Envisaging Brighter Days Ahead

Humanity has never stood more united as we universally confront an unprecedented way of life. However varied our respective experiences may be, we are innately unified, situated in the midst of a global pandemic. Societies across the world, stripped of most normality, are banded together by the emotions that the five stages of grief implicate: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Judging from the sources I am privy to, around the world, we seem to be spread throughout the spectrum. As we encounter both trying and uplifting experiences during this unique time, it’s imperative to recognize that our collective reflections on these precarious moments in history will inspire us to learn and grow as a united human race, if we allow them to. One of my dearest mentors instilled in me the following piece of advice: “Never allow yourself to go through pain, suffering or defeat without having learned something.” This statement is flowing with wisdom, as whether the moral reaches us during or years following the trial, it will enable us to translate such tribulations into formative experiences. During this unprecedented time, we are all grappling with a new normal, and while no two hardships are comparable, there is always a message we may take away and carry along with us in our future endeavors. Outlined below are my personal insights, in no particular order, that I’ve derived from this altered universe. The list is inherently dynamic, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on, and additions to, the below. I plan to look back on these articles of perspicacity as our lives slowly revert to a new normal.

Everyone’s actions matter.

Some of the greatest cases of human destruction stem from the underlying postulation that one’s single actions cannot possibly impact the world at large. Let’s use climate change as an example. Many believe that their taking curtailed showers will not positively impact the environment, whilst their neighbor’s sprinklers are perpetually running. Meanwhile, others hold the inverse mentality, opining that one piece of litter or one egregiously long shower, cannot possibly burden the world at large. The seemingly obvious predicament in these equally harmful mentalities is precisely that they are not limited to the one person who feels such a way. Simply look to the United States’ voting system. While many hold the opinion that their single vote is insignificant, as they either assume that the winning candidate has already been determined or that their sole vote will not sway an election, a rough average of merely 55% of eligible voters submit a ballot in presidential elections, and that number is even lower during the midterm elections. Pivoting quickly back to climate change with this statistic in mind, imagine that the same percentage of people (approximately 45%) perceive their actions to have no influence on the world. This parallel would signify that a robust percentage of global citizens heed minimal attention to their respective carbon footprints. Strangely enough (but really not so much), a recent study demonstrates that more than half of Americans believe that climate change will not affect them personally, which sadly, somewhat innately implies that such a group would likely not strive to mitigate its effects. Sure, we’re not able to directly link one human’s piece of litter to another individual’s respiratory problems or cardiovascular disease, as much as those two elements are directly correlated. However, I do find COVID-19’s extreme levels of contractibility alongside the sheer necessity to isolate the source of contagion, to provide a lucid illustration surrounding every individual’s pivotal role in this pandemic.

My absolute favorite depiction of this phenomenon, which embodies the gravity of everyone doing their part to hinder the spread of COVID-19, is that of ten matches lying in a row, aside from the fourth match, whose tip resides below the others. As the first match’s tip catches flame, it immediately spreads to the second and third matches’ tips. However, given the fourth tip’s position below the rest, the flame is unable to spread, and the remaining matches are spared. This metaphor demonstrates the importance of physical distancing, as had the fourth match not separated itself, it would have caught fire along with the remaining matches. In line with the allegory, every match would have been infected, alongside everything they respectively came into contact with, and so on. Essentially, the world would have rapidly combusted. This visual encapsulates the famous “curves” floating abundantly around various mediums. If every individual does their part to physically distance, the curve will flatten. Otherwise, the curve will exponentially grow, straining our hospitals and drastically impacting human lives. Already, doctors in many parts of the world have been forced to choose the patient who will receive life-saving treatment versus another who won’t. Everyone must do their part to flatten the curve, and every individual’s actions influence our collective ability to do so.

Perspective is invaluable.

These weeks have been trying to say the least. Vacations, birthday parties, and weddings have been postponed or indefinitely canceled. Grocery shopping is anxiety-provoking. The overarching energy in the universe is dismal, and loneliness is a mounting public health crisis. Many have lost loved ones. Everyone is struggling in their own way, and each hardship is significant. However, a little perspective can help us to concede that we still have much to be grateful for. Many of us will likely never live to see a time like this again, in which everything has nearly slowed to a halt. For once, we are able to spend copious amounts of time focusing on ourselves, reflecting, and relishing in the small things that life has to offer. Some are able to stay home with their families, while in their alternate life, work or travel inhibits the simple pleasures of sitting down for a family dinner or reading bedtime stories to their children. While we all remain, in essence, equally physically distant from one another, social connection is feasible for anyone with access to technology, and as there are now far fewer “life distractions,” it’s a beautiful time to rekindle fizzled relationships. Moreover, I’ve witnessed many captivated by nature; gardens, the sun’s rays, and birds. When was the last time we had a moment to pause, and feel the sun’s rays upon our skin, or take delight in the simple beauty of birds chirping outside of our bedroom window? Such small gifts, amongst others, that are naturally overlooked in our daily rapid fire of how-much-can-I-possibly-pack-into-this-day, merit our attention. As Dr. Seuss once said, “Because when you stop and look around, this life is pretty amazing.” If you choose to see the glass half-full and practice gratitude, you’ll be amazed at how much this trying time has to offer.

Don’t get me wrong; maintaining an optimistic outlook during this time is not effortless. I’ve thrown myself plenty of personal pity parties. Just last week, amidst the gusting New England winds, my bedroom window blew inwards, shattered all over the floor, and the torrential downpour that ensued seeped its way into my newly-cleaned room. (I also rarely clean.) What helped me immensely during that absolute disaster of a Monday was my ability to maintain perspective. As anxiety-provoking as those moments may have been, I still had a roof over my head. I have a job. I am healthy, as are my loved ones. If a broken window is the only thing I have to worry about during this time, then I’m doing well. In countless parts of the world, the most basic forms of spread-prevention are hardly feasible. Families are crammed into a single bedroom, making physical distancing impossible. Turning to handwashing, another simple measure of spread-mitigation, I think of the reported 780 million people around the world without access safe water sources, and the 2.5 billion people (over 35% of the world’s population) who lack access to improved sanitation. (Facts and figures according to the CDC). In a 1998 press release, Gro Brundtland, former head of the World Health Organization, said, “Never have so many had such broad and advanced access to healthcare. But never have so many been denied access to healthcare. The developing world carries 90% of the disease burden, yet poorer countries have access to only 10% of the resources that go to health.” While these statistics have improved over the past twenty years, the underlying premise remains. The coronavirus does not discriminate on race, gender, socioeconomic standing, or age, yet it certainly impacts humankind strikingly disproportionately.

Aside from such dire health conditions, we must also think of the other, less-socialized health issues that leave immense portions of our populations in danger during these times. Just recently, a homeless shelter closed in Las Vegas, and its tenants were forced to sleep in designated squares of an outdoor parking lot. In Tripoli, Libya, residents are sheltering in place, with a raging war just outside their walls. Domestic abuse, in nearly every corner of the world, has surged. With schools closed, many children who rely on school lunches for daily nutrition, go to bed with empty stomachs. Reading about the perils others undergo throughout the world is one thing, but if you attempt to understand their situation in relation to your own, you may recognize that there is still a great deal to be thankful for, and as much as you may be lacking, there is still ample room to give. As Gandhi once said, “In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists.” Perhaps amidst these instances of darkness, the privileged among us can endeavor to be the light.

Mental health is a pervasive issue.

More than ever, mental health is top of mind, as anxiety and fear coalesce with isolation and loneliness. I’ve noticed a change in tone amongst colleagues, friends, and family, as cordial questions such as, “How’s it going?” have transformed into more serious and deep-seated questions, like “How are you coping?” I’ve additionally witnessed a rapid decline in robotic responses like, “Fine, and you?” This pandemic has begun to open up a more meaningful dialogue for many of us, especially in regard to mental health. When the world doesn’t seem to have it together, we allow ourselves to be more comfortable sharing our struggles with others. Sure, we still see some exhibiting their “perfect lives” on social media, which as of late, has typically been limited to picturesque healthy meals or Martha Stewart-level baking, incredible beach house views, or Zoom calls loaded with people. Nonetheless, I have noticed an overarching decline in “my life is amazing” facades, and an increase in difficult conversations. After all, we’re in quarantine, and there is a terrible pandemic surrounding each and every one of us. No one leads a perfect life, and that is true now, more than ever. With this inherent reality, more people have begun to recognize that simply getting out of bed and putting pants on is a win. More importantly, as the words “lonely” and “anxious” become more regularly-used, we continue to open the dialogue surrounding mental health with each passing day. According to WHO, mental health disorders affect 1 in 4 people, and while times like these surely exacerbate the effects of those already managing with mental health struggles, it’s also contributed to an increase in diagnoses. As Professor Rory O’Connor from the University of Glasgow said, “Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn are a perfect storm to harm people’s mental health and wellbeing.” With our continued candid conversations, workshops, and overarching awareness, we have greatly contributed to the destigmatization of the topic itself. I hope that this dialogue, awareness, and support continues following these times.

Human beings have a direct impact on climate change.

Around the world, the daily ebb and flow of cities and towns has come to a rapid halt, and the Earth is grateful for it. Have you noticed that the murky river or reservoir that you regularly walk alongside is now blue? I sure have. Venice’s waterways have gone viral for the same reason; they are clear! With clean waterways and the absence of tourism, coral reefs and other marine habitats are able to heal without the impending threat of human encroachment. Oceans have experienced a drastic decline in noise pollution, which allows marine creatures like whales and dolphins lowered stress levels and more peaceful migrations. The global wildlife trade, which is responsible for pushing a number of species to the brink of extinction, and is also a widely-suspected source of COVID-19’s outbreak, will likely see a crackdown. With a drastic decrease in transportation given shelter in place or overarching physical distancing guidelines alongside reduced industrial and commercial activity, air-polluting emissions like carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have also seen a dramatic decline. As such, satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency have portrayed a tremendous reduction in air pollution around the world.

While our environment hasn’t seen this level of positive change in years, the dismal reality is that many of our harmful behaviors will likely resume as restrictions ebb, and environmental pollution will revert to normal, or even higher levels. For those who deny climate change, or refuse to see human beings as its principal source, this is a perfect time to reconsider. As human activity has come to a near halt, the environment has improved, and it is surely not by coincidence. There are several practices that we’ve been practically forced to adopt during this time, that will serve as promising steps toward a cleaner world if we are able to maintain them. As opposed to taxiing short distances, you’ve likely been using other forms of transportation to avoid contact, such as walking or biking. Maybe we can maintain such habits. We’ve learned that many of our jobs can, in fact, be performed remotely. Perhaps, where feasible, companies may designate one day a week or month, where traveling into the office is not necessary. With several meat processing plants closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks amongst employees, beef production has fallen by roughly 25%, and as a result, the beef available to consumers is more costly. With these strenuous economic times, many have resorted to cheaper proteins such as beans, nuts and seeds. Given animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 15% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, relying on plant-based alternatives will have an incredibly positive impact on our environment. It’s also ethical, and much better for our health. Witnessing bodies of water in their pristine, natural state, alongside the positive impact it has on wildlife, will hopefully encourage us to mind our litter output. With the shortage of essential supplies, like toilet paper, you may have been forced to ration supplies (like the Gif that allots one sheet of paper per day), and as the shelves of grocery store are cleared, maybe you’ve had to make do with what’s in your cupboard. During these times, I think many of us have recognized how wasteful we’ve been. Learning to live more conservatively in terms of what we’re buying, consuming, and throwing away moving forward, will certainly help our world at large.

Racism is alarmingly rife. 

As with most cases of frustration or panic, we naturally look for someone or something to blame. In this case, many have resorted to blaming China, largely in part due to the first reported cases of COVID-19 having been reported in its borders. With this directed culpability, racism against those of Asian descent has grown to be a rampant and destructive force around the world. Some media figures and politicians have resorted to deeming COVID-19 the “Chinese Coronavirus”. Others have suggested that China ought to apologize for the crisis. Republicans deem charging China with accountability for this entire pandemic to be a winning strategy for the November elections. Across the United States, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have reported unprecedented levels of harassment. In London, a Singaporean man was assaulted as the culprit told him, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” This incident embodies an even larger issue that is not specific to the coronavirus: Asian groups have been lumped into the same group of the Chinese by a bigotry that cannot recognize the difference. These actions, many say, are reminiscent of the discriminatory behavior Muslims, Arabs and South Asians living in the United States faced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The key difference, however, is that while President Bush urged tolerance, Trump’s rhetoric has incited such racist attacks, especially given he refers to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus”. This rhetoric additionally heeds no attention whatsoever to the WHO’s guidance against using geographic locations when naming illnesses.

Together, we must recognize that racism is omnipresent throughout our world, and becomes ever more prominent amidst times of crisis. As effortless as it may be for the privileged among us to simply let racist comments roll off, such verbiage is fueling hate crimes, acutely impacting others. Asian populations are forced to coexist, not only with the anxiety and fear that we all find ourselves struggling with, but also with the sheer terror at the thought of walking to the grocery store or pharmacy. At a time during which the world is brimming with loneliness, such that it is considered an emerging global health epidemic, we must not look to ostracize communities even further. It is my hope that such inhumane actions will raise awareness surrounding the divisiveness and danger that racism permeates throughout our world, and encourages more of us to stand up and speak out.

The world is complexly globalized.

While the world has seen a steady decline in dependence on global supply chains following the 2008 economic recession, this pandemic will likely accelerate such trends, resulting in a far more limited form of globalization. In the preliminary phases of the pandemic, country barriers were spawned at inordinate rates. As travel bans increased and closed borders became a more tangible reality, supply chains grew paralyzed. Suddenly, countries like the United States, recognized how dependent they were (and remain) on other nations for essential goods. One of the first visible signs of this dependence was witnessed through delayed Apple product deliveries to the United States due to factory closures in China. Shortly thereafter, the United States rapidly grew aware of its dependence on other nations for more essential needs, such as pharmaceutical ingredients. This overdependence on others grew to be even more of an issue as each nation seemed to take a “survival of the fittest” approach, and looked to save its own people before others. The “put your own mask on before helping others” method has always proven to be a sensible practice. While nations recognize that they are in fact capable of securing their own masks, in line with the metaphor, many will likely vow to do so as opposed to depending on others for dire necessities. After all, when countries begin to think for themselves in times of emergency, the idea of international interdependence grows vastly less appealing.

While depending on other nations for necessary goods has proven to be troublesome during these times, cooperation through international knowledge exchanges remains imperative. As scientists and doctors hypothesize on best practices to prevent spread and also strive to find a successful vaccination, collaborative exchanges across borders are crucial. Nonetheless, the optimal approach of eschewing corporate profitability and intellectual property rights in favor of international cooperation through open and shared, publicly funded research, has innately been undermined by the aforementioned fear of overdependence conjoined with pharmaceutical companies who seek profits. Many have deemed the quest for a coronavirus vaccine a “global arms race,” as the Times declared that, “what began as a question of who would get the scientific accolades, the patents and ultimately the revenues from a successful vaccine is suddenly an issue of urgent national security.” While surely no country would hope to find itself beholden to another for such a vital vaccine, privatizing the profits of drugs developed at the expense of the public through patents is slowing the development of any cure. Throughout history, we have witnessed instances in which countries must make perilous decisions, which at a high level, involve placing humanity before the economy, or vice versa. This is a moment in which we must all look past wealth, and recall the principles that make us human. Economies and businesses will recover, while lost human lives will not.

Look for the helpers.

This time has certainly brought out the best and the worst in humankind. While individuals have hoarded supplies that we’re all in need of (I’m looking at you, toilet paper culprits) and attempted to sell excess at surge prices for those desperately in need, others have dug deep into their drawers to help the less fortunate. Companies have vowed to protect employees’ wages through the end of the crisis, and this financial support oftentimes stems from C-suite executives who have opted to forgo their salaries. Kind souls are delivering groceries to elderly neighbors. Those on the front lines, including employees in the hospitals, testing sites, supermarkets, alongside the janitors, pharmacists, law enforcement officers, and others, have remained incredibly positive despite the constant chaos that now engulfs their daily lives. Family and friends are looking out for one another more than ever before. During adverse times, we can dwell on those who behave selfishly or inhumanely, or we can look to those who, in the midst of hardship, are putting their very best foot forward. I choose to follow Mr. Rogers’ celebrated line: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

In closing, I hope that wherever you may be reading these personal reflections of mine, comfort, love and good health envelop you. If one or more of these above points has resonated with you, as our lives slowly revert to a more natural state, I believe that you will allow such reflections to imbue your daily actions. It certainly is possible to emerge from a global crisis more united, accountable, gracious, aware and collaborative. As an amendment to my mentor’s inspirational advice, “Never allow yourself to go through pain, suffering or defeat without having learned something,” I will add the following: Never learn that you can effect positive change, and sit idle. Let your actions, thoughts, and words pave the way for a greater good.

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