This was the year the world grew sick. More than 320,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, the virus still is surging, and pandemic-induced changes have tossed normalcy to the wind.

How we go to school, work, interact, talk, touch — none of it's the same. An elbow bump equals a hug. To be civil is to be distant. Strangers wandering closer than 6 feet often receive a death stare from the offended party.

Shutdowns and restrictions shuttered businesses, killed jobs, and exacerbated economic disparity. Nursing home residents died in alarming numbers. And front-line workers put their lives on the line to do their jobs — help keep people alive. 

Along the way, separation and worry emerged, but so, too, has improvisation and appreciation.

While the pandemic is fueling despair  — a study published in September by the American Medical Association showed a greater than three-fold increase in depression among adults — it also has sparked hope, personal reflection and societal reckonings.

Whether the experience will fundamentally transform us in the future – long after immunity for the masses arrives – remains to be seen.

Here are thoughts from Merrimack Valley college professors, across disciplines, on what the future might hold:

The strange beginning

Sheila Pierre remembers when the pandemic landed in March.

The Northern Essex Community College sociology teacher was driving to work and received a call from the school saying all classes would be remote.

Throughout the year, many of her students — though young and skilled users of technology — have been struggling mightily with isolation and the virtual school culture.

"I have sat through tears and everything," she said, reflecting on her virtual office hours.

In short, the year of distancing and lockdowns has increased anxiety and depression in a wide swath of the population, not just among students, but non-students, too, young and older alike.

A silver lining might be a greater sensitivity about mental illness, reducing the stigma around it when we emerge from the pandemic, she said.

We are going to be different, said Pierre, who has a doctorate in sociology from the University of Connecticut. Most especially in the way we interact.

She believes people will be more appreciative of having others near, and that they will be more strategic in how they plan their lives.

The changed workplace

Women have seen gains in the workplace diminished to 1980 levels during the past year, says Beth Humberd of Andover, a UMass Lowell management professor who studies family and work. The women's labor force participation rate has dropped to a level last seen in 1988.

One in four women thought about leaving their job or cutting hours in the course of the crisis. In September, 865,000 women voluntarily left the workforce or were laid off, compared to 216,000 men, she said.

The driving forces behind this dynamic primarily are lack of daycare, the need to stay home with children who are remote learning, and that the pandemic has disproportionately hurt lower-wage sectors in which women tend to be employed — retail, restaurants, the hospitality industry, and support staff in schools. This also means existing inequities have intensified for black and Hispanic women.

Still, managers have witnessed how remote and flexible work schedules have succeeded during the pandemic, which could lead to more flexibility and fairness for women juggling family and work responsibilities in the post-pandemic world.

The traditional view of the worker ensconced in a cubicle from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. being the best worker might not hold true in the future.

"My hope and prediction is that we will break free of these norms," said Humberd, who is the mother of a 6- and 9-year-old.

The historical perspective

Stephen Russell, who teaches history at Northern Essex Community College, thinks we will, in the years to come, pretty much go back to the way were as a society pre-pandemic.

He thinks the changes will be small — not momentous. Certainly not on the par with the shift from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era after the Black Plague, which killed half the population in Europe.

"I think we will not go to the office as much, and people might be better equipped to work from home, and might travel less," he said.

Russell, who has a doctorate in history from the University of Connecticut, isn't sure the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 changed Americans that much. The influenza claimed millions of lives worldwide and 650,000 in the United States but was overshadowed by World War I.

As an aside, Russell recalled an anecdote about the 1918 flu pandemic passed to him from his grandmother, who was alive and living in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the time. 

This was the era of prohibition, but people acquired their alcohol – thought to have medicinal properties – on the sly from a rural part of Manchester.

Russell's grandmother, Aniela Jedrysik, told her daughter, Stella Russell, that those who went to the hospital died and those who relied on moonshine lived.

The optimistic possibilities

Elizabeth Casanave, who teaches philosophy at Northern Essex and is a public speaker on the topic of happiness, has continued to give presentations via Zoom.

The time people have spent at home, while sometimes forced, has allowed them more time to bond with their families.

She recently ran into a family that hosted an unconventional decathlon, including a scooter race, cookie baking and board games.

The time has also offered many an opportunity to reflect on what is important to them.

"Will we return to normal? I believe we will, but hopefully, we will take with us the lessons we’ve learned, including a profound appreciation for all the front-line workers, teachers and various other workers who have sacrificed so much to help others; a sense of community that has come from us all realizing that we are in this together; and a gratitude for the small things," she said. 

"We will once more be able to experience things like going out to dinner with friends, seeing each other’s smiles and sharing hugs."

The lessons in inequality

Professor Stephen Slaner, who teaches history and government classes at Northern Essex, says for all the changes, the government response has been largely a non-response.

Slaner said what's needed is more empathy and solidarity. 

He quoted from a Nov. 26 opinion piece in the New York Times by Pope Francis, "A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts."  The article proposes the idea that catastrophe also provides an opportunity for real change.

"We need economies that give to all access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: to land, lodging and labor," the Pope wrote.

"We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that affect their lives. We need to slow down, take stock and design better ways of living together on this earth." 

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