Lessons Learned From the Pandemic of Our Lives

Our goal is not to “get back to normal.” It is to emerge more sustainable, more just and more connected than before.

The novel coronavirus has, in a few excruciating months, changed seemingly everything. Foremost in our minds is the question: “How much longer?” Though we just want it to be over, the first overarching message in this time must be:

Not “Back to Normal.” Better!

COVID-19 has taken far too many lives — more than half a million by mid-2020 and rising rapidly — while upending how billions live their daily lives across the globe. Yet, for all the changes it has engendered, this public-health crisis has mostly reinforced “pre-existing conditions,” negative and positive alike. Among these are two ancient truths, which we’ll treat here with new urgency: Everything Is Connected; and Take the Long View.

COVID-19 emerged late in 2019, becoming a global pandemic by March 2020. The story of this microscopic SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the devastation it causes, is just now unfolding. So this essay may seem premature, among Evolve’s rich applications of Jewish insights and values to timeless questions. The goal here is simply to highlight enduring learnings from the early “coronaverse” — lessons that will soon be joined by others, and, of course, be revised in the months and years ahead.

We can attempt this now because viewed another way, it’s an old challenge.  Coronaviruses are an ancient family; pandemics are nothing new. And our “evolving religious civilization,” Judaism, has always applied past wisdom to present challenges in service of a better and more meaningful future. This is what we do. So to be sure, the first mid-pandemic message must be: Our goal is not “get back to normal!” It is to emerge more sustainable, more just and more connected than before.

Let’s excise “back to normal” from our vocabulary. Given the historic lapses and injustices that have magnified the virus’s toll, “normal” has no place. We owe better to those who follow us.

Jewish Values

Before we address our interconnection across space and time, a bevy of classic Jewish values beckon, starting with Pikuakh Nefesh, the sacrosanct supremacy of saving lives. Related teachings of Sakanat Nefashot (danger to life) insist that we avoid endangering lives and respond immediately to even a potential danger, whenever possible.

This is our central values frame, and it runs counter to leading voices that instead prioritize the economy and “normalcy.” Though other values may temper it, most Jews stick by Pikuakh Nefesh — and most Jewish institutions have (appropriately) been slow in phased reopening. Given resurgences and “second waves,” this conservative tendency serves our people (and, in turn, many others) well.

Early in the corona-era, Adat Shalom began a weekly “Jewish Values amid a Pandemic” class. On examination, most classical middot (attributes) and values felt newly relevant, while a few stood out:

Anavah — Humility: Everyone should take up the right amount of space, which now, in public, should be as close to zero as possible. Further, we need humility to decenter our own story, our wishes, our realities in light of the whole.

Emet — Truth: Science undergirds everything from traditional halakhah (Jewish law) to Kaplanian theology. Judaism values truth, both empirically and morally. No alternative facts! Thus we don masks, socially distance and wash our hands — religiously.

Hesed — Lovingkindness: Though we can’t all be frontline responders, everyone can check on neighbors, act generously, be thoughtful and stand on the side of love. Rabbi Amy Eilberg prayerfully asks, “Might we continue to be kinder with one another even after the threat of the virus is gone?” Olam Hesed Yibaneh — let the world be built from lovingkindness (Psalm 89).

Kehillah — Community: We often bend our individual desires to the greater good. That’s the social contract. We wear masks, support education, pay dues, even cut carbon emissions, all for l’shem kehillah (the communal good), for others’ sakes and as a long-term investment since a strong community helps ourselves as well.

K’vod Ha’Briyot — Honoring All: “Respecting the creations” — any, and every one (perhaps any thing, too). In these troubled times, how do we show respect to all — nursing aide, grocery cashier, immigrant? (Rabbi Debra Orenstein notes that “COVID-19” in Hebrew reads “Kavod-Aleph-Het-Yod” [achi], honoring my brother-sister-fellow.” The recommended response already appears in the malaise’s name!).

Savlanut — Patience: We’re on a long journey, filled with loss, limitation and solitude. The sooner we accept that, the better. With patience, we can go easy on ourselves and one another, and make the most of it.

Tzedek — Justice: COVID exposes inequities. We, the people commanded to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20), must correct them — now, tomorrow, forever. This, like all these values, is a timeless call with timely implications.

Everything Is Connected

This pandemic both accentuates and obscures the underlying unity of all (since the Creator is One, oneness must connect all Creation, and all who bear the Divine image). Accentuates because the virus is an equal-opportunity global bio-terrorist, to which all are comparably vulnerable. Obscures because outcomes are so heavily dependent on divergent factors like race and class.

Once the new virus spread beyond Hubei Province, it affected mostly wealthier people, who travel internationally. Soon, however, it spread faster in lower-income communities and among people of color. There’s no way around it: Coronavirus danger is measured in units of “privilege.”

We who enjoy roomy homes (often, yards, too), decent internet and work that can be done remotely, sequestered ourselves. Others couldn’t. The global median is closer to refugee camps, São Paulo’s favelas or Dehli’s squatter settlements, than it is to White Plains, Bethesda, Evanston or the Pacific Palisades. (Just $100,000 in assets per adult joins the top decile of worldwide wealth; 1 percenters start under $1 million.)

Yawing inequality is a slow-growing cancer, and COVID magnifies its malignancy. A better post-pandemic future will transform health; we’ve learned to disentangle health insurance from employment; ensure sick leave for low-wage workers; make affordable quality health care a public good; restore medicine from transactional to relational; and begin by improving access in communities of color.

COVID-19 exacerbates the pre-existing condition of racism. Long denied equal education and opportunity, with more lower-income service workers who can’t telecommute, residents of minority neighborhoods are likelier to get the virus. Add less access to quality health care or healthy food choices, zip codes with worse air pollution and more underlying conditions — and people of color are likelier to die from it, too.

We used to say, “we’re all in the same boat.” Today’s truer version is, “we’re all weathering the same storm, but in different boats” — some in leaky dinghies, others aboard luxury yachts. Sure, everyone should “self-quarantine voluntarily, even if you personally have nothing to gain from doing so, for the good of the community” (per Leviticus, via Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski). But many can’t. So even as the storm rages, let’s plan now, in detail, how we’ll build that more just future.

Take the Long View

The United States, like much of the world, was caught flat-footed. We’d ignored the experts warning that pandemics tend to emerge every so often. We’d underfunded the public-health sector, dwindled the stockpiles and reduced science’s role in public policy. We lost precious time, unable to grasp corona’s ruinous ruggedness. Even before the well-documented failures of this administration’s response, our heads were in the sand. Which is why, long before this pandemic ends, we need to start preparing for the next one.

Our last and most critical “lesson learned” is to plan ahead and practice long-term thinking. The next huge disruption could be SARS-CoV-3, or could be more like Ebola, or 1918-style influenza. It could be terror or war, massive solar flares or an asteroid, artificial intelligence gone haywire or ecological collapse. All we know for sure is that disruptions will come, so we’d best strengthen our resilience in advance.

Here, Judaism offers the world a great gift: shmita, the sabbatical year. In Torah, it’s the cyclical ceasing of intensive agriculture, proclaiming radical release and remitting all debts. Though the letter of the law is likely unworkable today, we now inherit the moral imperative to live with shmita-consciousness, Judaism’s ultimate resilience teaching. If we live as if shutdowns may come every seventh year, we’ll be ready for any economic or environmental disruption (like this one). We’ll live close to the land and interdependently with our neighbors. We’ll focus more on the commonwealth than on private portfolios. We’ll continually think and plan ahead.

Tragically, we hadn’t absorbed shmita (or climate) consciousness before COVID-19. More disruptions lie ahead, predictably enough, and to the extent we learn this lesson, and mitigate and adapt now, we’ll prevent great suffering in the future. Flattening the COVID Curve is mere dress rehearsal for trying to flatten the Keeling Curve — that horrifically rising line tracking carbon emissions’ increase into a global burden, far beyond what a stable atmosphere can bear. At least we’ve learned from the coronavirus that people can heed the science, brook massive economic and social shifts, and unsettle their daily existence (for a while anyway) when the stakes are life and death. On climate, by contrast, we’re nowhere near sustainability.

Everything is indeed connected; Dr. Hava Tirosh Samuelson connects these dots:

To flourish, creation (in Hebrew, beri’ah) requires health (in Hebrew, beri’ut) of all creatures (in Hebrew, beru’im). A healthy human society requires investment in health systems, as well as investment in the health of all ecosystems, the foundation of human life.

From racial justice to health improvements to ecological sustainability, our work is rendered imperative by the awful reality of COVID-19.

L’dor v’dor, “from generation to generation.” Where economic time frames are driven by quarterly earnings and politics by biennial election cycles, religion joins ecology in considering the “third and fourth” and “thousandth” generation (Exodus 34:6-7). Those are the only time scales that can manage pandemics, expand justice and solve climate change. Those are the only time scales for us.

If we learn enough from the Great Pandemic of 2020, our descendants will someday see how we pivoted. May we earn their thanks for having become, at last, good ancestors.

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