Over the past few months our lives have taken a dramatic turn as vague concerns about the novel coronavirus shifted to the realization that we were facing a full-blown global pandemic. Our daily lives and routines have been greatly altered and the economy has been thrown into turmoil. Uncertainty seems like the only thing of which we can be certain.
A crisis can bring out the best in people, but sometimes it brings out the worst—especially when divisiveness is the primary characteristic of our national dialogue. Still I remain heartened by the great majority of Americans who have been guided, as Lincoln once appealed, by their “better angels.” We daily see this expression of solidarity in the neighbors and strangers who cooperate with federal guidance to stay home and keep physical distance in public places. We also see it in the countless acts of quiet heroism by the essential workers in emergency health care, grocery stores and food banks, public transportation systems, mail delivery, garbage pickup, and countless other systems and structures that are working to keep us connected and safe.
All this tells me that on the other side of this tunnel there is light. It can be a brighter light, however, if we consider that the lessons we are learning from this crisis are not new. The coronavirus just brings into sharper relief the desperate need for our country to build better science literacy, address systemic disparities, and cultivate our hope and humanity.
Perhaps by now, millions understand and appreciate why scientists use modeling to predict the rate of infection and what “flattening the curve” means. Or maybe people now understand more about how new vaccines are created and tested, and why it is important to take time to get them right so that they don’t do more harm than good. Science is an amazing tool in our public decision-making process. Going forward, we must work to ensure that science is better understood by the public and more widely used to inform policy decisions that affect us all.
Making sense of scientific information is critical to navigating this crisis. Yet we know there are disparities in science literacy among Americans. These disparities, like many others, are often linked to a lack of educational opportunities. This crisis has made educational and other systemic disparities much more obvious, and we see the horrible results in the higher rates of infection among people of color, lower-income workers, the homeless, and those with chronic health conditions. For many of us, “normal” wasn’t working before this crisis. What can we learn to fix these and other systemic disparities that threaten our common resilience?
Our resilience is fed by hope. In the online performances of choirs and poetry readings to the children’s rainbow drawings in household windows and drive-through galleries popping up across the country, we find connection and inspiration. These deeply human responses to this emergency feed our yearning for beauty and meaning—and fuel our compassion for each other. The arts brighten our dark days and affirm that, whatever emerges in a post-pandemic era, we will always have our better angels to help light the way to the new future we will shape together.