About two years after the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the moment remains difficult for many around the country and around the world. In the US, over 800,000 have died from the virus, and over five million have died worldwide. The pandemic has been accompanied by widespread economic and social costs including job loss, disruption of children’s education, poor mental health. It is indisputable that these adverse effects fall most heavily on those who are already vulnerable. The emergence of the Omicron variant has only added to this uncertainty.
It is difficult, at times, to see beyond these challenges. And yet as we look to a new year, I find myself hopeful. I would like to share four of the causes of my hope, which, I think, justify looking to better days ahead.
Crises and challenges are opportunities for learning
The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word apokalýptein, which means “to uncover, disclose, reveal.” This reflects the link between moments of catastrophe and the deeper understanding, even wisdom, they can bring. The pandemic has been no exception, bringing much pain but also much learning. It has shown us truths about our world we might not otherwise have seen clearly, from racism to health inequities to the many ways we were unprepared to handle a pandemic. It has also made more of us aware of the importance of supporting health as a public good. We have seen how health is interconnected and how supporting the health of the individual is inseparable from supporting the health of the group. With such knowledge can come growth, if we commit to applying the lessons of the moment to creating a healthier world.
We are having uncomfortable, necessary conversations
During COVID-19, the country had a moment of conversation about racial and social injustice unlike any we have seen in 50 years. By some estimates, the protests following the murder of George Floyd were the largest in US history. These protests have informed an ongoing conversation about racial injustice in this country. In some ways, the protests of 2020 recalled the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011. Yet the more recent protests are arguably distinct for how they have sustained a movement which has shaped proposed legislation and indelibly altered how the country engages with core issues. That we are willing to engage in this uncomfortable, necessary conversation is indeed cause for hope.
We recognize the politics of division for what they are
The pandemic was made significantly worse by a range of factors that had long shaped the country, not least of which was our dysfunctional politics. The previous administration’s divisiveness, and the inclination of the then-opposition to counter, at times, without leaning on the better angels of our nature, undermined our capacity to respond to the crisis. While we cannot be said to be free of this divided moment, we are in a position, I think, to recognize how the forces that are driving us apart are bad for our health. This opens the door to a healthier engagement with these forces, as we do the hard work of trying to look beyond division and create a better world. We should not underestimate the good of simply talking about the politics of division, of labeling the rhetorical currents that have done so much to harm us, so we might be warier of them in the future.
This can be a time of transformation
This is a moment of change. The emergence of COVID-19 as a global crisis ensured that there would be no going back to the world as it was prior to the pandemic. Whether these changes are entirely for the worse or are part of a process that leads to a better world is, in large part, up to us. With so much unsettled, now is the time to push for a better, forward-looking world. There is no question that this is a difficult time. The crisis of a pandemic has only amplified what could fairly be described as illiberal thinking. This phenomenon varies in degrees, but—and this is the point on which we are often myopic—it is to be found across the political spectrum, from antiscientific attitudes promoted by former President Trump to a seeming-insouciance about the deleterious effects of lockdowns and pandemic restrictions which can be found in more progressive circles.
It is also true that each of the hopes I raise here contains its own challenges and complications. But hope does not depend on the relative ease or difficulty of what lies ahead of us. It depends on our innate human capacity to seek a better world regardless of the immediate circumstances. All this suggests the importance of maintaining a nuanced conversation about health in tandem with renewed respect for the liberal context that allows such conversations to take place at all. No one among us is immune from the temptation toward illiberalism; this is particularly the case among those who feel themselves aligned with the good, which we in public health—it must be said—do. My hope is to focus my efforts in the new year looking to the future—to our tremendous capacity for supporting that good in the coming years—and to the past, to the time-honored liberal principles that can stop our zeal from becoming something counterproductive, or even detrimental to health.
We all find ourselves from time to time in difficult situations. But even in such situations, like these pandemic years, we all have the capacity to look up at the stars, to be guided by hope, always, keeping the faith that a better day will come and that we can play an active role in bringing it about.