Back to the Future?

By Keith Darcy

After all we’ve been through, how do we get back to the future? And is that the future we want to get to?

As we all know too well, the fallout from the pandemic has been overwhelming. Fear, combined with social isolation, has resulted in unimagined loneliness and depression. Death and grief have consumed the entire world. Blurred boundaries between work and family have resulted in the feeling that we’ve lost control, leaving us anxious, spinning our wheels. Our coping mechanisms have been lost, our energy is spent, and enthusiasm is gone.

You cannot fix what you cannot talk about.

Last year, life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year due to the virus, deaths by drug overdoses, and heart attacks. Black and Latino communities were especially hit hard. Black Americans lost 2.7 years, and Latinos 1.9 years, while white Americans lost 0.8 years. Similarly, Covid-19 highlighted healthcare inequity that communities of color face, evidenced by identified cases and deaths, which amplified the social and economic disparities that result in poor health outcomes. While many Americans are facing severe economic hardship resulting from the pandemic, Black and Latino Americans have experienced hardships at significantly higher rates than white people.

Mothers disproportionately lost their jobs, along with any financial security. Two million five hundred thousand mothers left the workforce, while 1,800,000 men left the workforce. Parents who were able to work from home simultaneously juggled childcare, education, household chores on top of their professional duties. “Covid-19 took a crowbar to gender gaps and pried them open,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan. In addition to the economic fallout on mothers is the mental health crisis and how it is affecting their children. There has been a surge of pediatric emergency admissions for mental issues like panic and anxiety. In 2020, ER admissions for mental issues rose 24% for young children and 31% for adolescents. Social isolation and remote learning have significantly impacted the social, emotional, and mental well being of young people. Trauma faced at this developmental stage can continue to affect them across their lifespan.

While progress in addressing the pandemic is evident in rising vaccines, declining number of cases identified and lower deaths reported, Covid-19 isn’t done with us. Variants are appearing, and India, Brazil and elsewhere in the southeast Asia and the southern hemisphere, which represents significant risks to the rest of the world.

Given all this, what does the future hold in store for us? We should not be naïve to think that “business as usual” is just around the corner, or that we’re headed back to the future we imagined before the pandemic arrived.

As the science fiction author and essayist William Gibson once wrote, “The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed.” This is not just true in the United States, but it’s also true across the globe. The pandemic is a global issue. We cannot move forward safely in this country until everyone can move forward in theirs.

When the pandemic arrived at our door unannounced last year the familiar refrain was, “We’re all in this together.” Yet we experienced significant divisiveness throughout 2020. Race and gender issues exploded. While we are making significant gains against the virus, we must still address the many critical issues it has exposed.

The gift of life comes with responsibility. And while we are not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to ignore it.

The starting point is to acknowledge what ails us. You cannot fix what you cannot talk about. America – and the world – has been severely wounded. In addition to the gender, racial, emotional, and economic impact of the pandemic, our roads and bridges are broken, tunnels and rail lines in disrepair, the power grid is failing, education and healthcare is a mess, and climate change represents a global existential threat. It’s well past time to set aside our differences and work together toward, and invest in, a future worthy of our children and grandchildren. The gift of life comes with responsibility. And while we are not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to ignore it. Our life will ultimately not be measured by what we complete, but by what we start.

Events of the past year turned our lives upside-down. The present isn’t what it was, and the future isn’t what it used to be. Uniquely, however, we have an opportunity to help shape the future. But it will take all of us acknowledging the hard truths in front of us, and committing to work together towards a better future for all.

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