COVID-19 imposes existential questions for the future

How a health crisis may lead to the change we need

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a popular discourse has defined our motivation to follow the restrictions that were set in place to reduce active cases — a desire to return to normalcy.

I hear it just about everywhere the novel coronavirus is discussed.

The utterance, “I can’t wait until things go back to normal” can be heard everywhere from a walk in the park to roommates shooting the breeze at home.

And this is all understandable considering how uncertain the times are. It is natural for people, when faced with change, to cling to what they are familiar with.

We have all, in our individual lives, been faced with life-changing moments that plunge us into periods of uncertainty and fogginess — a period between what was and what will become. In these times, looking to the past can be the only source of comfort we may have.

This innate feeling that is familiar to most of us is academically defined as liminality.

It is a common position to be in — we experience liminality in both mundane and extreme circumstances ranging from ritual events such as being legally welcomed into “adulthood” to the adjustment period after the loss of a loved one. But, rarely are we faced with such extreme historical events such as COVID-19 — a crisis so universal that it plunges the world’s population into uncertainty.

Liminality is often associated with internal feelings of danger and anxiety. I think we can all agree that fresh air was tough to come by during the initial shut-down. But what is more remarkable is the level of reflection the crisis has produced.

Around the world, people were picking up new hobbies to fill time, catching up on lost time with family and enrolling in or leaving university to pursue ends that had been put off. All this simply as a means to cope with a new, unfolding world.

The social reflection the pandemic has provoked is shocking — around the world, people are questioning their roles and envisioning what they wish to see in our post-pandemic world.

COVID-19 is not just a health crisis, it is a paradigm-shifting catalyst.

In many ways, this crisis is layered.

First and foremost, we are facing a health crisis, but lying underneath this obvious circumstance we have been forced into an existential crisis felt on a scale large enough to induce an empathic reaction to the term “COVID-19” anywhere you go.

And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Historical events as large as the global COVID-19 pandemic have typically led to new world imaginings, whether good or bad. Take the postwar consensus for example — after the Second World War governments around the world united to adopt policy to raise living standards for citizens.

This period saw the rise of basic government policies we usually take for granted today, such as welfare, the right to unionize and various employment standards.

While not appearing extreme to the contemporary reader, in its historical context these ideas were truly radical — especially considering the state was mediating rights that it typically repressed in the past.

Shadowing the words of political activist and public intellectual David Graeber — the point is, after the crisis of two grueling world wars, famine, economic devastation and poverty, people came to realize that our social world is something we make ourselves and that it is something we could just as doubtlessly re-imagine and build differently.

Feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, liminality and perhaps even danger are not necessarily bad things when they force reflection on such a universal scale.

Comfort has the ability to keep people docile. But with crises such as global warming looming and very little time to mitigate the issue, people need to be pushed out of their comfort zones and into a context where they desire a bolder, more equitable and more prepared world for the crises we may collectively face in the near future.

COVID-19 has done just this. The devastation of the pandemic is currently felt everywhere and the existential reflection it has stimulated will soon be, too. It is up to everyone to take the good with the bad and capitalize on events as large as this.

Unfortunately for those who desire returning to our pre-pandemic societies, it is a bit of a pipe dream.

One way or another, the world will be irrevocably changed.

We need to keep our eyes to the stars during COVID-19. In the words of the writer Jonathan Feldman, “Basically, if you’re not a utopianist, you’re a schmuck.”

Let’s all be sure to not only re-imagine our world but to put those ideas into words and those words into action to build a more empathetic post-pandemic society.