The Fire Within: A Post-COVID World
an opinion by Justine Torres
It's late in the evening. You and your friends are in your backyard, chatting the hours away. The ambiance is delightful: everyone’s wrapped up in warm blankets and drinking endless mugs of hot cider, and the air is punctured by the crackling of wood chips and rambunctious laughter. The view above you is breathtaking, as if an artist had canvassed the entire sky with vibrant shades of red, orange, and pink. As the last rays of the sun sink beneath the horizon, you all make s’mores, toasting marshmallows over an open flame.
“It’s almost November...” one of your friends says, spearing yet another marshmallow with a pointed skewer, “...only two more months until the new year.”
“The new decade!” another corrects. “The Roaring 20s.”
“I wonder what the world’s going to be like.”
Someone scoffs. “It’s only a few months from now—it’s not like anything will change!”
“You don’t know that! You don’t have 2020 vision!”
Eventually, the conversation dies down in tandem with the flames. When the clock strikes twelve, all that’s left is the barest of embers. Your friends leave one by one, driving back to their respective homes. “We have to do this again one day,” you say to each of them. But as October fades into November, as you all try to make more plans, life keeps getting in the way. There are family obligations to meet, last-minute work-shifts to take, and nights to spend studying. December rolls around, and you’re caught up in the stress of holiday gift shopping and maintaining your grades. You spend the entirety of winter break with your family up north like you do every year, cooking meals with your 76-year-old grandmother who’s beaten breast cancer twice and singing carols with your older cousin who’s 5 months pregnant.
You greet the new decade surrounded by loved ones, bursting with anticipation for what the world has in store for you. As you light your sparklers and gaze up at the night sky, you realize that this is the decade when everything changes. This is the decade when you’re turning eighteen, when you leave the small town where you were born and raised your entire life to go to college, when you get your degree, when you move into your own place for the first time. This will be your defining decade, with joy that has yet to be felt, friends that have yet to be met, and memories that have yet to be made. You’ll be ready for all of life’s twists and unsuspecting turns. Bring it on, 2020.
It’s safe to say that you weren’t ready. No one was. On a global scale, no one was expecting the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken over 2.4 million lives (and counting) as of February of 2021. It began as a small spark but spread like wildfire, spreading devastation everywhere it touched. It changed everything—and it’s only been a year. With pharmaceutical achievements such as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccinations being authorized for mass distribution, there have been some estimates that we will go back to a state of relative normalcy by the end of 2021. Yet does “normal” mean that the world will return to the way things were before? After all, burns can heal, but not all scars fade—some injuries are etched far too deeply upon the human spirit. The coronavirus has made its way into every facet of our existence, engulfing any semblance of our previous way of living in its fiery wrath. It’s affected every aspect of our collective lives, and we as a world will be dealing with its ramifications in the years to come.
The coronavirus has irreparably altered the vitality of countless individuals. We mustn’t discount the devastating loss of millions of lives: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends who were taken from the world far too soon. However, a sole fixation on COVID-19’s mortality rate does a disservice to anyone who has suffered from increased morbidity—people who were once-healthy, with hopes and dreams and aspirations just like any of us, who eventually recovered from this deadly disease but will never be the same.
A fifteen-year-old girl who had once longed to be a professional dancer, who is now so physically weak she can barely find the energy to get out of bed in the mornings.
A head chef who first realized something was terrifyingly wrong when he couldn’t taste a recipe he had made countless times before—who, even months after recovering, never regained his sense of smell.
A writer of a best-selling book series, who spends her days staring at a blank screen in a brain fog-induced haze, a blinking cursor mocking her inability to recall the words that once flowed so easily.
Recovery doesn’t necessarily mean going back to normal. Not dying doesn’t always mean a completely restored state of health. Yes, the number of individuals with coronavirus-related debilitating symptoms is extremely small when compared to the number of people who make speedy, uncomplicated recoveries. But for the case of the unlucky few, this is more than just a statistic—it’s their reality. These are real people, who will have to learn to live with these devitalizing consequences for the rest of their days.
COVID-19 has also impacted people’s mental health at a drastic rate. Perspective is everything. The coronavirus has only been a prevalent issue for one year, and for many, the time has gone by quicker than a blink. Yet others have spent 365 long, torturous days isolated from the rest of the world. For them, a year has felt like a lifetime. Countless “quarantine babies” have only known the confines of their own home, taught to be fearful of other people and the deadly sickness they may carry. Younger children—during the years when intellectual stimulation and interaction are essential to their long-term development—now must spend the majority of their day behind a screen under long-term social deprivation. Victims of domestic violence, hiding away from COVID-19, have been forced to live under the same roof as their abusers for far longer periods of time. They’ve escaped the clutches of one monster but walked into the snares of another, with 15 million new cases of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) for every three months of quarantine. Many, their loneliness only exacerbated by the fear of themselves or a loved one contracting COVID-19, have desperately sought escape from the nightmares of the present world through food, television, and—in some cases—drugs. What happens when an epidemic becomes a pandemic? The coronavirus has been a “national relapse trigger;” in Erie County, New York, eighty-five people died from overdoses during the first four months of 2020—up 100% from that period last year. Its effects run far deeper than we could have ever imagined.
The coronavirus has also spread its fiery destruction upon entire economic systems. For one, companies such as Uber and Lyft have experienced extreme economic loss, leaving drivers in extreme financial insecurity. Moreover, our small businesses have suffered immensely: according to a recent survey from SCORE, only 34 percent of small business owners were able to turn a profit in 2020, down 21 percent from the year before. An incalculable number of businesses—some that have been running across the span of generations of history, some that are the sole source of income for families to clothe and mouths to feed—have had to shut down for good. This global pandemic has wreaked havoc upon the restaurant and tourism industries and the United States Postal Service, in particular. While there have been some brands that have economically benefited from COVID-19—common examples being Purell, Cottonelle, and Zoom—they are only exceptions.
One trend remains clear: the poor are becoming poorer, but the rich are becoming richer. According to a study from Columbia University, 8 million more Americans have joined the 47 million citizens already ensnared by the clutches of poverty since May of 2020. For many people, financial recovery after the coronavirus could take over a decade. But what about the world’s most affluent? While COVID-19 has led to the worst job crisis in more than ninety years, with hundreds of millions of people now unemployed or without work, the world’s ten richest men have had their combined wealth increase by half a trillion dollars—enough money to fully fund a vaccine and ensure collective financial stability, with money left over. This supports a statement made by Melissa Leach, the director of the Institute of Development Studies: “Epidemics are always mirrors to society, and what this has revealed is a highly unequal world.” But this inequality ranges far beyond the economic realm.
“I can’t breathe.” These were the last words of George Floyd, who joined the ranks of Emmitt Till, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and so many more, just one out of many bright souls unjustly snuffed out by systemic racial prejudices. After so many months of collective inactivity, the coronavirus was the perfect catalyst for fostering indignance against severe disparities within our world that society once perceived as normal. George Floyd’s murder sparked many to action, drawing out hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists all over our country and our planet; “Black Lives Matter” has even been said to be the largest movement in United States history. However, this was only the beginning of the political change within this country—a change that will be documented in our history books forever.
Many events that were scheduled for the year 2020 were canceled, but one exception was the United States presidential election. National Public Radio (NPR) relates, “More votes were cast in the 2020 presidential election than in any other U.S. election in history, and the turnout rate was the highest in more than a century.” With over 80 million votes, Joe Biden secured the role of 46th president of the United States. Moreover, almost 250 years after this country was first founded, we finally have a woman presiding as our vice president. Kamala Harris, both African American and Asian American, has shown the world that women and people of color are capable of holding positions of power. However, while Joe Biden and Kamala Harris serve as the President and Vice President of the United States, they have taken over a divided nation. January 6, 2021 will forever be ingrained in our minds. For the entire day, thousands of rioters partook in an attempted coup, touting American flags and breaching our nation’s capitol building, performing the very antithesis of the words emblazoned on many of their chests. Under the phrase “Make America Great Again,” they breached our nation’s capitol building, breaking down doors and shattering windows, overwhelming and overtaking Capitol Police.
A noose built on makeshift gallows, a callback to a time when African Americans were terrorized under the Jim Crow era. A Confederate flag waved with pride inside Capitol chambers, something that hadn’t even happened during the Civil War. A Capitol Police officer who lost his life after physically engaging with rioters, the very people who said that his life mattered. The American people’s unceasing patriotism is a flame that has burned for centuries, first in the heart of military general George Washington as he crossed the Delaware, then in the ironclad will of the soldiers at Fort McHenry who kept the American flag waving despite twenty-seven hours of constant bombardment, and now in every individual who recites our pledge of allegiance or sings our national anthem. Yet January 6, 2021 was a day of darkness, the closest this flame has come to being extinguished in our lifetime.
COVID-19 has exhausted our healthcare systems, debilitated our economy, and almost upended our political system, but it hasn’t stopped there. Before 2020, terms such as quarantine, social distancing, and 6 feet apart weren’t part of our verbal repertoire. The term “positive” was associated with optimism rather than disease. Our smiles were displayed for the whole world to see, rather than hidden under a sheet of fabric. This pandemic has left our hospitals overrun and our healthcare workers overwhelmed. It has exacerbated many of the inequalities that threaten the vitality of our country—access to education, obtainability of healthcare, economic stability. However, COVID-19 has also raised questions about the future. When this is all over will mask-wearing remain? Will we still maintain our ingrained fear whenever we hear another person cough or sneeze? How will people who have grown accustomed to introverted tendencies relearn social interaction? When a person is shaped both by their nature and their nurture, how will the coronavirus and all of the events that have stemmed from it affect the world’s youth—many of which aren’t even eighteen years of age?
It’s known that COVID typically—and often most dangerously—afflicts older individuals. The statistics don’t lie. The youngest generations have the luxury of not worrying about financial security or their health to the same extent as their parents and grandparents. But even so, no one has come out of this global pandemic unscathed. Even those of us who haven’t been personally affected by misfortune or Death’s cruel hand have lost an incalculable amount. For Generation Z, the 2020s are supposed to be our milestone years. It’s when we’re destined to graduate high school and head off to college. This global pandemic has taken so much away: late nights with friends, eighteenth birthday celebrations, high school graduations, and college experiences. It’s stolen away what society says is the best years of our lives.
We weren’t supposed to grow up this quickly. Forced to adapt to uncontrollable factors and adjust to the current state of the world, the collective naievté associated with youth has dissipated, no more than a wisp of smoke. However, many of us have also grown into ourselves. We’ve had the opportunity to pick up old hobbies we once never had time for, and we’ve had the freedom to try new things we’ve always wanted to start. We’ve finally learned to slow down and appreciate the little things, appreciating the small blessings of life that once would have passed us by. We’ve had the time to figure out who we are.
But shouldn’t you be suffering and in pain alongside the hundreds of millions of people across the globe? When a global pandemic has shaped you into who you are today, is it selfish to find the silver lining in all of the bad? Is it terrible that, to an extent, you’re almost grateful for a global pandemic that has caused so many others unimaginable grief?
Some things come into our life as blessings. Others serve as lessons. And yet there are others—people, events, circumstances—that are both. If we haven’t been personally affected, or if we’ve even benefited from the ramifications of COVID-19, we might feel ashamed for being happy—or as happy as we can be, given the circumstances. But while we should acknowledge and do what we can to alleviate others of their pain and suffering, we shouldn’t undermine or invalidate our own experiences, which are very much real and just as valid.
In the present, the whole world is suspended in uncertainty. Yet life goes on. One day, this global pandemic will finally be extinguished for good. Over time, we will go back to “normal.” While some of us will forget what it’s like to be scorched by these flames, while some of us will heal from these burns, the coronavirus has left a permanent mark upon many. But we will prevail, just like the sun rises each day. We are living proof of this truth; our mere existence is a testament to perseverance that runs through our veins. Each of our ancestors endured the hardships of their time—countless wars, devastating plagues, unimaginable hardships—and each of them has endured. They kept the fire burning, and so will we. The blaze that rages around us will never extinguish the flame that burns within.
“So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.”
—Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
Cover Photo Source: Georgia State University News