Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.
Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:
When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.
…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”
Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:
“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”
This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.
Work and workplaces
I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects:
I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.
…Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.
Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.
Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”
Our better natures
Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)
And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:
I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.
So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.
…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.
So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:
Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.
And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.
Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.
Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).