Cracks: A World Shaped by COVID-19

Below you will find a short piece I wrote for Look Closer Podcast in April 2020. You can find the audio version of this piece on iTunes or Spotify.

Cracks: A World Shaped by COVID-19
For Look Closer Podcast — Episode 29


On a normal day, you may not notice them. In a car, you drive right over them. On foot, you just step around them. Perhaps the danger of jagged road canyons is more evident for the tip-prone design of a bicycle. But we find a way to coexist with them. And then one cold winter day, a bitter rainstorm brings danger to the roads. Water seeps in and in the darkness of night, it freezes.

8th grade science class taught us that when water freezes, it expands, and causes considerable damage to anything around it when this happens. The cracks become wider. Tiny fault lines scrawled across concrete and asphalt become great chasms that threaten to harm anything that moves over them. Once virtually ignorable, the cracks in the road are now hazardous and must be dealt with.

The world before COVID-19 was one with deep, dangerous “cracks”, we will call them, from the start. We’re trained to avoid deep potholes that have littered the landscape of life from the moment we’re born. The crack of inequitable education—before the virus, just by looking at data, we could anticipate a great number of students in our country would not receive a great education just by analyzing the zip code they were born in. Or the crack of generational poverty—it has always been difficult for the working poor to move out of the lower tiers of the social ladder; but in recent years we have seen that sometimes just one unexpected car or health-related expense is enough to throw the entire machine out of sync for them for months or years on end. Surely it can’t just be the work of poor financial planning when we hear that 4 out of the 10 of us couldn’t cover a $400 unexpected expense? Consider the crack of the rising costs of higher education, which have promised “up-and-out” results to a generation of young families, only to saddle them with crippling debt when that dream has to be put on hold to care for a greater need. A country whose stock market has created a narrative that we’re all beneficiaries of living in “the richest nation on earth”, but to many, that reality has been nowhere to be found. Basic requirements of life—housing, food, education, healthcare, access to credit—have become luxuries. These are the cracks laid bare by COVID-19.

Enter the coronavirus—the once-in-a-century ice storm that threatens to wreak havoc on our cracks and potholes… Sparing no one and seemingly unaware that it was not invited to traverse the Atlantic and make its way into our great nation, it crossed every line we’d drawn up. From Asia to the Middle East. From Iran to Italy. From Italy to America. It was not someone else’s problem anymore. It was now ours, too.

Meteorologists will tell you there are few ways to prepare for an ice storm. With enough warning, Transportation departments may lay salt in the hopes that it will lower the freezing temperature of the impending surge of water. But even the strongest salt solutions struggle once the temperature dips below 0ºF. With COVID, we missed the boat on preparing (there was no time for salt) and “The Great Freeze” came. For many affluent or white-collar workers, this meant heading home indefinitely and venturing out only for supplies like groceries or take-out. For most of the entertainment industry, The Freeze brought unemployment and income insecurity. For service workers now considered “essential”, it hastened the arrival of a wrenching conundrum: “Do I choose between looking out for my family to be able to earn enough to make ends meet? Or do I stay home and forfeit pay to be more cautious of my health?” Can you imagine such a decision?

For those who spent their lives before The Freeze trying to make a living while facing the brunt of the countless cracks in our society, this season has been catastrophic. Public transportation workers have fallen ill on the job and become hospitalized or died, as have those living in nursing homes, prisons and crowded tenement apartments. Black and brown people with underlying health conditions (no doubt brought about by the difficulty and stress of navigating crack after crack in society for a lifetime) are terribly vulnerable to falling ill and passing away even in 2020. Today, the official worldwide toll of The Freeze is this: 2.5 million people have been infected, 172,120 have died, and the lives of billions of others have been disrupted or displaced. The numbers are numbing to comprehend. 14,000 dead in New York. Nearly 5,000 in New Jersey. Almost 2,800 in Michigan. While the virus has spared no group, it has torn apart our most vulnerable communities. A total of 40,000 American lives have been cut short by this Great Freeze.

Who knows what the final toll will be? But we know what task will befall us next—the task of fixing, filling, re-paving, patching all of these cracks turned into chasms by The Great Freeze. Things will be different now. We will grow used to health screenings at football games and concerts, and perhaps even at weddings and funerals. Until a vaccine arrives, we’ll oscillate between closings and quarantines, re-openings and more shutting down. “When will normal return?” will give way to a reluctant acquiescence to the “new normal” that awaits on the other side of this crisis.

The widened crack of K-12 education has been laid bare for all to see. Distance learning has proven inconvenient and challenging for the most privileged among us. But it has been woefully ineffective in serving the needs of the most vulnerable. Who knew that education platforms designed for a desktop internet browser were so much harder to use on a phone with an unstable internet connection? Perhaps we knew that before all this, as that teeny little “crack” was easy to step over. But a small, barely noticeable crack like this has been widened and exposed by the Freeze.

The crack that runs through higher education is just as terrifying. College students paying thousands of dollars to attend classes on campus and living in crowded dorms and apartments before the virus will be affected by the financial costs of the Freeze for years to come. How many will choose not to return in the fall? Some who are faced with the new reality—College-as-Zoom-calls—may tolerate the high price in the short run for the reward of the long run. But how many among us will justify taking out loans of $5,000-$10,000 per year when the burdens of work and family threaten to distract us from the learning at hand? Perhaps the widened crack in high education will foster new kinds of innovative educational options and programs. But it surely will never be the same.

The cracks running like capillaries through the gig economy and “One Day Shipping” have been laid bare for all to see by the terror of The Great Freeze. Working as an independent contractor without healthcare benefits was perilous before the freeze, but it has been shown to be terrifyingly inadequate now. In the coming years, pandemic-proof jobs will be praised by recruiters and employers around the world, and some may choose to trade a different career path for the security of knowing they’ll be safe when the next Freeze comes. There were many who warned of the human toll on warehouse workers who make possible fast, convenient online shopping when the crack was still barely noticeable. But now, consumers are ever more aware of the ways they are contributing to the risks of distribution center and parcel service workers every time they click “Buy Now”. Will The Great Freeze lead to a new wave of workforce protections? Who knows?

There are countless other cracks to consider. What will become of our political system and hospitals? What will happen if millions of people can’t pay the out-of-pocket costs of the care they received to survive the Virus? What will happen to people who lose their jobs due to something completely out of their control and can’t pay their mortgages anymore?

Will companies and churches and birthday parties and conversations return to their traditionally offline tendencies? Or will this moment forge new and lasting ways to connect without being physically close? Will we want to get on a plane again after all this? Or enter an arena for a concert with 17,000 other people? Will we willingly take on debt that will be impossible to repay in the event of a sudden, unexpected complete loss of income?

Will we consider the value added by the vulnerable immigrants in a year or two when we recall that their “essential” work had to continue during The Freeze so that our construction projects and regular lawn maintenance were able to stay on schedule? Will “essential workers” still get the applause and attention they’ve received during The Freeze? Will we go back to barely acknowledging the bagger helping us with our groceries while we focus on whatever frivolous thing is filling our screens?

Or will we forget?

Will we fix a couple cracks here and there, patching them haphazardly and promising to buy more salt in the future? Or will we repave entire roads like the ones just described?

Whatever comes next, know this. The world will not be the same. Our children’s children will be affected by The Great Freeze. And we have the chance to make sure the world they live in is better for the people who hop over cracks every day. This is the American spirit. To take this opportunity to build better roads, create stronger foundations and pave over any crack that makes it difficult for one of us to succeed. For another threat will return. And we must press forward.

We can be ready for the next Great Freeze.

But will we choose to be?

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