Other regions are lagging behind by a few weeks or, perhaps even months but, here in China, we seem to have crossed an invisible line. After many weeks of living with fear and uncertainty, the perspective has shifted. On the streets below my window, people are beginning to appear cautiously optimistic in the spring sunshine. There is, of course, the tacit understanding that, at the first whiff of a Second Wave, the lockdown conditions will resume – and rightfully so. Still, the uptick in attitude is obvious.
I am not ready to unmask yet but I also feel the shift as warm days and soft spring breezes make the dreadful winter seem far away. This is a good change, after so many weeks of a downward spiral. However, I believe that we will never completely return to the old lifestyles and worldviews. Even if we regain our mobility and all the products and services we enjoyed before the outbreak, things will not be quite the same. We have lost our innocence; we won’t forget the crippling fear which dominated our thoughts for so many weeks. When you have constantly lived with the very real prospect of imminent death by an invisible virus, you don’t suddenly wake up and smile and assure yourself that it is all over. It was not just a dream; it was not just a movie. It was real.
But, assuming that this is, indeed, the beginning of the end, what can we look forward to in the immediate future? One of the biggest changes will be the return to work and school by those currently homebound. But, not today…
My wife and seven-year-old son are in another bedroom, using her smartphone to connect digitally with his teachers and classmates. When I go there to check on them, the laughter and rolling around on the bed tells me that the lessons are proceeding smoothly but without the decorum associated with traditional classrooms. This has become a lifestyle for them. The teachers also seem to have adapted smoothly to doing online presentations. In place of classroom recitations to demonstrate his mastery, my son now submits videos recorded by his mother. Serendipitously, some of the teachers appear to have become quite accomplished performers in ways that would never have developed in the old classrooms. Most importantly, when CS finally returns to his brick-and-mortar school, it will be without losing many weeks of classes while staying at home during the pandemic – and, boy, do we have new respect and appreciation for those teachers! Gratitude, even.
Parents and school officials are in complete agreement: The safety of our children is paramount; they should not return to their schools until we can feel assured that their classrooms and playgrounds will not become Covid-19 incubators. (But, speaking for harried parents everywhere… please, please, please make it soon!)
Chester just bounced into my home office with his usual energetic entrance. He wants to know why I am wearing headphones and what I am listening to. I explain that I am listening to recordings of nature sounds – I call it River Music – on my headphones to cover the sounds of his boisterous elementary school education. “I am wearing the headphones because of the noise that you and your mother are making.”
It seems that he is taking a break – or maybe it is only his mother who needs a break. (One major advantage of digital classes is the ability to “pause” when desired.) He briefly listens to my nature sounds recordings– currently, Wilderness Showers – and leaves momentarily to return with a small pot and kuaizi (chopsticks) to form an impromptu snare drum accompaniment. “Get out of here, you rotten kid! Go bother your mother!” His grinning, unhurried departure tells me that he has no fear of the old man pecking away at the keyboard. After two or three more leisurely entrances and exits, I bless him with my daily household litany, “I wanted a puppy! She’s the one who wanted a baby.”
A minute later, I am summoned with, “Father, come here. Quickly.” It seems that, playing with the laundry hanging on the balcony, he has produced yet another Oops moment, as in, “It fell down.” After checking the sheets for damage or dirt, I assured him that it would not be necessary for his mother to kill him. Relieved, a moment later, he has converted a clothes hanger into a lethal handgun and order me to “hands up!”. I comply but he shoots me anyway. Fortunately, imaginary bullets from a clothes hanger pistol are not fatal.
After recovering the laundry damage, I join him in the living room. I see that he has now armed himself with a one-meter long bamboo stick he picked up on one of our infrequent trips downstairs to play inside our apartment complex. Now, he has become a fearsome kung fu warrior, brandishing his staff in a very credible imitation of the real thing, a legacy of his past wushu classes. Urging him to use caution about swinging his stick around in our tiny apartment, I remind him that his mother would be highly upset if he hit and broke the television screen or knocked plates of food off the table. Nonetheless, our little warrior remains uncowed and fearless. I am once again reminded that the first English words he learned were surely: No!, Don’t!, Stop!, and Careful! (His mother was teaching him the Chinese equivalents.)
Retreating to my office, I try to get some work done. But, mere minutes later, a young soldier charges into my room and I am forced to demonstrate that iconic wrestling hold from American television, the dreaded Abdominal Claw. Backing away on all fours, on his back and still giggling, he returns to the kitchen to resume tormenting his mother who is preparing lunch before the afternoon sessions begin.
Thus passes another typical morning in our humble 18th-floor homestead.
… please, please, please make it soon!
This, then, is the setting for the first stage of the aftermath. We are ready to emerge from our shelter in place mode. But, what will we find when we emerge?
Where we live in the Shapingba district of Chongqing, with the exception of the schools, it appears that almost everything has reopened. But some things will not revert entirely to previous forms. Surely, no one alive today will ever object to having their temperature taken before being allowed to enter a building or store. Nor will they be surprised if the entrance to a shop is blocked. Under a new protocol, a masked clerk will meet you at the doorway and discuss what you wish to purchase. The clerk goes back into the store while you wait at the entrance. After the clerk brings the item to you at the entrance, you conclude the transaction by paying digitally, avoiding handling potentially virus-contaminated cash. A major change in the shopping experience will be the absence of impulse item purchases. Another change: People who never ordered online in their lives are now confirmed digital consumers, and the delivery person has become a familiar sight as they carry those items directly to their door.
Alas, a few of the smaller shops on our street have not reopened. The loss of two-plus months of income was more economic shock than the owners could absorb. (However. let’s not forget the most important issue: Thanks to the early and dramatic measures taken by authorities, there were very few deaths. Inconvenience and economic hardships are far preferable to body bags.) Around the corner and around the globe, those closed mom and pop operations will not be alone when the pandemic is passed. We will also test the limits of the “too big to fail” assertion.
Likewise, inside our home, some things will revert but some will not. How long will it be before my wife stops being afraid every time our son goes outside? How long before she can calmly smile goodbye as he leaves her and goes outside to play with his friends or goes off to school?
The average person may not do a great job of thinking, projecting, anticipating, and preparing but, given enough fear for enough time, they can remember. That’s a good beginning to rebuilding a stronger and more resilient society as we emerge from our emotional and literal bunkers, blinking in the bright sunlight of a new day.
For it will be a new day. Many things will be lost, to be replaced by something stronger and more reasonable. Many things will be gone… and good riddance. Discarded with disdain will be blind faith in leaders. No longer will we accept outrageous conspiracy theories pushed by highly-paid media influencers whose priority is simply higher ratings. In their place, we will personally examine inconvenient truths. Gone also will be unquestioning trust that our modern technology will always provide a soft landing if we must, indeed, have a crash. Some things are just too big and too traumatic to easily forget. The aftermath of this pandemic will not be like clicking a remote control to change television programs.
History, literature, and daily life are filled with terms to describe such critical points, beyond which life can never be the same. Caesar crossed the Rubicon and, in doing so, ended the Roman republic and began the empire period. Characters in Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon of a nuclear armageddon simply called it “The Day”. Freddie Mercury sang it: “pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” Accountants know, once funds are commingled, they can never be legally separated again. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Golf offers the mulligan, an opportunity to take a stroke again if the first one is terrible. Golf may; pandemics do not. Likewise, movies and books are filled with characters who swam in their particular ocean – money, drugs, fame, power – but, when they were suddenly washed up on a dry and unfriendly shore, did not fare well. Science has contributed to our new vocabulary also: Critical mass – you can’t dial back an atomic explosion after it is triggered. Tipping point – whether it be a glass of beer, an unhappy relationship, or a planet’s climate, after you pass a certain point, you cannot stop the process; you can only clean up the mess
Several new terms have also entered our lexicon: social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, shelter in place, and lockdown. Our kids will grow up in a different world. I hope they will be unaware that they have been deprived of a playful, less fearful childhood by an unfeeling pandemic and woefully unprepared leaders. And these will be the lucky kids who survive; not all of them will. Additionally, it is impossible to even predict how many kids around the world will grow up without loving parents and proud grandparents to shelter and nurture them. Our children have lost the legacy we adults always presumed would pass down to them.
But perhaps we adults – those who survive – can offer the kids a better world in some respects. Perhaps we can make some better choices as we go forward. To really change, we need a new outlook, a new lifestyle. Perhaps we can call it a new normal. It begins with a new attitude but it must be shown in changed actions. Falling back on the old ways is not an option. However comfortable it may seem, we must be wary of the allure of old habits and patterns. As Albert Einstein said, old ways of thinking will not get us out of the problems those ways of thinking created. We must develop new ways of thinking. This is a troubled time but let us use it to examine our values. In the aftermath, let us see what can be resumed and what should be discarded, to be replaced with something better. Let’s try choosing carefully. We owe it to the children.