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Tricia Bishop is The Baltimore Sun’s opinion editor.
While it still feels like normalcy is a long way off, given the abysmal start to COVID-19 vaccine distribution, there is finally an end to the pandemic in sight — even if it’s months down the road. The question is: What will it look like?
It’s very easy to imagine a return to exactly what we had before — in-person-only school, rush-hour backups, booming business travel. And, of course, the American standard of going to work while ill (and maskless), because we need the money or have been trained to believe we’re somehow valued more by our employers when we sacrifice our health and that of others.
That would be a tragic mistake.
We must not allow ourselves to have endured all of this — the isolation, the fear, the lost opportunities and the deaths of nearly a half million Americans (mothers, fathers, children, siblings, friends) — and learned little more than the value of a vaccine and proper pandemic preparedness.
The novel coronavirus blazed through our daily lives like a freight train, upending everything, right down to the way we do our shopping. It has been immensely disruptive — and in that lies opportunity.
When things are humming along as usual, we have little incentive to muck with the system in any significant way. If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? The problem is, so much is broken, but we can’t see it because it’s what we’ve always known. And even when we do recognize the really big issues (see: gender and racial bias), it can seem overwhelming to begin to address them.
We now have the chance to reinvent entire sectors of our society by permanently adopting the best of the adaptive strategies that grew under the shadow of COVID-19.
Among the biggest shifts we’ve seen has been in the way we communicate and collaborate. The emphasis on virtual in the worlds of work, entertainment and education has shown us what’s possible — and where we need to improve.
Clearly, we need to bolster our broadband infrastructure, both its capacity and our access to it. The surge in usage as schools and businesses switched from in-person to online operation (and more of us binge-watched streaming shows) reduced the speed and quality of content delivery, and it held us back in all sorts of areas.
Our networks should be built with this kind of peak usage in mind, and they should be available to all. Access to the internet is no longer a novelty or a luxury; it’s a necessity. It should be treated as such and regulated as a public utility operating in the public good.
Going forward post pandemic, businesses that can should take a liberal approach to allowing employees to work from home, on a full-time, part-time or as needed basis. Kids get sick, appliances need servicing, company comes to visit. There are any number of reasons a person might need to occasionally work from home, and some very good ones why they might want to do it every day — including to avoid lengthy commutes that waste time and gas.
Likewise, schools should have the option of going virtual as needed or as deemed in the best interests of their students. We need to get over our fear of putting children in front of screens. In-person education is obviously best for the smallest kids, but once children are at an age where they can read, many have proven that they can thrive in an online environment when they must — provided they have the proper tools: fast, reliable internet; the right devices to access instruction; and quality classes appropriately adapted for the medium. There are thousands of teachers getting this really right every day, and we must not discount their efforts or their students’ achievements because we’re so hung up on the old way of doing things.
Same goes for getting together with family and friends. A colleague of mine now regularly meets up with his far-flung family at virtual trivia nights; happy hours happen over Google Meet; date nights occur from home with a virtual tour of the Louvre or tickets to a magician’s Zoom performance. We’ve become accustomed to coming together in this new way, and it would be a great loss if that was eradicated along with the virus.
Drug and vaccine development, too, has made great strides in this one area over the duration of the pandemic. In fact, the COVID-19 vaccines are the fastest ever created. Imagine if we put forth a similar global effort to attack cancer or diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
It all comes down to a question of time and how we want to spend it. The pandemic, like no other period in our lives, has driven home the preciousness of this limited resource.
Those who make the rules in business and public policy need to recognize the value in the changes we’ve undergone — and to find ways to further them for the betterment of all.