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Covid, three years on: Have we slipped back into old habits?

Three years ago, Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation. It brought many sectors of society to an improbable and juddering halt, and for a time, it re-shaped our priorities. As normal life recovers and rebuilds, we take a look at what lessons- if any- we’ve learnt.

3 mins

March 7, 2023

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March 11th marks three years since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, firmly disrupting and dividing everything we see and know into BC and AC; Before Covid and After Covid.

The consequences are still in their infancy and no doubt will be played out for decades to come. As the writer, Rebecca Solnit, commented in The Guardian back in 2020, “disasters begin suddenly and never really end”. A recent google search which began ‘how has Covid changed the way we…’ unsurprisingly yielded an endless stream of endings: parent/buy property/work/dress/manage our pets… It seems that not many aspects of life have been left untouched, for better or for worse.

How you think about the pandemic will, of course, depend on what you experienced. Everyone was impacted in some way but (as was pointed out during the lockdowns) some people were in yachts while others were clinging onto rafts. Whatever your experience, the pandemic forced us into a collective reprieve from conventional life and, with it, the ability to step back to look at the water we’d been swimming in. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times during the second lockdown, commented that it felt like a parenthesis in our narratives. Such moments can be the midwife of new or rediscovered wisdom; as philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt said, it’s in times of deep crisis that “we have a right to expect illumination”. Three years on, I wonder what exactly was being illuminated.

While the pandemic brought untold misery and mischief across the globe, in its wake it also unearthed some insights worth being reminded of. We learned what we already knew but often chose to ignore – that everything and everyone is connected, and that carries certain responsibilities. Simone Weil wrote in her manifesto for society post WWII, that our obligations come before our rights. The lockdowns seemed to be a time when this principle was better understood and implemented. And writer Tobias Jones pointed out in The Guardian in 2020 that Covid taught us in various ways that well-being isn’t individual but social. As many industries ground to a halt and schools (controversially) closed their doors, there was a tacit admission that people are more important than markets, and relationships more important than productivity. With the slowdown of consumerism during lockdowns, Jones also noted that many became aware that while it pretends to fill our existential needs, it leaves us feeling existentially and spiritually empty.

Another inescapable lesson from the pandemic is that we are all far more vulnerable and fragile than we like to think. Coming face to face with our mortality, and that of the planet, is a megaphone for re-considering our priorities. In realising one’s finitude, we become less attached to the small things in life and more committed to the big ones (including civil society and the common good). This awakening is undoubtedly partly responsible for the ‘great resignation’ and the continued change in working patterns post-Covid. Chasing material wealth and status when you become acutely aware of your mortality feels all the more absurd.

If I were to summarise these realisations from pandemic days, I would say that they’re generally to do with how we order our lives; they’re about what we prioritise and devote our time and attention to. This is essentially about how we see things. As writer Annie Dillard opines, “the secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price”. Dillard alludes here to Jesus’ short parable about selling everything to buy a pearl of great price. Such a pearl, it follows, is worth trading for all the other riches we might possess. What draws our attention is critical, for what we see as valuable directly influences what and how we worship (and as American novelist David Foster Wallace famously pointed out, ‘there is no such thing as not-worshipping.’) Covid delivered us an opportunity to see the way our lives, and those of the culture around us, are often chronically disordered.

To what extent has this renewed perspective reformed our lives and institutions? In many ways, it seems as if, by and large, we’re falling back into the arms of society as it was pre-Covid. As Rebecca Solnit predicted, this was one of the great dangers- that we would “…lapse into believing that everything was fine before disaster struck, and that all we need to do is return to things as they were.” Yet, as we recall those strange pandemic months from 2020-2021, we should remember how that period altered what we valued; such illuminations were an unexpected gift from that grim plague, and we ignore them at our peril.

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