The coronavirus pandemic is a cruel teacher and we are its stubborn, unmotivated students. The pandemic taught us lessons; when we didn’t learn, it simply taught its lessons again. The virus itself has the simple aim of reproducing itself, but the disease interacts with our society in a way that highlights our glaring deficiencies. Its classroom is our bodies, its curriculum debilitation and death, its pedagogy our societal maladaptions – racism, poverty, income inequality, unequal healthcare and education. It will continue to teach its lessons until we learn them. 

In March 2020, we were taught a science lesson in basic epidemiology: to social distance for two weeks, then two months. We were taught that we need to wash our hands, then that to wear a mask in public. 

In April 2020, we were taught a history lesson as we learned about the flu pandemic of 1919, how that pandemic was and was not like the current one. 

In May 2020, we were taught an economics lesson: that our economic, healthcare, and education systems were woefully unprepared to handle a major disruption. 

In December 2020, we were taught a math lesson in probability: that vaccination doesn’t prevent all disease, but that it lessens the likelihood and severity of disease as many of us began getting vaccinated, although ultimately far too few of us made this choice. 

In August 2021, we were taught a literature lesson: that the story does not resolve at the pace that the protagonists want, but at the pace the story needs as the pandemic began to spike again after our summer reopening. 

Now, in January 2022, we are being taught a social studies lesson as we see the impacts of understaffing across many parts of our society. Retail store employees quit their jobs at record rates throughout last year. Restaurant workers were cast off by their bosses when the pandemic hit and many never went back. Teachers have largely stayed on the job thus far, but many schools are experiencing intense shortages with teachers and staff members out sick. Now, “about 20% of U.S. hospitals are reporting critical staffing shortages” due to illness from COVID

We have been taught each of these lessons numerous times at this point, in different ways. The government managed to pass several rounds of stimulus checks without any major shifts to our economic, healthcare, or education systems. The money was given to prop up the current system. So far, the current system limps along. The students are barely squeaking by.

We continue trying to return to the lives we left in February 2020. We want to go back to the way things were. We have been told that we can’t go back, but we haven’t really learned it. Even if we were not happy with how things were – even when we saw how the conditions undermined the well-being of ourselves and our communities – we are still trying to recreate what existed before COVID. 

We have had so many opportunities to learn what we need as a society: reliable healthcare for all people, basic guarantees of income and a livable minimum wage, fair and equitable education systems across our society, an electoral system that encourages participation rather than discouraging and preventing it, legal systems that are less necessary because we have funded social services but that are just when needed. And underpinning all of these, we need an alliance between poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans dedicated to the proposition that all of us benefit from fulfilling our collective needs. The wealthy want to keep the money they have hoarded by avoiding paying their fair share in taxes, and they want the incentives to continue to flow to their businesses – fossil fuels, manufacturing, retail. The rest of us need to come together across race – white, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern – across class – poor, working, middle – to make this society more just for the benefit of all of us, instead of for the benefit of wealthy elites. 

This is the core lesson of the pandemic. We can learn from this cruel teacher if we pay attention, collaborate, and recognize who really wants us to fail.

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