Home Commentary The unplanned lessons of historical tragedies

The unplanned lessons of historical tragedies

by Elyette Levy September 8, 2020
The unplanned lessons of historical tragedies

“World War II started on a Sunday afternoon when I was on my way to the movies.” -Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Masks, social distancing and self-isolation have all become mundane, even exasperating words in our daily vocabularies. Nightly newscasts religiously report new positive cases and updated death tolls, the weather isn’t the main subject of small talk anymore, and even the smell of cheap alcohol from grocery store hand sanitizer is a bother we have become accustomed to.

Every day when I take the crowded metro home and come across a child no taller than my waist clad with an oversized face covering, I wonder what kind of world the coronavirus will create for them. The new generation is currently navigating through hyper-vigilant and germaphobic circumstances, and I doubt many will remember the days before daily STM cleanings — a frequency which most preferred to stay blind to.

The post-COVID world is going to be a lot more different than we anticipated, though. For one, the structure of the 9-5 job and mandatory class attendance has been shattered. We’ve suddenly been introduced to the unfamiliar idea that people can still be just as productive without the added stresses of day-to-day life, like long commutes and cramped cubicles. In another sense, this crisis has been a breakthrough in regards to our use of technology; new social rules have made many tools a necessity rather than a luxury. Contactless payment, online banking, smartphones, computers, working Wi-Fi connections, and, of course, Zoom, all became indispensable tools as we witnessed the exodus of in-person working, schooling, and shopping. The coronavirus has fast forwarded the world’s dependence on technology by years.

We use the hopeful phrase “once Corona is over” as if the pandemic hasn’t already changed our values, habits, and traditions. No one thought quarantine would last so long, that it would bring back the advent of hobby culture—most have reconnected with their affinity for hiking, knitting, reading, etc.—or that many would suddenly catch up on years of neglecting their New Year’s resolutions to be healthier. Having said that, the aggravation of substance addiction and the hike in cases of domestic abuse have also been distressing side-effects of self-isolation. But it seems that throughout generations, global tragedies have always changed the lives of ordinary people in unexpected ways.

Everyone from my generation either has (or knows someone who has) an extraordinary story about what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. My father was a firefighter. My fourth grade teacher turned on the TV to a live image of the Pentagon being hit. These stories transcend borders; the Earth kept turning, but the whole world stopped to remember what they were doing during the few seconds after the breaking news broadcasted.

Innumerable articles and research papers documenting the aftermath of 9/11 denote the sharp rise of Islamophobic ideas. With “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” as the Western world’s new favorite dictum, division and otherization became common defense mechanisms.

The union of the media and the image through the recent accessibility of television quickly made the Vietnam war an international concern. From the sight of a Vietnamese girl crying as she ran from a napalm attack, and from nightly broadcasts showing the true face of American liberty, erupted a global anti-war movement. With protests in Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Auckland, the public was slowly recognizing how technology could become a tool for connecting with our world. During 9/11, this same idea went even further as millions turned to the Internet to communicate with their loved ones, to find out about the newest updates, to share their thoughts and prayers. In the era of COVID, society can’t do without digital.

Nuclear power built a reputation for itself in 1986, when a faulty reactor in Chernobyl exploded, directly killing an estimated 30 to 50 people. Radiation became an entertaining comic book character backstory, but in the years following the disaster, just as we had seen after US troops left Vietnam, it also became a lesson not to mess with chemicals. This isn’t the scientific development we would’ve wished to see.

It’s not very uplifting to look back on atrocities that happened barely a century ago and that have left wounds still open today. But in the present, I think it can be grounding to think of history as something that happens to individual people, one day at a time. Maybe that’s just me.

I’m too young to remember the voice on the radio announcing terror attacks south of our border, but I can describe exactly what I was doing and where I was on the day I first heard of the “Wuhan virus.” History is made up of the stories we remember, and I hope that my memory can conjure up something positive, for a change—once Corona is over.


Photo Collage by Christine Beaudoin

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