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Illustrations by Alex Cochran / Lettering by Michelle Budge

10 ways we could be better when the pandemic is over

They come at a terrible cost, but some societal changes in the wake of COVID-19 might be good

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SALT LAKE CITY — In her 2009 book “A Paradise Built in Hell,” historian Rebecca Solnit wrote about what she called disaster utopias, communities that emerged from tragedy with hope and joy, reactions that seem radically counter to the circumstance.

According to Solnit, disaster utopias were present after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and after the terrorism of 2001, among other catastrophes. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” Solnit wrote.

After 9/11, she noted, Americans “abhorred what had happened, but they clearly relished who they briefly became.”

Like the disasters that Solnit chronicles in her book, the pandemic of 2020 stands to be remembered as a devastating event in which millions of people got sick or died, and suffered economically.

It can also be the impetus for positive change.

If paradise arises from hell, Solnit says, “it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.”

Here are 10 ways that America could be better, albeit at a steep cost, after the pandemic is over.

We could get sick less often

Having spent months zealously washing our hands and actively refraining from touching our faces, many Americans will now have better hygiene, similar to the years after the 1918 flu pandemic, when we stopped using common cups in public places and began to frown upon spitting.

It takes about 66 days for a habit to form, according to research from University College London, so even after everyone returns to work and other public spaces, it’s possible that these healthy habits will help protect us from the common cold, strep throat and other infections. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that “compulsive hand-washing” is likely to be part of the “new normal” even after the novel coronavirus recedes.

Social distancing has had an impact on the seasonal flu, said Dr. Emily S. Spivak, an associate professor of medicine and director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at University of Utah Health.

“Our flu rates basically took a nosedive as soon as we started social distancing,” she said. “It works, staying away from people. Obviously, we can’t do that forever, but people may be more conscientious about distancing and common-sense hygiene going forward.”

Spivak was recently out walking with her three young daughters and when they approached an older couple walking, the couple moved aside, saying, “We just want you to be healthy.”

“That was such a powerful statement. It speaks to what people are learning. I don’t think we are going to forget this. We’re not going to spend the rest of our lives in fear of a pandemic, but we will remember.”

We could be more engaged with our elders

In a tweet, Denver writer David Gilbert suggested that people continue to buy groceries for elderly neighbors and call our grandparents often after the pandemic ends.

A survey commissioned by Medicare Advantage, a health insurance company, recently found that 40% of grandparents said they had been communicating more frequently with their children and grandchildren during the pandemic. And 18% said they’d used FaceTime for the first time, and 13% started texting their children and grandchildren.

Because people over the age of 60 are at highest risk of dying from COVID-19, the pandemic has also resulted in neighborhoods being more solicitous of older residents, volunteering to buy groceries and other supplies for them, and even serenading them with concerts (at safe distances).

Naomi Cahn, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who specializes in elder and family law, said social distancing has made people more appreciative of simple gestures, such as the ability to hug a grandparent or to drop off a meal without worrying about passing along a deadly virus.

“Certainly in the short term, and I’m hoping in the long term, the importance of connection will stay with us. I think this has made people far more conscious of the importance of maintaining links, to family members generally, but certainly to older people and older neighbors,” Cahn said.

And maybe some of the stores that started special shopping hours for seniors and other vulnerable people will keep those up, as well.

We could just say no to handshakes and social kissing

Even before the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced a pause in public Masses because of the pandemic, it put a stop to the handshaking that occurs during the ritual called “the sign of peace.”

Now Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, wants the handshake to disappear in all settings.

“As a society, just forget about shaking hands,” Fauci said on a Wall Street Journal podcast. “We don’t need to shake hands. We’ve got to break that custom. Because as a matter of fact, that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory illness.”

Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group and spokesperson for Infectious Diseases Society of America, told CNBC that he favors a polite bowing of the head. Others have argued for Americans to adopt the slight bow practiced in many Asian countries, “a perfectly elegant solution currently used by hundreds of millions of people in the world today,” according to Brian Hanson-Harding, writing for the New York Daily News.

And the European custom of kissing the cheek in greeting has vanished at least temporarily, and “many people are secretly relieved,” The Times of London recently reported.

We could have more closed roads and open spaces

Salt Lake City is among a growing number of municipalities that have closed streets to motorized vehicles during the pandemic, in order to give pedestrians and cyclists more space.

New York City has closed 40 miles of streets to create more recreational space, Henry Goldman reported for Bloomberg.

While these are temporary measures to help with social distancing, their success could lead to long-term closures, like many cities around the world have done. In January, for example, 2 miles of San Francisco’s major thoroughfare, Market Street, were permanently closed to most vehicles.

And writing for Politico, Alexandra Lange said parks and other outdoor spaces will be valued even more, as people shun places such as malls (“all those virus-carrying surfaces”).

We could have better health care and more sick leave

Nancy K. Bristow, a history professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, wrote recently for The Washington Post that after the flu pandemic of 1918, Americans “rushed to regain their sense of equilibrium and normalcy.”  

While there were some concrete changes — people were no longer comfortable sharing a cup attached to public water fountains, for example — there were no sweeping changes related to health care although 675,000 Americans died.

But, Bristow said in an interview with the Deseret News, “History doesn’t have to repeat itself.”

“They missed some real opportunities (in 1918-19) because things like pandemics make very vivid for us those inequities and those social, cultural and economic problems that we already have. They just become writ larger in the midst of a pandemic. 

“Americans could decide having a health care system that really protected every person who lives in this country could be an amazing outcome. And it seems possible.”

We could use technology more for life-affirming things

Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist, author and professor at Harvard Business School, is continuing to participate in Catholic Mass every day — on his computer. He’s also connecting more often with friends and family members over FaceTime.

“I’m actually seeing them — getting oxytocin in my brain that comes from actual eye contact, that I would never get from an email or social media,” he said.

Similarly, Denise Akob, a scientist in Reston, Virginia, said she has played bingo online with a brother in Pennsylvania and also started watching an exercise class taught by her cousin that she’d never seen before.

“This is something where, if she continues it, I’ll probably make time,” Akob said.

We could experience a resurgence of faith

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist acts, Americans said they were praying more and attending religious services more frequently. “Throughout history, periods of mass trauma have often sparked religious revivals,” Filip Mazurczak wrote recently for First Things.

He noted the number of people who have talked about how much they missed the ability to go to a house of worship, and increased news coverage of religious leaders in a positive light, such as reporting on Pope Francis saying a blessing over an empty St. Peter’s Square.

“At the moment, the main evidence we have about the pandemic’s effect on religion is anecdotal, which in sociology is the weakest kind of evidence. However, there are some preliminary reasons to hope that this trying time will cause more people to reflect on their relationship with God, even if that religious revival is limited and uneven.”

We could lead less frenzied lives

Kitty O’Meara, who lives near Madison, Wisconsin, is the author of a viral poem that begins “And the people stayed home” and goes on to envision a better world emerging from the pandemic.

O’Meara, a retired chaplain and former teacher, said she is hopeful that there will be renewed compassion in the U.S. that will improve immigration and health care, and address income inequality. But she also hopes that some of the stillness, creativity and contemplation of which she wrote will carry over into our post-pandemic lives. 

“It would be huge if we could look at the energy that we give to a work day and a work week and simmer it down a little bit. I think people are a little frenzied and overworked,” O’Meara said.

“I think it will be a great easing back into something that resembles a reality known and valued. But I wonder if it will get back to the frenetic level that it’s been at.”

Spivak, at the University of Utah, said she expects the pace of life will be slower, based on the number of friends who have told her how much they’re enjoying unhurried time with their families.

“I don’t know how the world is going to look after this, but I think it will be different in a better way,” she said.

We could be better prepared for emergencies

Bristow, who lives on an island off the coast of Washington state, has to take a ferry to the mainland and knows she needs to be prepared. She teaches a class at the University of Puget Sound about culture and catastrophes. She still wasn’t ready for this.

“For goodness sake, could we take emergency preparedness more seriously? Many people have, but the rest of us need to get on board,” Bristow said.

“Emergency preparedness has to be taken more seriously at the individual level, at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level. We can no longer allow FEMA to be under-resourced. We can no longer allow the United States public health service to be under-resourced.”

Spivak said she is “cautiously hopeful” the United States will be better prepared when a pandemic or epidemic occurs again. “I think we will be more prepared in the future if we take this opportunity to build up our public health infrastructure. It just depends on how long people’s attention span is and how much willpower there is to realize that this is not a political issue, but a human issue.”

If nothing else, most American homes will likely stock a greater supply of toilet paper.

We could enjoy stronger, deeper relationships

Brooks, who recently launched a column and podcast about happiness, said self-isolation is a teacher.

“One of the things we can learn from this crisis is if we were overinvested in work and underinvested in faith, family and friends. Right now, when we’re isolated, people are turning to their faith more; they are making contact, in new and creative ways, with their family and friends. They’re trying to keep up with their work, but they’re really, really investing in a big way in those first three.”

When this is over, he says, people should ask themselves what they liked about this time, and learn from it.

“They’re going to go, ‘I liked the fact that I was FaceTiming with my brother. I liked the fact that I was talking to my grandma a lot. I got to know my sister for the first time — really, really got to know my sister.’”

Those things, Brooks said, should be part of your “happiness portfolio” going forward.

“Don’t make it just COVID-19. Make it part of your life,” he said.