Seven lessons from the pandemic

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Photo: University of Bergen
Espen Gamlund is professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen. His work is primarily in ethics, moral, and political philosophy. He is particularly interested in applied ethics. He is working on a project that investigates the relevance of the impact of death on health priorities.

Bergen, Norway

“We should carry the experiences along with us until the next crisis is imminent. It’s not certain it’ll be that long before then.”

There are some dates that simply stick in your consciousness. They are often associated with tragic or negative events. For example, no one reading this will forget July 22, 2011.

Without any comparison otherwise, March 12, 2020, will also have a place in people’s minds as an important and dramatic event in Norwegian history. It was the day the government introduced the strictest measures in Norway since World War II.

In a year and a half, the lives of many of us have changed radically. Although vaccination efforts are in full swing and most people will have soon received two doses, the virus is currently leading in the race against the vaccine. The numbers of infections are skyrocketing again, and the fourth wave is washing over us.

When the pandemic one day ends, will we have learned anything from the new experiences it has brought us? Here are seven lessons I hope we will take with us after the pandemic.

1. Adaptability

In a short time, our lives were turned upside down. The normal became abnormal, and the abnormal quickly became normal: quarantines, hand sanitizer in our stores, the 1-meter (3 foot) rule, face mask regulations. In a short time, everyday life took on a new social framework, with some major restrictions on who we could meet, as well as where and how we should interact with each other.

Kindergartens and schools were closed. Many had to combine a home office with homeschooling or childcare. Just as many were laid off. Cultural life shut down.

But in the end, all these changes have gone surprisingly well. The pandemic has confirmed what we knew before: we humans are able to adapt when we have to.

2. Living with insecurity

To put it mildly, the pandemic has been unpredictable. Infection rates and subsequent infection control measures have constantly changed. What rules apply this week? Do we have to cancel the seminar? Can we celebrate Christmas with our families? Can we travel to the cabin? Planning has become an exercise in living with uncertainty, but we have become quite good at it.

Maybe life with uncertainty has made us cope better with disappointments? In that case, it’s good news. At the same time, there is a danger that in the future that we will not allow ourselves to have hopes and expectations for fear of being disappointed. We cannot let that happen.

3. The pandemic affects us all differently

The pandemic has changed the lives of most of us. But we are not all in the same boat. Disadvantaged socioeconomic groups have had to endure the heaviest burdens, such as lost earnings, deteriorating physical and mental health, and higher mortality.

The measures in policy taken to stop the spread of the virus, such as lockdowns, have also helped to increase inequality.

The learning potential is great when it comes to preventing future pandemics from increasing social and economic inequalities throughout the population.

4. The value of life and death

“How much is your life worth?” Most people will answer that it is impossible to answer that question. No life is worth more than any other, neither financially nor ethically. But the pandemic has proved to be an ethical and economic minefield. We shut down society to prevent disease and death. But shutdowns also have their costs.

The infection control measures have saved many lives, but they have probably also taken lives. How much should society be willing to pay to prevent illness and death among the most vulnerable?

Who should be prioritized in the distribution of the burdens that the pandemic brings? Who should get vaccinated first? Who has the most to lose by dying? These questions have no simple answers, but they do require us to consider the value of avoiding illness and death. We won’t be able to avoid doing that in the future.

5. Mental health must be taken seriously

The rationale for the sometimes very strict and intrusive infection control measures has been to protect the most vulnerable groups in society against illness and death. Yet studies and statistics strongly suggest that there are population groups who have experienced deteriorating mental health during the pandemic, partly as a result of the strict measures.

This includes children and young people, students, and others who were already struggling mentally when the pandemic hit us. It is too early to say anything concrete about the long-term consequences the pandemic will have for the overall population’s psyche. But we know enough to realize that we should strengthen our focus on mental health.

6. Accepting the use of coercion

A mainstay of our liberal society is that the authorities, as far as possible, should bestow people the freedom to live as they wish. This freedom has been put to the test during the pandemic, as we have been subject to restrictions and regulations that intrude deeply into the private sphere.

Under normal circumstances, we would never have accepted such intrusive measures. But it has turned out that we can accept coercion if we see that it will bring us out of the crisis. This says something positive about the trust we have in those who govern our country.

The challenge is for the authorities not to exploit and abuse that trust in a way that impairs it.

Coercion may also be necessary to resolve the next crisis; then we will need all the confidence we can get.

7. Global threats must be addressed through global cooperation

On March 11, 2020, the coronavirus was given the status of a pandemic by the World Health Organization. It sent an important signal to all countries in the world to take the situation seriously and to work together to find good solutions. Even though Norway has the pandemic under control, it does not help much if Sweden, Belgium, or Ethiopia do not have control of it.

If each country thinks only about itself, the pandemic will not end. We have developed vaccines against COVID-19 in record time. This would not have been possible without a formidable international collaboration. At the same time, globally, there is a skewed distribution of vaccines, which indicates that many countries think first and foremost about themselves. But the pandemic will not be over until all countries have access to vaccines.

Even if we would have preferred not to have the pandemic, we can be grateful for the experiences and lessons it has given us. We should carry them along with us until the next crisis is imminent. It’s not certain that it will be that long before then.

First published Aug. 28, 2021, in Bergens Tidende and published with permission from the author. Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.