Last year, author Arundhati Roy wrote in an essay titled “The pandemic is a portal,” “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
If the pandemic is a portal, what will the new world on the other side look like?
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives. It upended our work, home life, school and exposed the many holes in our social safety net.
It also, nearly overnight, transformed how we lived. It showed us that rapid cultural change was possible, when there was the will. Some of the transformations we will probably never want to do again — remember wiping down mail and groceries? But some changes were for the better.
As we tentatively look beyond to a post-pandemic future, we asked readers: What changes should we keep from the past 16 months to make a more equitable, just and sustainable world? Here are some of your ideas.
Few arenas were changed as much as education during the pandemic. Schools went entirely virtual and teachers, students and parents had to adapt rapidly to Zoom school. While this proved challenging for many, others — particularly students of color — are opting not to return to in-person school, citing less racism and bullying. Going forward there will likely be some form of remote learning, and to support that, we will need to ensure that all students continue to have access to the tech they need to be successful. Laptops, headphones, Wi-Fi hot spots will all need to be part of future school budgets along with the support to use them.
In addition, the use of school sites to provide culturally specific food distribution that is open to all who need it, even when school is not in session, should be continued.
The No. 1 thing readers said we should keep after the pandemic was everything virtual. While many of us decried the very real “Zoom fatigue” of the last year and a half, there proved to be many benefits to virtual life.
Virtual educational and cultural events allowed people to attend from anywhere in the world. For the first time, you had local lectures and concerts that could be experienced anywhere. For people with disabilities or families with small children, these virtual events made “going out” more accessible. Conferences, which used to cost thousands to attend in person and time away from family, became much more accessible due to no longer having to travel. Driving and flying were dramatically reduced, helping combat our climate crisis.
For parents with children in school, PTA meetings on Zoom made it possible to participate from home. Virtual parent-teacher conferences lessened the burden for working parents to get to the meeting and allowed for interpreters to be more easily present.
In medicine, telehealth proved to be a worthy alternative to simple in-person office visits. Telehealth mental health visits removed travel time for patients and made it possible for people to find providers who are culturally competent and not be as restricted by location.
Remote public testimony was another huge advance during the pandemic. As one reader wrote, with virtual public meetings at the Seattle City Council, “you could sign up at 8 a.m. and then go about your life until 10 a.m. [when you are scheduled to speak]” rather than having to show up two hours early and then wait for hours until your allotted time slot, which is much easier for working people and people new to civic engagement. For the state Legislature, Zoom testimony allowed people from all across the state to participate, versus just people who are close to Olympia or people who could spend their whole day traveling to testify for two minutes.
The pandemic brought home the reality that the internet is a basic utility and should be treated as such. Retaining and expanding the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit program so that all people can access the internet — regardless of income — is one critical step to filling the digital divide.
In the workplace, the pandemic taught us that decades of business norms could shift in an instant. As I wrote back in March 2020, changes that people with disabilities had advocated for for many years, such as flexible work and remote work, were adopted immediately, now that nondisabled people needed them.
Suddenly, with office workers working from home, flexibility became key. Parents needed flexibility to care for their children while juggling work; the 9-5 schedule and philosophy of “seat time” no longer made any sense (if it ever did). People wore what they wanted to the “office” and somehow, work still got done.
We realized that what we considered “essential” work did not often align with the compensation paid for that work. Workers demanded and deserved higher pay for putting themselves in harm’s way. That should continue and expand to a living wage for all, especially those who can’t work remotely.
Cultural and social changes
The pandemic brought out some of the best of who we are as people and community. We saw an explosion of people helping each other weather the storm.
In cities like Seattle, mutual aid was everywhere. From no-strings-attached direct aid like the Seattle Artist Relief Fund to little free pantries and fridges, people stepped up to help each other. This should continue but not be a substitute for policies that ensure basic needs are provided for every person.
One of the most contentious aspects of the pandemic was mask-wearing. While the act of protecting others by masking is seen by some as government intrusion, many readers said we would do well to normalize the use of masks when we are sick, as Asian countries have done for many years.
Shifting our attitude around sickness is another change we should keep. As many readers said, we should continue to encourage workers to stay home and recover when they are sick and should pay them to do so. We should no longer reward or valorize those who “tough it out” and work through illness. Our health is tied to each other — when one person works when sick, it increases the chances that more people will become sick. Public health is critical; we should fund it before we are in crisis, not lament the lack of funding afterward.
One of the things we learned a little too late in the pandemic was the importance of mental health in addition to physical health. Going forward, we need to make sure that in the process of protecting our physical health, we don’t sacrifice mental health by isolating older adults in long-term care facilities, for example. We should talk more openly and honestly about mental health and normalize taking time off to support mental health.
The pandemic showed us we need to get serious about child care as critical infrastructure and revealed the real cost to women, in particular, of unpaid, invisible labor. Further, we learned that things as normal as breastfeeding, which were previously taboo at work, could be done by even City Council members on camera and somehow, the sky did not fall.
If there is one key take-away from the pandemic, it’s that we are all as vulnerable as our least resourced person, city or country. We are an interdependent, interconnected human family. When one of us thrives, we all benefit. When one of us struggles, we all bear the cost.
What changes would you like to see after the pandemic? Share your answers below for use in potential future coverage.