You Think This Is Bad?

What the Pandemic Tells About Our Future

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

It has been a long 18+ months in the United States. We were hit hard and fast, we took too long to catch up, and now we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. We put all our proverbial eggs in the vaccine basket, but we didn’t consider that so many of our fellow citizens would just flat-out refuse to take it. So, a third wave has crested over us, and we still don’t have it fully under control. There is a big lesson in all of this that is foreshadowing for upcoming crises: science is great, but we have to also understand the social science behind human behavior.

The social sciences are often an overlooked field; for so many, there is one elective class that they have to get through in the core curriculum. Many science students are really annoyed by the requirement. By the time they get to a doctoral or medical program, those classes have really fallen by the wayside. It’s a shame because there is much to learn that isn’t taught in a lab.

For example, there were huge hurdles during the pandemic that had nothing to do with figuring out the virus. We vastly underestimated a myriad of human issues like poverty, inequality, mistrust of the government, anger, lack of healthcare access, lack of affordable housing, and so on. These issues impact our responses in ways that we not always recognize. For example, if someone doesn’t have reliable transportation, it could be really challenging to get them a second vaccine dose. These things that seem minor can really impact our public health outcomes. We are connected as humans, but we are sold the “look out for #1” mentality in the United States. It’s why our pandemic response has been so disjointed.

If we cannot work together to solve a pandemic, how can we possibly expect to solve major problems that are already emerging? Floods, drought, fires, intense storms. This is just the beginning of what climate change will do to us. And we are not prepared.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean scientifically prepared, although I imagine we aren’t fully prepped in that area either. I am far more concerned about the social scientific problems we haven’t solved. If the pandemic showed us anything, it’s that poverty is a huge, structural, systemic issue in our country. Our infrastructure is critical, and we’ve gutted and neglected it for decades. Our systems are not ready. We are not ready. What happens to our already broken healthcare system? Our slow and lackluster emergency responses? We can’t even agree to fund our own government right now. How will Congress possibly address this challenge when half of them see it as an overreaction?

We have to prepare our systems to handle this. It is critical for us to remember that we are not just a big collection of individuals. We depend on social structure and social systems to get through our lives. However, we don’t give those things the credit they deserve for making our lives run smoothly. It’s only when there is catastrophic loss that we reflect. It’s why all of our dystopian entertainment shows society broken and dysfunctional. All of the structure is gone.

I’m hopeful that we will do some reflection when the pandemic is finally behind us. Our public health funding is inadequate. We must address our healthcare system because it is a patchwork of bad choices for so many. It’s critical to figure out our housing shortages and our increasingly alarming poverty rate. We have to fund our infrastructure if we expect it to withstand so many hits.

After all, those systems and so many others will be necessary when our climate becomes more unforgiving. If we’ve shown anything, it’s that we aren’t ready to invest until it’s right on top of us. By then, it could be too late.



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