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Column: Life after coronavirus will never be the same? Let’s just see about that

Empty streets during coronavirus crisis
Are empty streets and sidewalks going to be a lasting reminder of coronavirus? Don’t count on that.
(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

I am no seer.

I cannot see around corners.

No one will ever mistake me for a visionary.

But I know that, despite the dire predictions we’re hearing, our lives will return to normal one day. Our children will return to their classrooms and to their playgrounds. Bars and restaurants will fill up again. Our retirement accounts will eventually recover. We will resume our invasion of one another’s personal space.

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Human nature is an immutable thing.

You say coronavirus will bring us together in the belated realization that all of humanity is inextricably linked? Yes, we’ll see some of that. But we’ll also see more people fighting over rolls of toilet paper and racists attacking people who look Asian. We humans are a complex species, capable of the very best behaviors and the very worst.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were sweeping prophecies about lasting social changes.

Time magazine’s Roger Rosenblatt penned a famous essay declaring an end to “the age of irony.

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“The good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed or taken seriously,” he wrote. “With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes — our columnists and pop culture makers — declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.”

That piece has been much mocked over the years. Irony after all, is not a fad. It is a coping strategy, a survival technique. When the most corrupt president in recent American history wins on a promise to “drain the swamp,” there is no question that irony is immortal.

As for the pop culture makers — the late-night TV hosts, for example — the irony is more lethal than ever. David Letterman’s frivolous “Top Ten” list has long since given way to the biting sensibility of “The Daily Show,” and its progeny: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

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Four years after 9/11, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina pulled back the curtain on an inept federal government’s devastating lack of emergency preparedness. After that shameful moment, it was said, everything was going to change — for the better.

“This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina,” promised then-President George W. Bush. “We are going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that would threaten our people.”

In 2008, we elected our first black president, an extraordinary achievement for a nation built on slavery. Many of us wanted to believe we’d turned the corner on our racist past, even that we had become a post-racial society. Instead, we got the election of Donald Trump, a man who describes white nationalists as “very fine people.

A single, momentous event can certainly nudge American culture, but the changes can be subtle and ease as time passes, rather than producing the kind of grand transformations so many are predicting today. (No more physical schoolrooms! No more business conferences!)

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Our behaviors may change dramatically for a time, but our natures will not.

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I turned to Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written about critical moments in U.S. history, including Hurricane Katrina, for thoughts about whether the coronavirus might change us in lasting ways, and if so, how.

He predicts we will become more “sanitation-minded.” People will probably continue to stockpile, he said as “a little bit of a survivalist mentality has struck the land.”

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The fact that the richest country in the world was caught flat-footed on the new coronavirus, however, is hard to fathom. “We are in the 21st century, and the tech age. It’s embarrassing.”

“The question I am not sure about,” he said, “is whether this is a one-off, 100-year event, or is a wave, due to planetary dislocation of the natural world and the destruction of ecosystems. Ask anybody who studies wildlife biology — you rip down ecosystems, and strange viruses will emerge frequently. Plagues will come.”

Brinkley is working on a book, “Silent Spring Revolution,” about presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and the 1960s environmental movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the clean air and water acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the cleanup of the Great Lakes and rivers. “The country galvanized for a decade — a blinking moment — and said we have to do better with the Earth.”

Whether there will be real, lasting changes from the coronavirus crisis depends a lot on the coming presidential election, he said. Brinkley hopes that a new president will take office, and that the U.S. will take on “the big problems” — climate change, pandemics and healthcare for all.

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No matter who wins the election, though, he believes there will be a bipartisan effort to fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and perhaps the Army Corps of Engineers will turn away from damming rivers toward building hospitals.

“We are not going to be caught short again without masks and gowns and ventilators,” he predicted.

But who knows how long those efforts, and those changes will last?

“Memories,” he said, “are very short.”


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