I read a very depressing opinion column this week in the New York Times by Charles Blow, who argued that there will be no post-COVID return to normal…that our lives are forever transformed:
Covid has made us reconsider everything, the meaning of home and work, the value of public space, the magnitude and immediacy of death, what it truly means to be a member of a society.
We are still finding the answers to those questions, but the America we knew ended in 2019. This is a new one, scarred, struggling to its feet, dogged by moral and philosophical questions that on one hand have revealed its cruelty and on the other have forced it into metamorphosis.
I agree with the first paragraph and see that as one of the upsides to the pandemic: it is good to take stock of our lives and re-evaluate our priorities.
But that observation does not lead to the paragraph after. Even in California, politicians are saying enough is enough and that it is time to embrace the endemic rather than remain in a state of fear and trepidation.
Because that is the tradeoff. It is not the unknown that drives our public policy, but fear over it. Whatever that fine line is between fear and reasonable precaution, we see that COVID-19 will do what it will do, despite our best efforts (look at the recent surge of cases in vaccinated Europe, which took a far more cautious approach in the aggregate than did the United States).
After reading Blow’s column, I began formulating a response in my mind that used travel as a basis to re-engage in the world and drop the inane fear that pushes some to go running outdoors or drive alone in their cars with masks on.
But in a column far more articulate than I could ever pen, Andrew McCarthy responded to Blow in a New York Times column of his own with precisely the answer to fear that I also deduced: travel.
Maybe there’s another answer, one that is paradoxical to the narrative we’ve been living. Whatever the effectiveness of closing borders, there’s little doubt that it has succeeded in exacerbating our (not always) latent fear of the “other.” But isolation is a devil’s garden. Of course, due diligence and responsible behavior are required in such a fluid situation, but taking back our agency has its own rewards. With the proper precautions, travel may provide a most unlikely way out of this quagmire of fear in which we find ourselves.
The great travel writer Paul Theroux said that “travel is optimism in action.” Confronted with ever-changing restrictions, complicated and confusing testing protocols, and inconsistent messaging, travelers today need all the optimism they can muster. But reduced services and limitations that we have learned to take in stride at home during the pandemic have created in us an adaptability that is an ideal quality for the road. If you have a willingness to be flexible, the rewards of travel still await.
That’s beautiful and such prescient advice is a necessary antidote to the peusdo-intellectual fear peddled by Blow and his compatriots.
More and more, as I continue to travel the world (and have during the pandemic), I see the immense value of travel in promoting maturity, wisdom, empathy, and love. Those values do not come naturally, but must be sought out, just like most things worth pursuing. Travel is adventure and fun, but also work.
There’s also risk: we do increase our risk to illness when we venture outside. We increase many risks, as it turns out. But that’s the story of life: a story of risk. I tend to be more of a risk-taker than most (and it has come back to bite on occasion), but as we approach March 2022 we are in a very different place than March 2020.
We know a great deal more about COVID-19 and its various variants than we ever have. We now have a vaccine that works wonders in reducing symptoms of those who test positive. But even as we see that this persistent virus will not be eradicated like small pox, we can shelter the vulnerable while embracing a life that once again invites people into communion with one another rather than shields them from the sort of intercourse that is verily worthy of risk.
In our new world, the hospitals may get fuller during the colder months. So be it. We can prepare for it.
In our new world, we may need booster shots each year, just like our annual flu shots. So be it. We can be ready for it.
In our new world, we may face greater risk in engaging in commerce than we did before. So be it. We can each evaluate risks for ourselves and our families and act accordingly.
One of my greatest memories of the last two years was a funeral I attended in London in the darkest hour of the pandemic. At the outdoor ceremony, we spread out and wore masks. Receptions were not permitted at the time, but the kitchen door was left unlocked at the home of the widow. People just starting showing up, uninvited. One after another. Because when you encounter death and reflect on life, you need others close by.
Soon, we found ourselves sitting around the kitchen table, sharing memories of a great man and enjoying food and drink together. And this was not a band of renegade religious and political zealots who discounted COVID-19 as a common cold; the gathering included some of the best-educated men and women of London, many whom who were scientists (as was the man who died), yet still weighed the risk and determined that meeting was worth it.
The mainstream retort to such gatherings was always one of condemnation, that this could have been a super-spreader event and clogged hospital space for those who needed it most. Yes, that’s true. But there was also an invaluable need for the widow of the deceased, still shocked at the passing of her husband, to be comforted. And there was also a need to express our collective sorrow and love at that moment, not via a greeting card or text message or email.
I make no apologies for that meeting and if we are being honest with ourselves, most of us have our own stories of fellowship that occurred during the pandemic that were very much worth the risk.
In the years to come, we will only begin to understand the devastation our overreaction to the pandemic inflicted upon the most vulnerable among us: the children who were kept out of school, the elderly and hospital patients who were separated from loved ones and made to endure pain alone, and those who were forced to live in isolation for a “public emergency” that still has not ended.
We will return to “normal” because we want to return to normal. That should actually unite us, even if we disagree on how fast it should be. The last two years taught us the amazing spirit of human ingenuity that so quickly developed a vaccine. It also taught us that we need one another and those who have been at the forefront of rolling back restrictions cannot simply be dismissed as selfish miscreants, but humans who recognize our need for one another in every area of life.
There will be new variants and new surges to come. But now is not the time to cower in fear. Now is the time to strengthen what has atrophied and embrace the risk that is inherent in life. That is altruism, not selfishness. Now is the time to travel.