As social distancing seemed inevitable in mid-March, my family sped through the weekly to-do list faster than usual. With two young children at home with respiratory issues and an uncertainty of how COVID-19 may affect them, we rushed to fill their medications, stock up the fridge, and come up with a plan to keep our toddler busy.
Our rational selves knew that life was about to change drastically, but the emotional reality had yet to sink in.
It’s been more than six weeks since social distancing began. Every new day feels like a blur, more so than the day before. Most of the time, I don’t even know what day of the week it is. I ebb from intense feelings of hopelessness to gratitude that the Colorado sun provides us opportunity to take a walk down the street. I watch my husband and toddler experience the same emotional swings.
Riddled with anxiety, I can’t stop the racing thoughts about how or when this will all end. I try to occupy my time with photography, walks, and play time with my kids. I try to work. In fact, I want to work desperately because my research has always been a place of my own. But none of that changes the question I think many of us have on our minds: Will things ever go back to normal?
It’s clear to me now that things should never go back to normal. While realistically they won’t anyway, letting my psychological grip on “normalcy” slip away is a moral imperative. And here’s why.
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We need each other. I won’t use the trope that “we need each other now more than ever” because frankly, we’ve always needed each other. Our fast-paced, insular lifestyles, unrelenting drive to work and accumulate wealth, and complacency with the exploitation and devaluation of members of our community have driven profound social erosion.
The pandemic is only magnifying the deep injustices that characterize our country. I for one am a part of the problem. We collectively care so little about others and so much about ourselves that we’ve lost all of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of being in community with one another.
Under non-pandemic circumstances, I zip from school and daycare drop-offs to my graduate student workspace. Just getting into the car in the morning feels like a workout. I dash out of the house, huffing and puffing as I attempt to corral my toddler into his car seat.
Inevitably, I’ve forgotten something and have to dart back inside before finally backing out of the driveway. I squeeze in some work and meetings once I get to my office, though it never feels like enough.
At the end of the day, I pick-up kids, swing by the store for the last minute ingredient I need for dinner, and inch through rush hour traffic just to repeat the cycle all over again tomorrow.
There may be quick hellos, how are yous, and goodbyes to neighbors, but rarely do the engagements feel deeply intentional. Life just feels too exhausting and too busy.
Politeness has never been negotiable in my family. We thank those who serve us—our mail carrier, the person working the check-out line, our children’s teachers, the nurse who takes our vitals. But politeness is a surface-level interaction, too. It may express my appreciation for someone, but it does little in the way of expressing a deep understanding of and value for how interconnected we are in this life.
Now, as I sit here reflecting on a post-pandemic future, I see one radically different from the highly unjust, capitalist status quo that’s defined our country thus far. This future will be far less individualistic. We’ll actually care about each other because our health and well-being are inextricably linked.
In this future, we won’t have to beg for hazard pay for our pandemic heroes because we will already value them for being critical members of our community. I mean a couple of things by value.
In an economic sense, we’ll ensure a living wage as a baseline. Better yet, we’ll build the economic infrastructure so that our current low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, have every opportunity to experience peak wellness.
In a social sense, we’ll value people because it’s fundamentally humane to do so. Of course, we may not all agree with each other. That’s not an excuse for ignoring the significant role essential service workers play in our lives every day, pandemic or not.
In this future, the daily grind will not overshadow or nullify the connections we need with one another to survive. We’ve developed a highly organized, hierarchical, oppressive structure to make the wheel turn in this country. It’s clear that this system only benefits a small group of people, to the detriment of everyone else and some a lot more than others.
In our mechanistic approach to well-being, or arguably illusion of well-being, we’ve lost the key ingredient: meaningful human connection. From supermarket clerks to teachers, nurses to truck drivers, we all have the same basic needs. We all need to belong and have a sense of connection with one another.
Kristi Roybal is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver who lives in Aurora.