It was precisely 100 years ago that, coming off the one-two punch of World War I and the Spanish flu, Warren Harding popularized a phrase and ran for president on the slogan "Return to Normalcy." He won the election, but there was no normalcy. There was a roaring and rambunctious decade that ended with a Depression.
The same principle applies today. We might speak, achingly, of our pre-COVID existences, but life has changed abruptly, profoundly and irretrievably. We will, instead, go hurtling into a new era.
The real reckoning of our age, maybe of our lifetime, is not whether we will prevail over the virus. It's whether our respect for science, and our collective will—so muscular during the crisis—will prevail when we reboot and rebuild.
Let's start with a thought exercise: It's New Year's Eve heading into 2020, a number, ironically, associated with perfect vision and clarity. What's your response that night upon being told that soon there will be no live sports or concerts or Broadway shows? That Grand Central Station at rush hour will look like this? That toilet paper might be more valuable than crude oil? That by spring, there will be food lines on the streets of New York and more than 300,000 people worldwide will have died tragically.
Looking back, Mother Earth was starting to clear her throat and make herself heard: Australian bush fires were ravaging the continent. Earth had registered its highest temperatures since records began. Icebergs and glaciers melted, popsicles in the sun; there were floods and droughts; and swarms of locusts descending on Africa.
Bill McKibben was one of the early climate change whistleblowers, so to speak. Ever since, he has been issuing warnings on the danger of ignoring science.
Bill McKibben: One of the things that's so important here, I think, is that we're being reminded that physical reality is real.
Jon Wertheim: What do you mean by that?
Bill McKibben: We tend to forget that the physical world still is in charge. I've spent, you know, 30 years trying to get people to understand that physics and chemistry matter. That you can't spin them. They don't negotiate. They're not gonna compromise with you. You have to do what they say.
Same goes for biology. On New Year's Eve, a Chinese government website made quiet reference to "pneumonia of an unknown cause," clustered near a market in Wuhan. It was, of course, the Coronavirus.
Bill McKibben: Biology just doesn't care. It doesn't care that it's causing a recession, you know? It's not going to back off because it's an election year. I mean, it just-- doesn't give a fig about any of that, you know? So you have to respect that, and that's hard for us because we're kind of used to a world where, you know, we run everything that there is to run.
Yet by May, half the planet's population would be on lockdown… including Frank Snowden, a professor emeritus of history at Yale. Only months earlier, he'd published a book titled, "Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present."
Jon Wertheim: You've seen the movie before?
Frank Snowden: I have seen parts of the movie; other parts have changed. The science is very different, but yes the plot is similar.
This semester, while on a research trip in Rome, the professor came into contact with his subject matter, quite literally. He contracted COVID-19 and was quarantined. He couldn't help but notice that the methods used today to contain the virus were all too familiar. From the bubonic plague of the 1300s to the cholera pandemic of the 1800s.
Frank Snowden: Our public health methods were built on the plague precedents. And so they had quarantine. They had social distancing. They had lockdowns. Doctors actually wore PPE. And what they had was a mask. We know about that. Theirs was differently shaped. It had a long beak. And they put sweet-smelling herbs in it, to keep the foul odors away. But in addition, they carried a long rod or verger and the doctor would physically keep people at a distance.
He says there's comfort in history; we've been here before. And the real source of optimism might come from knowing that the aftermath of plagues has, consistently, brought about some of the great transformations, leaving societies looking radically different. Order comes from chaos.
Jon Wertheim: You say it's not all doom and gloom. What are some other specific advancements that have come out of plagues?
Frank Snowden: They introduced sewer systems, toilets. They set housing regulations, paved streets. So the hygiene of modern cities that we see today was built, in large part, on the sanitary measures that grew out of the terrible experience of Asiatic cholera.
Jon Wertheim: You're talking about real enhancements that we've enjoyed for centuries that have sprung from plagues.
Frank Snowden: Yes, that's absolutely correct.
But before we advance, we must survive, what is being termed, "the war," an analogy used to help us conceive of the inconceivable. Weapons, armor, provisions, casualties, emergency medics, valor on the front lines. But leave it to a novelist to pick apart flawed imagery. Arundhati Roy lives in Delhi, where she's written a defining account of the COVID crisis for the Financial Times.
Jon Wertheim: You wrote that this virus has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, border surveillance. What did you mean by that?
Arundhati Roy: Well, I just meant that, you know, the world has spent so much time guarding its borders against the outsider, or the enemy, you know? And somehow it has attacked the most powerful countries in the world, in-- in the most tragically powerful way.
Jon Wertheim: No defense budget can-- can repel this?
Arundhati Roy: No defense budget. They refer to it as a war. But if it were a war, then nobody would be better prepared than the United States, you know? If it-- if it were that you needed nuclear missiles or depleted uranium or bunker busters or tanks or submarines or whatever it is, there would be plenty. But there aren't swabs. There aren't gloves. There aren't masks. There isn't medicine.
And these microbes are no conventional enemy. They outnumber us, they mutate, they travel undetected, indifferent to what country we come from, the size of our social media following, or our net worth. So it is that coronavirus has consigned athletes, the alphas of our society, to their basements and yards, freezing their careers.
It has grounded concert tours, the air now wallpapered by different musical acts. Some less famous, all less mobile.
Coronavirus has exposed fissures in our society. Cities, of course, are particularly hard-hit, their hum and thrum silenced, their beating hearts no longer pulsing with life. The poor are bearing the brunt, suffering and dying disproportionately. Social distancing, nevermind Zoom conferencing, is an impossible luxury to many. Different places experience this horror differently.
Different ages, too. An entire generation of students sit in a kind of virtual detention, no fault of their own, unsure when and how they will graduate or restart school. Time and space have unraveled for us all. And Arundhati Roy has some analogies.
Arundhati Roy: Right now it feels as though we have no present, you know? We have a past. And we have a future. And right now we're in some sort of transit lounge. And there isn't any connection between the past and the future.
Arundhati Roy: We should not be trying to stitch them together without thinking about that rupture, you know? And that rupture is not just one of production and consumption and all our-- you know, it's-- I think the most profound thing is the rupture of the idea of touch, you know, the idea of proximity. All these things will become so laden with risk and fear for a long, long time.
If microbes have the ability to create a rupture in the lives of billions, we humans have our own powers and evolutionary advantages. Our intelligence, empathy, and our ability to cooperate. It's hard to conceive of another time in human history when, worldwide, the best minds of our generation were all fixated on solving the same riddle, scribbling on the same blackboard, sharing data and sharing screens.
And it is precisely this spirit that will determine how the aftermath of COVID-19 transforms us and shapes our future.
Do we reimagine health care, now that we've seen how easily systems stress and lock out so many?
And what about the gulfs between rich and poor?
Maybe the biggest decision of all, now that the planet has essentially hissed, "I will not be ignored," how do we confront the climate emergency? It's been the life-work of the environmentalist Bill McKibben, who is also a distinguished scholar at Middlebury College.
Jon Wertheim: You see a real way to use this catastrophe as opportunity?
Bill McKibben: Well, what choice does one have, really, in a-- in a crisis but to try and-- and make something useful of it? I mean, the dumbest thing to do would just be to set up all the pins in the bowling alley one more time exactly the same way. Here we are, where Robert Frost, you know, lived for the last 40 years of his life, in the woods of Vermont. Wrote many of his great poems. Maybe his most famous poem is about the two roads diverging in the wood, you know? Maybe it's sorta time to think about taking the slightly less travelled one.
Jon Wertheim: What-- what does the less travelled road look like here?
Bill McKibben: We've spent the last 7,500 years really fixated, in our country and increasingly around the world, on economic growth as the reason for all being. And, you know, for the most part, that's where there, at least for a while, that worked out pretty well. Lot of people were pulled outta poverty, whatever else. But we've begun to sense the limits of that too. That's why the temperature keeps rising, you know?
Look no further than what's happened during this crisis. The shutdown to industry has offered a glimpse of what collective response can look like. Arundhati Roy's India is home to 17 of world's 25 most polluted cities; and not coincidentally the world's fastest growing major economy.
Jon Wertheim: What is it normally like in Delhi?
Arundhati Roy: Well, normally it is dystopian, you know? Especially in the winter months. Sometimes that smog is not just outside your house, it's inside your house, inside the rooms, you know? So that's how terrible Delhi is. And-- suddenly we're just seeing blue skies.
And it's like this, from Shanghai to Secaucus, by circumstance and not design, a glimpse of life with fewer fossil fuels. And already the clean and quiet surroundings have found favor with wildlife.
Jon Wertheim: What does that tell you about the Earth's ability to rebound and snap back?
Bill McKibben: Well, maybe we still have a window to-- to take a step back. And if we do, maybe the Earth will meet us halfway.
Jon Wertheim: And when people say, "We need to get this economy restarted. We need to jump back on planes. This climate change, that can wait," what do ya say?
Bill McKibben: Well, it obviously can't wait. You've gotta pay attention to reality or else ya end up getting bit by it, and bit pretty hard, okay?
Jon Wertheim: You're sayin' flatten another curve?
Bill McKibben: Flatten another curve. Flatten the carbon curve too. And-- and-- and if we did that, then people might look back in 50 years at this time and thank us, you know, instead of curse us. 'Cause those are the two possibilities.
Produced by Michael H. Gavshon. Associate producer, Cristina Gallotto. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Matthew Lev.