This is not a piece about New Year’s resolutions. It seems too raw and unpredictable a moment for that. Consider, for a moment, from where and what we are emerging. It is now being described by experts as a lost year. “In a way, Covid-19 behaved like a thief, stealing precious time that may be lost forever,” writes NBC Health reporters Daniel Arkin, Caitlin Fichtel and Shamar Walters in a year-end summary report. A year that seems as if it was played out to the swaying pendulum of a grandfather clock, shifting relentlessly back and forth from moments of fear to frustration to gratitude to grief.
After nearly a year of lockdowns, restrictions and social distancing, the rollout of vaccines around the world signals the start of what The New York Times describes as “a hopeful chapter” where imagining an “after time” now seems possible. Yet we are, in the words of NBC, still “stuck in time,” in a coronavirus pandemic that is far from over. With so many people still hurting, and the fact that any of us could be the next to fall, maybe it is a time to look at resolutions in a different way. Maybe it is a time less fitting for a resolution than for a reevaluation.
“For the coming year, I will refocus my resolutions more on how I can be a better neighbor, citizen and contributor to society,” writes Andrea K. McDaniels of The Baltimore Sun in a commentary on a new way of looking at New Year’s resolutions. “Less on me and more on others.”
What I was recently reminded of is that the year behind us — 2020 — was a year filled with change, much of it in the service of others. According to an Associated Press and Kaiser Health Network report, as the coronavirus has swept through the country, “Public health programs in the United States have seen a surge in enrollment … (as) a new generation is entering the field.” As reported by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, there has been a 20% increase in applications to master’s in public health programs. At Florida International University’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, new student enrollments in its master’s in public health program grew 63% from the previous year.
Many public health students are already working in various locations on the frontlines of the nation’s pandemic response. They entered a field at a time of serious challenges. Even before the pandemic “exposed the strains on the underfunded patchwork of state and local public health departments … per capita spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16%, and for local health departments by 18%. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession,” says the report.
Emilie Saksvig, 23, was supposed to start working this year as a Peace Corps volunteer. The pandemic forced her to cancel those plans. She decided instead to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Emory University. “The pandemic has made it so that it is apparent that the United States needs a lot of help, too,” she says. “It changed the direction of where I wanted to go.”
As Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, who leads the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, recently explained to Time magazine, “Reevaluation is a common reaction to sudden, strange stillness like that brought on by the pandemic.” “Quarantine also creates a perfect storm for making big decisions,” says Jacqueline Gollan, a psychiatry professor who specializes on decision-making at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “With our previous lifestyles already uprooted, it feels easier than ever to plant new ones,” writes Time magazine’s Jamie Ducharme.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that significant changes in the way we live, work and relate occurred during the chaos of 2020. It showed that, as of June, 22% of American adults had either moved because of the pandemic or knew someone who did. The trend has continued into the fall. An estimated 20% more houses sold in November 2020 compared with November 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“Right now, the dominant trend seems to be change itself,” writes Ducharme. “The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have spurred a collective reckoning with our values, lifestyles and goals — a national existential crisis of sorts.”
“Coronavirus has also reminded people of their own mortality,” says Gollan. “People are realizing that life is short, and they’re reprioritizing.”
While it will admittedly take years for researchers to fully understand the effect coronavirus had on us, Time reports that the Pew study found that 86% of U.S. adults “thought there were lesson(s) humankind should learn from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The pandemic has kickstarted a genuinely valuable process of reevaluation,” concludes Ducharme. It has created “a disruption so jarring it forces introspection.”
In using a phrase from the Bible, maybe a good place to start is by examining and probing our ways.