Figures of speech that we wouldn’t really have understood last year are now becoming commonplace. If I crack a joke about washing my mail, for instance, people know what I mean. Last year they probably would have assumed they had heard me wrong. One of those sayings that has been popping up a lot is, When all this is over.
A year ago, if anyone mentioned “all this being over,” they probably would have been talking about a remodel, or... ? I’m racking my brain, trying to think of a scenario that would have merited this turn of phrase.
Now we all know what it means. When the pandemic is over. When social distancing is over. When travel restrictions are over. When mask requirements are over. When stay-at-home orders are over. When we can go back to the office. When schools are consistently open. When business travel resumes. When we are no longer trapped in a collective nightmare.
The trouble with this is that we’re all looking backward.
We still think that “all of this” will be “over” at some point.
The spin on the pandemic has been over whether COVID-19 is real or not, whether it counts as a threat or not, whether we should change our behavior because of it or not.
As a futurist and as an historian, I know the question is really, how often will we have pandemics now?
George Washington and Andrew Jackson both got smallpox as teenagers. Abigail Adams led the way for cutting-edge science by volunteering to get smallpox inoculations for herself and her kids. She died of typhoid fever years later. William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia while in office. Abraham Lincoln got sick with smallpox the same day he gave the Gettysburg Address. Woodrow Wilson got H1N1 while in office. FDR had polio.
Think of how different American history would be if the course of any one of these illnesses had gone the other way. If George Washington had died at 19, if Harrison had lived, if Lincoln had fallen ill a couple days earlier and hadn’t written that speech... ?
There IS no “when this is over.” Contagious epidemic disease has been the scourge of humanity since before before we started keeping written records.
The main difference is that right now there are seven billion of us. In 1918, there were fewer than two billion. In 1776 it was about one billion. Quite simply, there are more of us, we inhabit more areas of the planet, and the same percentage of illness or death will involve far more individual people. Over a quarter of Americans got sick with the Spanish Flu and fewer than one percent died, but if that happened now, roughly 82 million people would have been sick and roughly 3/4 of a million people would have died.
One thing that is similar between COVID-19 and the H1N1 outbreak of WWI is that people defied mask orders. Just like now, people at that time got into fistfights about it, and at least one person got shot. The science was there, the body count was rising, everyone was freaking out, and already there were people who would rather go to prison or die than wear a little strip of fabric on their face for a couple hours.
This probably will never change. A thousand years from now this probably will not have changed.
There is another saying: “avoid it like the plague.” I’m sure we’re already laughing about the fact that humans do not avoid the plague. On the contrary, it seems that some are actively encouraging it, not only defying public health regulations but possibly? If the rumors are true? Hosting actual parties in hopes that people will get it and get it over with.
Hey guess what. Reinfection is possible and, at time of writing, we still only have one confirmed death from reinfection by a second strain of COVID-19.
I think about “when all this is over” because even the Spanish Flu epidemic eventually ended. Yeah, thousands of people have died of influenza since then, but not at the same rate. (H1N1 at that time was hemorrhagic; it included regular flu symptoms but some people also bled out their ears or eyes). Even the Black Death eventually ended. These things do go away - or at least they always have so far.
When I think about “when all this is over,” I think first about seeing my own family. We’re closing in on a year since we’ve seen each other in person. It wouldn’t surprise me if we have to go another two years. We can do it, though, because we love each other enough to wait. We believe the science and, of course, the group of us all have my personal experience to go on.
The other thing I think is that we’re all looking backward. The world that we knew is gone, just like George Washington’s world is gone and Abraham Lincoln’s world is gone. We may as well start thinking forward now, like they always tried to do, and start imagining what this thing called the future is going to be like.
There are a bunch of things we aren’t going to miss, like having a coworker come into the office with a bad cold or listening to people cough in the theater. There are a lot of things we were still doing earlier this year that are relics of the 19th century, such as visiting an office in person to fill out information on a piece of paper. DMV, I’m looking at you. So much of that bureaucratic infrastructure could easily have been done digitally decades ago. It’s certainly not worth dying over.
It’s the job of a futurist to look forward, to pull together inklings of trends and imagine them into better and more interesting versions of today. I like to look ahead to the 15-year range. It would be better if I could look to the 30-50 year range, and I’m hoping to learn to do that. I also hope I’ll live that long, that in 50 years I’ll be 95 and I can look back on 2020 and wave my hand at it dismissively.
That’s why I wear a mask. I’m going to bury this pandemic in my personal past. I’m going to beat it and make it just a footnote in my timeline. That’s my plan and I hope everyone else is on board. When all this is over, we’ll need someone to write the history of it.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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