I lean into the white picket fence surrounding my neighbor’s backyard. I watch her two young children race around the play set, shouting from the top of the slide and bouncing rubber balls across the grass. As they play, content with this sunny day, free from school, my neighbor and I talk, standing six feet apart.
There isn’t much to discuss except the coronavirus. We both express our shock at how fast our lives have gone from normal to a terrifying standstill. We agree — we should be writing this all down.
When her children grow up, will they remember this pandemic? Do they have any idea how unprecedented this is, how no one has any frame of reference for this kind of crisis? And if they do recall it, what will they remember? Will they remember a long break from school, spending time with mom and playing on the jungle gym? Or maybe they will remember only a pervading sense of anxiety and the claustrophobia of sheltering-in-place.
One thing is sure: if we could take 100 first-graders, time-travel forward 20 years, and ask them to write down their memories of the COVID-19 pandemic, we would get 100 different descriptions. Some of them would write about being hungry, about how their parents had no income and there were no longer school lunches. Some of them would write about playing extensively outside for the first time in their lives. Some of them would recall how sweet it was to have their parents around all the time, while others would remember how quarantine separated them from parents who worked in hospitals. And some would remember a flux of domestic violence, as tensions rose and there was nowhere to escape.
These children’s stories are not yet written. Neither are the stories that we will tell one day, when we look back on the Great Pandemic of 2020. Right now, we are all scared. If we want nothing else, we want to know how this crisis will end. When will the virus peak? How many people will die? What’s going to happen to the stock market? The oil industry? Unemployment rates?
The desperation of our questions can belie an important truth: there is no single outcome to this situation. We are not in a movie theater, watching days pass on a screen. Although we talk about a “hold,” “standstill,” or “freeze,” coronavirus has not pressed the pause button on our world. Coronavirus is the present, and it is shaping the future. Each of us is in the driver’s seat.
So how will this pandemic end? I see two options:
In the first option, we treat COVID-19 as a giant road bump. It stops us. We get laid off, we can’t finish our classes, we postpone our weddings and cancel our vacations. We wait impatiently for this to pass. When it does pass, we try to make up time on everything we’ve lost. We jump on the next flight to our favorite vacation spot. We go right back to the gym instead of the park, to bars instead of board games, to fast-food instead of cooking, without really questioning which things are better for us. We impulse-buy all the things we haven’t been able to get. Our economy is hurting, but we soon forget why. In fact, we forget almost everything. The coronavirus is a name we don’t like to think about, a moment we never want to relive. The world goes back to the way it was. And some of that is very good. Hospitals are less crowded. Toilet paper is always in stock. People can visit their friends and family again. But if we aim to forget the coronavirus, we also lose our chance to fix some of our worst mistakes. We go back to flying across oceans and gushing pollution into the atmosphere. We go back to scheduling ourselves so busy that we have no time to go outside or to call our loved ones. We go back to passing people on the street without the slightest sense of we’re-in-this-together. We go back to an economic system in which the stock market is the only measure of our country’s well-being.
I whole-heartedly believe that there is another future awaiting us, and that this future does not wait until coronavirus has passed. This future starts now, if we choose it. In this future, we forget nothing. In this future, we recognize that COVID-19 is forcing us to stop, look around ourselves, and choose which direction to take. This pandemic is not a road bump. It is a plot twist, and it changes the outcome of the narrative.
It’s impossible for anyone to say what the story line of this plot twist is, because there is not just one story. For many, this pandemic is just what a pandemic sounds like: a time of fear, sickness, scarcity, and danger. And for some, it is a hidden gem, a much-needed time of rest. For most of us, it is both of those things, and more. It is hardship, and loss, and possibility, and freedom, and grief, and peace, and fear. And one of the hardest things in the world is to admit that something can hold so much contradiction and still exist.
That is why I have no intention of writing about what coronavirus “really” teaches us, or who’s perspective on the crisis is the “correct” one, or where privilege comes into play. Coronavirus is simply our life right now, and like anything in life, most of it is out of our control. Yet I challenge every single one of us to take stock of what our choices are right now, in this minute. Coronavirus has not frozen time. Time is still moving forward, and the way we respond to this pandemic is how we are shaping our future, both individually and as a globe.
What we make out of this era of our lives will be so different for each of us. For me, coronavirus has made me ask questions I have never asked before, given me time to brush up on skills I’ve forgotten about, and forced me to reckon with difficult relationships in my life. I am also grieving the plans that have fallen through, and even that is teaching me about the process of living with imperfection.
None of us is getting out of this unscathed. And we may never be able to put COVID-19 into a tidy box and give it “meaning.” But to look at our current situation as a beginning, as a place of moving forward, and to begin making new, never-before-tried plans, is an act of radical hope. And when the coronavirus is finally cured, this radical hope is how we will build a stronger, healthier, and more resilient future. It all depends on what we decide to do now.
What choice are you going to make?