At least once a day, I think about what I’ll do when this is over. I think about going home to see my family, and how nice it will be to take the hour-long train ride out of New York City. I think about going to my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant with my roommate, and my other favorite Italian restaurant, which is slightly farther away, with my boyfriend. I think about meeting friends at bars, movie theaters, and on the beach, because when this is over, it will probably be summertime.
I’m not the only one having these thoughts. Tweets to this effect pass through my feed every few hours. When this is over, all of the shuttered bars and restaurants will reopen at the same time. When this is over, we’re having all of our friends over. When this is over, we’re throwing a raucous party. When this is over, we’re going on vacation.
These musings are exercises in gratitude. Even after just a week or two of self-isolating, we’ve learned not to take even the smallest pleasures for granted. They are also attempts at optimism—one day, this will be over. We are trying to train our eyes on the off ramp.
But the more I think about returning to my “normal” life, the more it occurs to me that the normalcy we’re all imagining has already become an impossibility. Even though our old lives—filled with friends and social gatherings and face-touching—feel very near, the essential shape of them has already been irreparably changed. The world will not be as we left it, and even the most mundane facets of our daily routines may be permanently altered, as a global pandemic sickens hundreds of thousands of people and triggers economic collapse.
Without a universal rent freeze, the businesses we dream of patronizing again—most of which can only survive a couple of months, maximum, with no clientele—may be permanently shut down, and the former employees at those businesses may still be out of work. Those of us who didn't lose our jobs in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus could find ourselves unemployed months from now, as the country enters a proper economic recession. When this is over, many of us will not have the expendable income we do right now, to buy the latte, cocktail, or plane tickets we’re looking forward to.
Our new, post-pandemic lives may also be missing some of the people we want to spend them with: More than 675 people in the United States have died of coronavirus, and, in a worst-case scenario, the virus could claim over a million lives.
I’m not even sure what it would mean for the moment we’re in to be “over.” Will it be over when we develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, and administer it to everyone—when days, then weeks, then months pass without a new case of the virus? Or will it be over when the economy recovers from the unprecedented shock it’s just received, which foretells a depression worse than the one our grandparents endured? Either way, I feel certain that the current moment we’re living in won’t end so much as it will become part of the new world we enter.
Even though our old lives—filled with friends and social gatherings and face-touching—feel very near, the essential shape of them has already been irreparably changed. The world will not be as we left it.
But as devastating as it is to imagine the possibility that everything is changing, what is more devastating is imagining that everything could go back to being exactly the same. As lawmakers have scrambled to find ways to stop the spread of coronavirus, many of them have become unlikely advocates of socialized health care and universal basic income. New polling shows massive bipartisan support among the public for universal paid leave, up to a $3,000 cash payment for families of four, and moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, even among those who identify as “very conservative.”
And more people are realizing that taking care of each other is a responsibility our elected officials aren’t always willing to take on. Many Americans are developing and expanding mutual aid networks, a way of bringing communities together to look after the most vulnerable among us, even if our government won’t.
People are beginning to see that in many ways, if our world is nothing like it was before, that would be a vast improvement. We need not return to a country whose legislators don’t view health care as a human right, where low-wage workers are left without the most basic protections, where billionaires, in a word, exist. Amid a global health crisis, the alternatives—which have been there all along—become more obvious.
When this is over, nothing will be the same. Perhaps something better awaits.
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