Like many others, I cried watching videos of trucks full of vaccine shipments leaving Kalamazoo, Michigan— just sixty miles down the road from South Bend. This moment— the beginning of what has turned into an unfortunately complex vaccine rollout— marked the very beginning of the end of what has been a long nightmare. It was an inspiring testament to the human spirit, a breath of relief, and a sign that our loved ones will be safe again soon.
A recent viral meme begins with the prompt “When I’m vaccinated the first thing I’ll do is—” followed by something fun but germy, like “Lick the rides at Disney World” or “Kiss all my friends on the lips.” People delight in fantasizing—whether comically or seriously—about a future that seemed so uncertain a short time ago.
The mythical moment contained in the lament, “When all this is over,” has served as a touchstone and light at the end of the tunnel throughout the pandemic. “I look forward to getting a beer with you— when all this is over.” “When all this is over, we should grab coffee.” I can’t wait to meet my nephew when all this is over.
To me, these ruminations seem simultaneously distant and redundant, because I’m already vaccinated. Though I am young, and not high-risk, I am a participant in the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine trial. Thus, I find myself in a unique position to offer early reflections about what the arrival of the vaccine means.
Most of all, I fear that when this is all over for all of us, we will not remember what we learned.
I hope to remember the slowness of this year, and the value of taking a long walk. I hope I will remember all those nights I spent alone, reading, and what I read.
I hope to remember that in this difficult and painful time, I learned to grieve. I learned to be enraged. I learned that speaking out for justice is always right. I learned about my responsibilities towards others. I learned that I love being alone, but I also learned how desperately I love companionship. Many of us may have lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost opportunities, were sent home from study abroad, graduated online, and had plenty to grieve as well.
Having difficult conversations about mask-wearing and COVID-safe habits taught me to communicate about consent with greater confidence and surety. The protests for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd taught me about the urgency of standing in solidarity with Black people and other oppressed groups. The mental health and financial crises experienced by many in my life, including myself, taught me the importance of mutual aid.
The grindstone of corporate capitalism continuing, relentless, while hundreds of thousands of Americans died from COVID-19, from hunger, from joblessness, and from mental health crises, taught me that we do not live in a humane society and that something must change.
This is COVID-19’s most essential lesson, and it is also the one I suspect will be the most quickly forgotten.
When the vaccine comes, we must remember that our society did not have to allow millions of people to become infected in the ten months between the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States and the development of the vaccine. America experienced staggeringly high numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, well beyond any other country, because our institutions and many of our peers did not make public health decisions that worked. Our government and other powerful structures did not educate the public about the importance of mask-wearing, did not give adequate crisis relief to allow people to stay home, sowed misinformation and mistrust, and reaped staggering numbers of deaths. America would not pause the pace of modern life—only ten months would have been adequate to save the lives of our parents and grandparents.
But another way was possible.
The critical theorist Herbert Marcuse writes that it is “not those who die, but those who die before they must and want to die, those who die in agony and pain, [who] are the great indictment against civilization. They also testify to the unredeemable guilt of mankind. Their death arouses the painful awareness that it was unnecessary, that it could have been otherwise.”
When we think back to our time in the pandemic, when we are given our vaccines and shuffled along back into our offices, when we go out to a restaurant as if nothing happened, when we look at the empty chair at the dining room table, will we remember that it could have been otherwise?
According to Marcuse, time, that soothing force which smoothes over our pain, is actually society’s “most natural ally” in maintaining conformity: “The flux of time helps men to forget what was and what can be: it makes them oblivious to the better past and the better future.” Forgetting and allowing the hard lessons of this year to fade into the past would be easy. It’s what profiteers and government officials want you to do the moment you get the vaccine. It would be easy to go back to work, to pretend nothing happened, and to fail to stop to grieve, reflect, remember, and consider that our lives could be better.
Now that I’m vaccinated, I have returned to the workforce as a delivery driver out of necessity— alongside many others still suffering from the pandemic’s economic effects. Now more than ever, I feel the force of civilization’s drive towards conformity: the desire to have things return to normal, to have a reliable income, a car, or some savings for a hopefully steady future. This pull to return to the way things were will be the same, and nearly irresistible, for most when the vaccine roll-out is complete.
In the euphoria of being able to hug our loved ones again, and to be out in the world, we risk losing the lessons of the pandemic, which illuminated and deepened the cracks in our civilization. The dreams of the pandemic being “over” in memes already indicate that we are collectively ready, and eager, to forget.
Here again, we would do well to heed the words of Marcuse: “To forget is also to forgive what should not be forgiven if justice and freedom are to prevail. […] To forget past suffering is to forgive the forces that caused it— without defeating these forces.”
Remember what happened to you. Think about what could have been. Another world was possible in the pandemic—one in which these hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided. This means that another world is possible, too, after we are vaccinated.
The work that needs to be done is not a return to what was. We must work to build new forces for social and economic justice, so that the next crack in our civilization does not break it.