The Pandemic’s Silver Linings Playbook

The dark clouds of the current crisis come with some important positives.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

This blog was authored by Dr. Joe Michalski, professor of sociology at King's University College

Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease epidemiologist, recently reminded us of COVID-19's seriousness and offered practical advice about quelling its spread. The pandemic demands a swift, comprehensive response. As Dr. Landon noted, sacrifices must be made that include measures such as sheltering in place to limit residents from non-essential travel:

"A successful shelter in place means that you will feel like it was all for nothing. And you would be right. Because 'nothing' means that nothing happened to your family, and that's what we are going for here."

The various interventions designed to reduce the spread of infections are known as "transmission reduction" and "physical distancing" measures. These include everything from such basic practices as vigorous handwashing and not sharing cutlery to full-blown quarantines. The decision to self-isolate when one is ill for at least 2-3 weeks remains the single best "anti-viral" medicine for everyone. That will slow the spread of COVID-19 while buying time to develop vaccines, implement additional public health measures, and ensure the health care system can manage new cases effectively.

The epidemiologist's powerful message has prompted some sober reflection: Are there any positive aspects of a pandemic? Yes, remarkably, there are some potential benefits. And they can be genuinely transformative. 

We learned when we were quite young of the "silver linings" that surround every cloud. These pandemic clouds have coalesced into a "perfect storm" of sorts: the continuing health risks involved, the mounting toll on human life, and an economic calamity unmatched in our lifetimes. Yet despite the health and economic problems that pandemics create, there are "silver linings" we should remember.

To see these benefits requires what psychologists call a cognitive "reframe," which means learning how to look at a situation in new ways. That is what I am suggesting we do here, at least in part, as we deal with the gathering clouds.

Among the many potentially personal and societal benefits worth noting, here are four of each:

Personal Benefits

1. Books and blogs: There are far too many great books to read, intelligent discussions to digest, and even great movies to watch while at home. Sign up for The Great Courses online. I remind my university students of the privilege they enjoy simply because their "job" demands that they read, reflect, and write for a few hours each day. You can do the same. There's far too much to be learned, and as you may recall from "The Lion King," "There's more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done."

2. Rediscovering talents: Not only can you consume others' works, but you have your own creative capacities. What songs and poems have you been meaning to write? What paintings or drawings might you sketch? Alternatively, what repairs need to be done, or shelves need to be built, or outlets need to be installed? Everyone has special talents, even if they've been dormant for years. Reawaken your own creative potential and unleash your creative genius!

3. Reconnecting: Everyone spends at least some time already in the company of friends and family. Perhaps, some might argue, too much time! But the time normally spent with our loved ones often feels constrained by the pressures of our everyday lives and hectic schedules. Our defenses are already on high alert; we need a vacation. Imagine, instead, actually having more free time. When framed this way, perhaps you can use this time to reconnect with your "best" self and with others.

4. Exercising: We have long understood the benefits of exercising, but our conventional lifestyles often impinge on our opportunities. Now a great many people are rediscovering the joys of taking walks, riding bicycles, shooting baskets in front of one's house, or taking shots on net while rollerblading. Saving perhaps two hours per day through reduced commuting means less stress and more time for exercise—a classic win-win scenario.

Societal Benefits

1. Pollution reduction: The pandemic has created a natural experiment that has already produced compelling evidence. The waters of Venice's canals have cleared dramatically, while the pollutants above China's most congested cities have decreased. We obviously cannot simply shut down the economy permanently, but the sanctions on travel and business have had an immediate environmental impact. We have learned we are not helpless to combat global problems if we commit en masse to certain changes. Mother Earth is incredibly resilient. And so are we.

2. Rethinking work: We have an opportunity to reconsider our work habits, including many jobs that currently involve commuting. Much can be changed, both for the benefit of the environment and our personal well-being. We can work from home more, communicate virtually, and conference through Zoom. Imagine shifting our work habits to rebuild our economies and lifestyles in a greener direction.

3. Slowing down and connecting: Perhaps we might slow down to get to know each other further or lend a hand to people we thought were strangers. Besides, scientific research has long demonstrated that we reap tremendous psychological and health benefits from helping others and creating more supportive communities. We are in this together, and if we come together and connect as we face it, the advantages might be great.

4. A global reset: Perhaps the greatest "gift" the pandemic offers is a reset button for humanity. People are realizing that our seemingly innocuous actions directly impact each other. Individual liberties are foundational, but somehow even conservative politicians are now proposing versions of universal health care and universal basic income to help the vulnerable and vast majority of the population adversely affected.

In short, the pandemic clearly brings with it some dark clouds. However, it also has created the necessity for change, a change that many of us probably have already sensed was necessary. I hope that the pandemic reminds us of our common humanity and our precarious place in the Earth's grand experiment, and it helps us to realize that we have time to readjust our personal habits and alter our institutional arrangements.

The classic song by Spirit in 1970 reminded us: "It's nature's way of receiving you. It's nature's way of retrieving you. It's nature's way of telling you something's wrong."

A half-century later, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us "something's wrong"—but simultaneously has created a remarkable sense of clarity in our vision. Why not use our newfound knowledge and wisdom to proactively and collectively solve some of our most stubborn problems?

Finally, for a poetic expression of these sentiments, see here.

Excelsior!