An odd amalgam of tragedies is conspiring to make this an unprecedented time — a strange mixture of calamity and hope that could render 2020 a monumental convergence of tipping points. They could be good or bad or some of both, depending on how things play out.
And what a multiple-whammy of things: from the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic to the trajectory of the economic crisis it’s caused, to the recognition of the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on black people, physically, mentally and financially.
And, pouring gas on the flames of this already once-in-a-century societal disruption comes the explosive coincidental tragedy of the videotaped and nationally publicized police murder of George Floyd, an African American whose name, added to the long list of black people killed at the hands of law enforcement in recent months and years, appears to be the straw that may just break the back of the intractable blue wall.
The case appears to have swept like a tidal wave over much of the remaining white resistance to the literal and social meaning of the words “Black Lives Matter.” The Mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, has even had the phrase painted as a pavement mural in a street in front of the White House. Need more evidence? When an iconic American corporate consumer brand like McDonald’s takes out an ad listing the names of black victims of police murder, from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd, you know the times are changing.
They appear to be changing not just here in America, but in many places throughout the world where people previously looked on at breakouts of racial unrest in the U.S. from a safe distance. But newspapers in the past couple of days have reported on supportive words by leaders and marches in solidarity with American protesters by citizens in Germany, France, and the U.K, among other countries.
What Will Happen When the Curfew Lifts and the Lock-down Loosens?
Moments ago, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio announced an end to the 8 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew that he had put in place on June 1 — the first curfew imposed in New York in 75 years. And tomorrow, the first phase of the loosening of pandemic lock-down restrictions will begin in New York City.
For me, reasons for hope abound. Some of them may be premature, for things could surely get worse — if there’s another spike in coronavirus cases and deaths in the aftermath of the breaching of social distancing rules during the marches, or if expectations of justice for the cops involved in the George Floyd murder are not satisfied, just as previous expectations for gun safety legislation failed to materialize after multiple mass shootings at schools that made reform seem inevitable.
Nevertheless, I envision enduring improvements stemming from the events of these past few turbulent, historic months — changes of things far beyond my immediate life and control, as well as things within my own mind and influence. Here are some of them:
- Post-Pandemic Public Health: Declines in reported cases and deaths from the novel coronavirus have clearly occurred as a result of face-mask wearing and public distancing. Like pandemics of the past, this one, damaging as it’s been, will pass, and we’ll be better prepared in the future both to respond to them and to carry on with greater equilibrium when they arise. Also, improvements in healthcare insurance will come, in some form that will be better than what we have today.
- Post-George Floyd Police Reform: Mayors and governors won’t be able to afford to look the other way this time, and hopefully a new presidential administration will make it a national priority. No more chokeholds and excessive use of force, better training, demilitarization of law enforcement practices, and more and better community policing programs.
- Improvements in Work Policies and Pay: Work-from-home policies have already pleasantly surprised employers, convincing them that people can be productive without being tied to their desks at the office and forced to be present within a restrictive set of hours. Employees will be freer and have the flexibility to better manage their lives and their work, companies will save on commercial space, and everyone will win. Hopefully, pay will increase so that people who have jobs, in general, can live decent lives, and people whom the pandemic has distinguished as “essential” will be compensated accordingly.
- Improvements in Our Relationships with Family, Friends, and Neighbors: After working abroad as an ex-pat for 16 years and returning to New York in 2017, it took me a while to re-establish my connections with family and friends in the U.S. And just when my wife and I were beginning to truly enjoy the re-connection — going to meals and shows with other couples, having relatives stay with us for the weekend — along came the coronavirus and shelter-in-place rules. Overcoming those enforced separations through emails, phone calls and Zoom get-togethers have helped us maintain the lost ground we’d finally begun to make up since our return and even strengthened the bonds.
- Moreover, my wife and I, who marked the 31st anniversary of our first date during the lock-down, have never in all those years spent so much time with one another — being practically joined at the hip like pandemic twins for the past few months. It’s made us closer than ever, and it’s been conducive to conversations at home and on walks to parks and grocery stores that we’ll long treasure.
- Another very noticeable and welcome byproduct of the pandemic and street protests is the sense of community that has permeated our building and neighborhood. On our walks to the grocery stores and essential businesses that we frequent, the passers-by almost all wear face masks and keep their distance, and the shop keepers, some of whom have suffered from robberies and looting, demonstrate courtesy and give special attention and care to the regulars, whom they regard as allies weathering this situation with them.
- Improvements in Our Relationships with Money and Material Possessions: New York’s streets are lined with stores whose long tentacles seem to reach out onto the sidewalks to pull you in to buy stuff you don’t need. Before you know it your closets have too many clothes, your shelves have too many books, even your utility spaces have more batteries, duct tape, and detergent bottles than you’re likely to use in the foreseeable future. Yes. That’s my fault. Guilty as charged. But the pandemic has made me realize how well I can do for extended periods without buying anything but food and necessities. I’ve used the time to collect and jettison nonessential items and I feel amazingly free and clear of distracting clutter. And there’s suddenly more money in our savings account.
- Improvements in Our Relationship with Time: When I worked at a pharmaceutical company that developed and marketed a big portfolio of cancer drugs, I heard a patient who’d recovered from multiple malignant brain tumors say, “Time is our most important resource. After getting sick and getting well, you don’t want to waste your time. The lesson is, you don’t have control over ANYTHING — except the way you spend your time.”
Witnessing the simultaneous deaths of over a hundred thousand fellow Americans who died of the coronavirus, and a long list of African Americans who died in an instant at the merciless hands of police is a wake-up call to all of us, especially, but not only, black people. None of us know when our time will be abruptly taken away, and we have to start living like we understand that, because it’s a fact.
The Chinese have a proverb that goes: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” If these last few months make us start living like our time is what matters most and causes us to start living with decency, purpose, humanity, and kindness, then the great converging calamities of 2020 will have been worth the cost.