"Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window." — Peter Drucker
Lately I’ve been having disturbing dreams about doing dangerous, forbidden things like shaking someone’s hand or entering rooms crowded with people whose identity and vaccination history are unknown to me. Weird, right? Why am I tossing and turning about this stuff when other people are happily spending their nights dreaming about diving into pools of chocolate while winning the lottery and having sex with movie stars?
Apparently, my subconscious is feeling a bit jittery about the prospect of rejoining the human race (or at least the vaccinated portions of it) after a year of socializing almost exclusively with Rich. I’m getting my second injection on St. Patrick’s Day (rumor has it they’re dying the vaccine green for the occasion), and I’ll be cleared to interact with other vaccinated folks starting on April Fool’s Day (and yes, I’m really hoping there won’t be any practical jokes revolving around that!). I’m profoundly grateful for my good fortune; friends in other countries don’t expect inoculations until September, maybe Christmas. This week brought disheartening news of Italy’s resurgence and return to lockdown and Europe’s suspension of AstraZeneca inoculations. Despite such setbacks, it’s likely everyone reading this will have the opportunity to get vaccinated this year, and life will be upended yet again.
Living in such flux sometimes makes me wish I could consult a crystal ball and get a few hints about the future. Then again, maybe not — as Canadian comedian Julie Nolke demonstrates in this engaging skit about her future self going back in time to give her pre-pandemic self a heads-up about what’s coming.
If your future self could pay you a visit right now, what do you think you’d learn about the next phase of the Covid crisis? For clues, I consulted the article After coronavirus: Australia offers a strange glimpse of life post-pandemic. “I'm writing from Sydney in the state of New South Wales at 7 p.m. Friday, March 12, 2021," reports Jackson Ryan. "For the past 54 days, New South Wales — Australia's most populous state, with 8 million residents — has recorded zero new cases of coronavirus. Zero.” Constant daily reports of 0, 0, 0 cases caused the folks Down Under to nickname them “donut days.”
With a population of 25 million, Australia has had fewer than 30,000 Covid cases (about half the US daily average) and a total of 909 deaths (our toll is 531,766). How did they do it? “Superb management by our state-based health services in containing and tracing outbreaks, plus a stringent quarantine policy for those returning from overseas.” However, Ryan notes, “The crisis isn't over, and we haven't even agreed on what ‘The End’ really means scientifically or socially. But in Australia, the end feels as close as it ever has. In this pseudo-future place, we've found some semblance of normalcy.” He then describes an evening spent in a packed movie theater. Aaughhh! He's living my nightmares!
“The normality of it all weirds me out,” he says. I feel your angst, Ryan! I get twitchy just watching crowd scenes on Netflix.
For a year, pundits have been discussing “the return to normal.” But is that possible? Or desirable? We tend to view our pre-pandemic lives through a rosy glow of nostalgia, as if it consisted of nothing but Instagram-worthy good hair days with congenial companions in glamorous locales serving phenomenal food with lavish amounts of wine.
“I firmly believe most nostalgia for the glorious past is delusional thinking,” says A. J. Jacobs in Thanks a Thousand. “I used to write a magazine column in which, each month, I would research just how horrible past centuries were — disease-ridden, dangerous, cruel, racist, sexist, smelly, superstitious, and poisonous... We have huge challenges now, no doubt, but the solution doesn’t lie in a return to yesteryear. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly annoyed about something — the rattle of the air conditioner, say — I’ll repeat a three-word phrase: ‘Surgery without anesthesia.’ It’s a helpful little mantra.”
OK, we'd gotten past anesthesia-free surgery by 2019, but let's not forget that the pre-Covid-19 era was “disease-ridden, dangerous, cruel, racist, sexist, smelly, superstitious, and poisonous.” Just think about HIV, opioids, babies in cages, the spike in hate crime murders, Harvey Weinstein, gas station rest rooms, QAnon, and the chemicals in junk food. When “all this is over,” all that will still be with us. Except for Harvey Weinstein, whose earliest possible release date from prison is November 9, 2039.
In my rosier moments, I believe we’ve learned a lot in the past year and will hold onto the most vital skill we honed during the pandemic: adaptability. As we face new challenges, will we study and adopt smart ideas that proved useful in other countries? Next time around, could innovative approaches prevent half a million American deaths?
Of course, what works in one culture may be a hard sell in others. For instance, in The Finnish Way, the author describes moving from Canada to Helsinki, where she cured her depression and revitalized her life by adopting the Finnish custom of taking a daily morning dip in the Baltic Sea — yes, even in winter.
“I climb down the metal ladder leading to a large hole of about three by three meters cut into the thick ice,” writes Katja Pantzar. “When I lower myself into the water, the cold shock — about 1 degree Celsius (34 degrees Fahrenheit) — hits me. During the first few strokes it feels as if hundreds of pins and needles are pricking my body. The pricks are soon replaced by euphoria: ‘I’m alive!’” She goes on to describe the many medical benefits of her daily dip, but while I caught a few words like endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin, mostly my mind was reeling from the thought that anyone would voluntarily submit their body to such torture. Yet apparently ice swimming is popular in Finland, the happiest country on Earth.
Somehow I doubt ice swimming will catch on here in California, where we weather wimps won’t dip a toe in the Pacific when the air temperature falls below 70.
Of course, if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we really don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re tested by events — the kind that were unimaginable five minutes ago and now define the shape of our world. “Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant, and to face the challenge of change,” Martin Luther King, Jr. told an earlier generation, and his words ring true today. I cling to the knowledge that not all change is for the worse. Chances are we'll somehow distribute vaccines worldwide. The US may one day achieve donut days with zero Covid cases. I might even stop having nightmares about crowded indoor spaces. Could happen! There’s only one certain prediction that my past, present, and future self would absolutely agree on: I am not taking up ice swimming under any circumstances whatsoever.
This post is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic and, with luck, emerging from it with some remnants of our sanity and good humor intact.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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