A letter from the future about how we handled the coronavirus pandemic

Different countries learned different lessons

Tom Fletcher
Thursday 26 March 2020 16:02
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UK residents have been told they can only leave their house to exercise or get food
UK residents have been told they can only leave their house to exercise or get food

Your dad asked me to tell you about the Great Pandemic of 2020. Hard to believe it was 30 years ago.

At the time there was an American president who called it a Chinese virus, because it started there. But unlike the virus, that didn’t catch on. I can’t remember his name, but he used to shout at us on something called Twitter. Other leaders didn’t do that. Sadly America got it worse than most.

Twitter? It was a way we used to communicate. You typed short messages and hoped people liked them. Sounds old-fashioned now. It didn’t help at first in 2020. People were too distracted to take the virus seriously and then too anxious to treat it rationally. They rushed out to buy toilet roll. There were crazy conspiracies. We saw some of the worst of humanity.

But gradually the crisis brought out a deeper form of human solidarity then we had known. We watched Italians sing to each other from balconies. An ex-footballer gave his hotel space to health workers. Governments protected employees when they lost their jobs. Everywhere, people formed groups to help the vulnerable. And scientists came up with a cure. We found so many heroes in our midst.

And some superheroes too. We started to applaud the health workers every night. Before the virus, we had forgotten how much we needed them, believe it or not. But these people kept heading right into the path of the virus, to prevent it reaching so many of us. I will never stop thanking them for the people I love that they saved in those long months of 2020.

As the crisis got worse, we had to stay at home. Many of us found it hard at first. We did lots of odd things to cope. I wrote out my funeral service: it reminded me why I wanted to live. In those days we sent each other something we called memes. I used to get them first from the kids. Then the internet. Then my friends. Then my parents. But I was still happy when I got them from my parents.

But something else happened. We read more books. We watched the films we had always meant to see. We spent more time preparing and eating food together. We started waving to strangers. We listened more to birdsong. Maybe I imagined it but the stars seemed brighter. We called people we loved more. We damaged nature less. We felt our emotions more keenly. We discovered the silence between the notes.

For a few months, your dad and his brother studied at home. My respect for teachers grew faster than the curve on the graphs of deaths caused by the virus. Some days it was hard. But other days it was the only place to be. Studying with your dad, I remember talking about Thomas Edison, who said that he hadn’t failed 1,000 times, just found 1,000 ways that didn’t work. That got us onto talking about the invention of the lightbulb, and the people searching for a vaccine. We found out that Edison had also been home-schooled. When a lightbulb in your dad’s room went out, he looked at me with such wonder that I thought I would cry. I got to watch a lightbulb go on that day.

When I think now about the people who went on to discover new sources of energy to save our climate and new ways of caring for the most vulnerable, I think that the virus was somehow part of that. Look at the incredible books, songs and work of art produced in 2020.

Politics got better too. Many leaders rose to the challenge. We realised we needed to strengthen how we worked together across borders, that the answer to global threats was not just a bigger wall. We stopped forcing out health workers just because they were born somewhere else. We remembered that people from other places had the same strengths and weaknesses as us. It took years to rebuild the global economy, but we built one that gave more people a chance. It seems strange to look back now and think it took a virus to do all that.

Different countries learnt different lessons. In a strange way, the virus exposed our existing weaknesses. Countries that had controlled people too much didn’t respond quickly enough. Countries that under-invested in their health systems couldn’t respond effectively enough. Countries that had allowed political polarisation didn’t have the collective will to act together. Countries that had isolated themselves from neighbours found themselves asking those neighbours for help. Countries that had created an underclass of unprotected workers saw the virus spread faster as a result. The countries that didn’t learn these lessons suffered worse in later pandemics.

Of course many friends faced far, far tougher times than us. Too many people lost too many of the people they loved much too soon. We buried them quietly as the worst of the hurricane hit us. But later, when it was done, we celebrated them loudly. Thirty years on, it is those people I remember. Not the virus.

Some people say it is individuals that shape the world. Others say we're all tossed along on the tide by larger forces of history. I think that year we discovered that neither is completely true. The world is much bigger than we can comprehend. But we can still change it in small ways. Sometimes that means just carrying on, even if that meant not carrying on our normal lives in 2020.

People can be infuriating. But they are more often amazing. At times like that, you fall back on those who are kind, curious and brave. You feel more grateful for the blessings you inherit, and greater compassion for those who don't have them.

After the virus, there was still music, love, camaraderie, mountains, oceans, family, laughter, purpose, soul. Life really is beautiful. And we’re here for a good time, not a long time. As your grandfather, that’s what I want you to know.

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