By Helena Zhang
As COVID-19 ravages the world, leaving lives upended and sickness in its wake, its reverberations feel surreal and scary. The realities of crashed economies, vacant major cities and buckling healthcare systems seem almost fictional. Headline after headline, we learn of the rising death toll as front-line healthcare workers fight without protective equipment.
Although I haven’t figured out how to swallow all the sad news, I do believe that it is possible and extremely important to be hopeful.
I realize there must be many emotions that I cannot begin to comprehend — the heartbreak of the virus affecting loved ones, the anxiety of finding shelter, the grief of a lost senior spring quarter. And while I wish I could understand all these feelings so I can say the right thing, I thought that it might be worthwhile to share some spots of brightness that have emerged in my world.
This may seem to be a very small concern in the grand scheme of COVID-19’s wake, but the most saddening part about online school for my friends and me seems to be the moments we have lost with each other. No more spring quarter of living a floor apart, posing for a polaroid with our arms wrapped around one another and no more yelling the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the night. However, being separated has made us more appreciative of the time we have together.
Finding some solace in our apart-ness via Houseparty, we’ve been chatting and playing Chips and Guac. Admittedly, in between the laughter are grumbles of how long it will be until we reunite. To wait an entire quarter and summer will simply feel like forever, we concluded matter-of-factly. But out of our disappointment came the realization that we can make up for the lost time. Longing to relive all the nights we spent procrastinating on homework in a library cubicle when we could’ve been with friends, saying cheers to the week, we threw resolutions up into the air. Promising to treasure every coming moment — be it with each other or the many communities we’ve found a piece of home in — we felt excitement bubbling in our stomachs for when we’ll be back together on campus. And this time we will know to savor and make the most out of our time together. After all, the maximum one-mile bike ride to a friend’s room is now magnified by thousands.
Moreover, on the matter of online school: Though, I can’t imagine how frustrating the change must be for professors, and I do find our physical separation from the classroom a real bummer, I’m going to try to be optimistic. With the transformation of higher education to online, information and school may become more accessible. Maybe I’m just dreaming, but if the wealth of knowledge at Stanford or any other school around the globe can be shared, perhaps socioeconomic inequalities will help stop hindering students from attending school. The next step however, would be promoting equal access to education by providing sufficient online learning resources.
Another reflection my family and I have talked about regards the return of all that we’ve ignored. The image that comes to mind is of a chair that has a leg with a loose screw. Although the chair looks functional, whole and very much intact, the moment pressure is applied, the frame is bound to collapse. And one aspect of our society that resembles the broken chair could be the healthcare system.
Every day, one headline after the next seems to underline, highlight and bold the reality of a buckling healthcare system. After all, how did we expect a healthcare system of overstretched hospitals, already overwhelmed by the flu season and running on full capacity, to be able to stand against the pandemic? With the testing fiasco, the lack of beds and ventilators, the shortage of masks and the consequence of our front-line fighters falling sick, there is no option but to sober up. The idea of America as a biomedical powerhouse is just a facade. In sobering up, I like to believe that we will finally pay attention to the unscrewed leg. And it’s about time the government and policy makers start preventing the imbalance between supply and demand for medical resources.
So where and how did we go wrong? Armed with the most notable infectious disease specialists, why was testing and tracking of the virus so delayed, and why did large-scale testing never happen? Could the world be different if the government enforced more urgency and seriousness to COVID-19’s impact? Hopefully, in the coming months, by addressing the ways our health care system and government have fallen short, we can pave the path for improvement. I like to believe that soon there will be tests available to everybody who needs one, along with increased attention to maintaining medical resources and protecting health care professionals. Perhaps the government will even magnify their efforts to ease the financial load on those who cannot distance themselves socially in order to make ends meet. With this chance to take a true look around, we’re finally present to all we’ve ignored.
On another note, there have been so many beautiful moments of people coming together to help one another. One of the most profound ways I felt the power of community at Stanford took the form of Google Sheets. These spreadsheets circulated our emails to protect contracted workers from losing continued pay, to provide financial resources to help pay for travel and to foster communal support. And as they circulated, the self-forgetfulness of our community at Stanford was disclosed. Alumni were very generous in offering resources, and everyone was eager to stand up for service workers. Staff members were so present, quickly making sure our needs were met while students happily signed up to be a shoulder for others to lean on, be it as a Bridge counselor or math tutor.
What will happen next, we do not know. But as we’re confronted with this world that feels lost, I believe we’ve all been more kind and self-forgetful, realizing what really matters. As the importance of social distancing has become clearer, millions around the world have been fulfilling their civic and moral responsibility of staying isolated. We’re all doing what would have been unthinkable only two weeks ago, forgoing our lives at work and school and not leaving our homes. But in staying put, we’re able to take part in preventing the spread of the virus and in protecting immunocompromised populations. Moreover, on the other side of the world, people such as Jack Ma are generously donating masks and tests. This spirit of giving and stories of charity make me hopeful. In her book “Story of My Life,” Helen Keller recounts “then comes hope with a smile and whispers ‘there’s a joy in self-forgetfulness.’ So, I try to make the light in others eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.”
The trends also paint a brighter picture. As we think about our health care workers and more vulnerable populations by isolating ourselves, infection rates will soon decline the same way they have in East Asia after containment and social distancing measures were put in place. Moreover, in a Wordsworth-like way, I like to believe we’re taking the pause we need. Wordsworth writes “the world is too much with us” and our “getting and spending.” But in this pause, I believe we’re finally able to think about our shortcomings, spend time with the family and friends we’re isolated with and ask fundamental questions. And perhaps, all of the changes we’ve seen so far in response to COVID-19 — the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, delayed evictions and flexibility of working at home when sick — might be ideals we can work towards when the pandemic ends.
For me, this pause that we find ourselves in sort of resembles the suspension of time when we’re confronted with a painting or landscape that pierces us yet refuses our knowing of it. And perhaps the way we feel against the unknown-ness of the world right now can be similar to how everyone in the prison yard felt when Duettino-Sull’aria played through the loudspeakers in Shawshank Redemption — suspended yet hopeful.
And so here are my two cents on being optimistic during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope the influx of sad news won’t weigh us down as we continue to move forward with all the kindness and self-forgetfulness we’ve seen so far.
Contact Helena Zhang at helenaz ‘at’ stanford.edu.