Health

The pandemic brought seismic changes. They changed with it

Today Finazzo, 35, is in his first semester at
Ohio State University. He is getting his second bachelor’s degree, this one in
microbiology, hoping to become a research scientist — like the people striving
to create a vaccine he watched and read about as he sat on his couch in the
pandemic’s earliest, darkest days.

“When I saw footage of hospital tents being
erected in Central Park, it was like, ‘Wow, life is fragile and precious,’ ”
Finazzo said, referring to the field hospitals New York City mustered in the
spring of 2020. “‘I should probably do something to help out besides make a
delicious poison that we like to drink.’ ”

The virus’s toll cannot be overstated: It has
stolen over 800,000 American lives, and millions globally. Efforts to thwart it
have swept away livelihoods, altered childhoods, and left lasting emotional
tolls. At the start of yet another year of COVID-19 in our midst, its latest
variant rising, there is for many a sense of familiar foreboding.

But all along, in the valley of the shadow of
the virus, there has been remarkable resilience. It can be seen in the
lightning-fast creation of vaccines that have largely defanged COVID-19, and in
recent findings that the methods used now may show promise in the fight against
HIV and AIDS. It is in every pivot made by a canny entrepreneur that saved a
business, and each government agency that pushed innovative change during
chaotic times.

And it is in individuals, like Finazzo, who in
the face of seismic societal shifts have not shattered, but shifted, too.

“The experience of the pandemic has shown we
are more resilient than conventional wisdom would suggest,” said George A.
Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Teachers
College and author of “The End of Trauma,” a book about the psychology of human
resilience.

And while many continue to grapple with grief
and trauma, the key to resilient outcomes in the face of disaster is threefold,
Bonanno said: First, distill exactly what is causing distress, then come up
with a possible solution. Finally, remain flexible to find a new remedy if that
doesn’t work.

“I see time and time again that people are
resilient,” he said. “The pandemic has shown this in spades.”

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In the field of medicine, the onslaught of the
sick stretched thin hospitals and burned out many medical professionals. But it
has also revolutionized some parts of the field, said Dr Rita A Manfredi, a
clinical professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and
Health Sciences and a co-author of “The Silver Linings of COVID-19: Uplifting
Effects of the Pandemic” in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine.

One example: Telemedicine, which officials
greatly expanded permissions for during the pandemic, made getting care easier
for many people, Manfredi said. It is likely here to stay.

“In any big tragedy, there is always a
positive side,” Manfredi said. “The negative side is obvious, but there is
always a positive side.”

The coronavirus vaccine itself, made under
wartime conditions, may go on to fight other intractable diseases: A study
published in December successfully used the same mRNA technology used by the
coronavirus vaccine to reduce the infection risk of an HIV-like virus in rhesus
macaques — perhaps a glimmer of hope in the fight against AIDS.

“This is a promising new finding,” Dr Anthony
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases and co-author of the study, said in an interview.

“We are infinitely better off now than we were
in 2020,” Fauci continued. “If this were 2020 and we had this kind of a surge
of omicron superimposed upon a delta surge we would likely have had to shut
down the entire country, because we would have no other tools to prevent the
spread. Now, we feel we can continue to function as a society.”

He added: “Things will get better. It is not
going to go on forever.”

For some people with disabilities, cultural
shifts the pandemic forced, like flexible and remote work — for which they long
advocated — have already improved their lives: The employment rate for disabled
people is currently at a record high, although still profoundly below that of
people without disabilities, according to the nonprofit Kessler Foundation,
which tracks data that relates to people with disabilities.

For Jon Novick, who has achondroplastic
dwarfism, office settings can be burdensome. Novick, 30, said his small stature
is not accommodated by standard-issue chairs and desks. Because of his physique,
he must get business-professional attire customised, often at an extra expense.
In the fall, he got a new job at a Manhattan-based creative agency in New York
City, but is able to work from his apartment in Astoria, Queens.

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“I am living in a world that is not quite
built for me,” Novick said. “My perfect office is my home.”

The benefit comes alongside frustration for
many disabled people like him, that it took a pandemic to make something their
community has long pushed for — and was frequently denied — into a norm.

“People with disabilities can contribute so
much to the workforce; we can contribute even more when the playing field is
level,” Novick said.

Changed habits forced entire metropolises to
change: To give residents of hard-hit New York City space to mingle at a social
distance, in May 2020 the city’s Department of Transportation began temporarily
closing streets to cars at more than 250 locations. The program has faced
criticism that the street closures create traffic and take away parking spaces.
But for many, the open streets, as they are known, were a welcome new use for
the city’s thousands of miles of pavement when they were cooped up at home. The
program is now permanent.

On 120th Street in Harlem, Tressi Colon, a
retired New York Police Department sergeant, helps oversee programming on the
open street that includes al fresco community suppers and free lectures from
neighbors who work in academia on topics like gentrification. “We were
intentional that in the midst of this pandemic that something good will come
out of it,” Colon said. “That was the key.”

Across many industries, necessity forced norms
to change, often for the better. In the fashion world, where resale was once a
synonym for used or unwanted clothing and unsold merchandise sometimes burned,
the clogging of supply chains and growing conversation around sustainability
caused some designers to reuse fabrics long abandoned on storeroom shelves.

Burberry, for example, which before the
pandemic got in trouble when it was revealed in 2018 that it incinerated
approximately $37 million of unsold product, has now partnered with a luxury
rental and resale platform to put its stamp of approval on older garments and
accessories sourced from customers, rather than lose them to the secondhand
market or let them be thrown away. For her spring 2022 collection, French
designer Marine Serre, a champion of upcycling, made old tabletop linens,
toweling and even cutlery into neat suiting and jewelry that was one of the
hits of Paris Fashion Week.

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Book sales rose during the pandemic’s first
year of lockdown, but today, even with schools open and more options for
entertainment, reading habits seem to have stuck: From January to November
2021, sales of consumer books increased 13% over the same period the year
before, according to the Association of American Publishers. At least 172 new
independent bookstores opened in 2021, the American Booksellers Association
said.

When Jason Innocent was furloughed from his
job as a restaurant kitchen manager, he began to read for pleasure for the
first time in his adult life, powering through “1984,” “Macbeth,” “A Raisin in
the Sun” and more. Now back at work, he kept the habit — plus practicing new
words he reads. A few days before the new year, Innocent, 26, stood in a line
in downtown Manhattan waiting for a coronavirus test, studying vocabulary.

“A lot of people, the pandemic made them
upset, but I took a bad situation and turned it into a positive,” Innocent
said, flicking through his vocabulary list. “Even if another shutdown happened,
I’m going to find a way to survive.”

After watching a television segment on new
technology to sterilise N95 masks to combat a national shortage, Finazzo, the
former brewery worker, applied for a job with the company. The satisfaction of
helping out cemented his growing interest in a career in science.

“I was thinking to myself: Would I want to go
and tell my kids or grandkids that I survived the COVID pandemic of 2020 by
sitting alone in my apartment getting drunk?” Finazzo said. “Or did I want to
go and utilize this opportunity to be able to help people?”

 

©2021 The New York Times Company

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