Pamela Laufer-Ukeles

There is no going back

In the wake of measles, we developed vaccines; in the wake of AIDS, we practiced safe sex. What new improvement will we find, in the wake of the coronavirus?
Illustrative. Mother and daughter at a crossroads. (iStock)
Illustrative. Mother and daughter at a crossroads. (iStock)

Yesterday, my 12-year old daughter asked me, sullenly, “Mommy, when are things going to go back to the way they were?”

I said, “I’m sorry, but they are not going to back. We can’t return to the way thing were.”

She looked at me horrified, “How can you say that? Of course things are going to go back, I mean, eventually! Eventually, we won’t have to wear masks, we’ll go back to the mall!”

I felt a visceral negative reaction at her insistence. No, we are never going back to the way things were. I explained calmly, “We need to look forward, consider what is important to us, and navigate how to make the best of the world we have. We can’t go backward, return to normal. If we do that, we’re bound to fail. Look at the situation now. There’s never going backwards. We can only learn the lessons we can, gather our strength, and move forward.”

This was hard for my daughter to hear. And, I was surprised at how deeply I felt it, but it was good to express what I was feeling inside.

Of course, this is not the first pandemic this world has experienced, nor the first world tragedy, nor the first of anything really. But every time something big like this happens, it would be a disaster to just go back to the way things were. For two reasons. First, because we are likely to make the same mistakes that led us to the tragedy in the first place again. Second, because it is a missed opportunity to learn, to absorb, to energize, and to bring those lessons forward to make a better world than what once was. Yes, as I hear more and more, we need a new normal, and we also need to make it an even better, new, normal.

Yes, there have been pandemics before. And they have led to changes. The measles pandemic led to a major improvement in public health. Vaccines became more common, highly recommended, and, in some jurisdictions, required in order to go to school. After the bubonic plague, hygiene improved markedly, with hand-washing and soap becoming standard, which in turn led to better water filtration and safety measures. After AIDS, we all learned to practice safer sex, not only stemming the AIDS virus but other STDs as well.

What can be our big improvement due to the coronavirus? How are we going to improve our lives? We should talk about it! How can we make the new normal positive, even after there is a vaccine (if there is a vaccine), or after there are better treatments or faster testing? It is up to us to come up with the new better normal.

I will suggest a few ideas.

First, let’s reduce crowding in our schools! In significant part, this second wave of the virus was heralded by crowded classrooms in which safe distancing was simply impossible. We can do better. We need more infrastructure and we need more teachers. These are worthy goals, in any case. Perhaps some of the many unemployed business owners can retrain as teachers. Like the public works program in the US after the Great Depression, let’s train more teachers, and ensure for our children safe school environments. Smaller classrooms allow more varied teaching methods, less frontal teaching, and more personal attention for our children. It would be so heartening if the pandemic would enable us to make such a positive change that would benefit our society greatly.

Second, respecting personal space. In a country in which we tend to be pushy and unable to wait in line without feeling like we are getting taken advantage of, we can benefit from all taking a deep breath, slowing down, and appreciating the need for each of us to maintain personal boundaries. A small thing, perhaps, but it can improve the quality of life for all of us.

There are so many others – more at-home time with family, more local shopping, more cooking, less airplane travel for work, more opportunities to telecommute, etc.

I do agree with my daughter: I hope the masks will leave us one day soon. But, instead of going back to the way things were, I hope we can figure our how to make some changes, for the better.

About the Author
Pamela Laufer-Ukeles is Professor of Law and Health Systems Administration at the Academic College of Law and Science in Hod Hasharon, teaching feminist legal theory, bioethics, health care reform, and elder law among other subjects. 
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