Two months can do quite a number to one’s perspective.

Just ask the seniors who, a pair of months ago, anxiously prepped for graduation ceremonies and summer plans that wouldn’t pan out. Or the business owners and employees whose shift to digital hasn’t been as seamless — or as profitable — as was hoped. Or the tens of thousands of Americans who became victims of a previously unknown virus — which, to this point, remains incurable and unstoppable.

Or, to add to the anguish, ask the family of the late Ahmaud Arbery.

Like many others, the story of Arbery’s death came during one of the deadliest calamities in recent American history. However, unlike many others, he wasn’t killed by the novel coronavirus.

The memory of Arbery, a 25-year old Georgia man, was thrust into the national spotlight this week, some two months after his death. What caused the media avalanche was a leaked video from February, hastily recorded on a cellphone, which allegedly shows him being chased, shot and killed while on a Sunday afternoon jog through a Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood. Arbery — the unarmed, unassuming victim — was black. Travis and Gregory McMichael, the gun-wielding, self-proclaimed vigilantes, were white.

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The Arbery incident sparked a nationwide outcry over our country’s continued struggles with racism, white supremacy and inequality. On the heels of perceived victories — like the box-office hit “Just Mercy” and progress in recontextualizing our nation’s many Confederate monuments — setbacks like this come as a glaring reminder of the long road ahead.

But perhaps even more deafening than the screams for justice and the blatancy of our nation’s race problem is the silence. 

It wasn’t until Thursday — 10 weeks after the fact, and the day before what would’ve been Arbery’s 26th birthday — that his assailants were arrested and charged for murder and aggravated assault. Now that the nation has its eye on the situation, we cannot let a foreign-born disease’s spread completely distract us from one of our country’s homegrown vices.

It’s clear that the pandemic, and all of its effects, will produce a new “normal” for America and for the world. But for the sake of our nation — and for the sake of decency — we can’t let our country’s fight for racial justice be curtailed.

At the onset of the pandemic, as things began to feel a bit more real, I wondered if a potential silver lining (if there was any) would be an increased sense of unity in our nation. Previous catastrophic events like 9/11 brought the country together. The idea carried an aura of hope.

Now, some three months removed from the first COVID-19 case in the U.S., we’re splintering. Calls to social distance have led to ideological separation. The novel coronavirus has spiraled past a public health threat — it’s grown into a political issue. And with both sides becoming increasingly uncompromising, it’s hard to see a way out of the division.

Our nation’s response to COVID-19 and its response to racism have become two frustratingly polarizing issues. The former has exploded as of late; the latter has taken many forms over the years, trailing event after event that compromised the humanity of one ethnic group or another. Both issues are serious. Neither should be political. 

In the case of Arbery, there seems to be little room for political animosity. According to the evidence that is available to date, he was targeted for being “a black male running down the street.” It is a time for unity, not divisiveness, amidst a “heartbreaking” and “very, very disturbing” situation, as President Donald Trump described it.

Now, as we continue to charter unmarked territory in fighting COVID-19, the division we’ve created seems irreparable. Nonetheless, if we ever hope to claw out of this pandemic-spurred depression — in every health-centric, economic or social sense — it will take compromise. No one’s found the solution. As long as that remains true, we need each other.

Bigotry will continue to exist. Sickness will continue to exist. But if we wish to diminish either, or both, the first step must be replacing divisiveness with mutual respect. Taking sides has its place, but preserving human life should not be it.

Erica Smith, of Brunswick, Ga., leaves a small paper sign on a memorial at the spot where an unarmed black man was shot and killed Friday, May 8, 2020, in Brunswick Ga. | Associated Press

Arbery’s death came at a time when the world was slumping into a crisis. We’ve all taken an emotional toll — some more than others, of course — and crave an ambiguous state of “normal.” We can only hope that Arbery’s death serves as an awakening for some, and a collective hinge point in our nation’s recognition of the racism that still pervades it — both interpersonally and institutionally — and our desire to overcome it.

What that hinge point may be in our fight against COVID-19, no one knows. Maybe it’s a vaccine or a treatment. Perhaps it’s a social structure that protects the vulnerable and immunizes the rest. Or, ideally, it is an unforeseen event that awakens us all to the realization that polarization, separation and side-taking may do us as much harm as the virus will.

I’m not sure what will cause that awakening. But I hope it comes sooner rather than later. Our nation depends on it.

Email: sbenson@deseretnews.com