COVID-19 is that we have failed to see God’s presence in all of God’s creatures: We treat wild and domestic animals as commodities, devoid of intelligence and feelings. We have destroyed their natural habitat and we have tortured and killed them for entertainment and sport.

We cannot thrive or survive for long without each other and a sustainable natural world. We have been poor stewards of our planet—our island home—and we will not survive if we do not wise up and change our ways.

Since March 2020, we have all had to make do with less. Have those of us who are more fortunate learned from this to appreciate and be grateful for all that we have? Will we now control our desire to accumulate more than we need, while so many others have so little or nothing?

We are reminded once more by this pandemic of the limits of our influence and control over the course of life’s events. Will we have learned from this to live with greater humility and gratitude? But while our individual influence may be very limited, each of us is responsible for our actions, and our combined irresponsibility has dire consequences. I do not believe that this pandemic is God’s retribution—but I do believe that it is another of God’s wake-up calls.

For a year, we have been living day by day; and I hope we have learned to be more thankful and grateful to God for each day. “Day by Day” is another song from Godspell: a prayer to the Lord “To see thee more clearly; love thee more dearly; and follow thee more nearly; Day by day.”