COVID-19 has turned the world upside down in large and small ways. Thankfully, for the majority of us it has not been the end of the world—it has meant shelter in place, practice good social distancing, keep healthy, keep safe, keep sane. Unfortunately, for some of us it is the end of our world, maybe metaphorically, maybe literally.
At the risk of being overdramatic, the worldwide and pervasive nature of this global pandemic can seem like a mild Apocalypse—I rate it one, maybe one-and-a-half horsemen.
But in another sense, it is very much an Apocalpyse, one that we should think about as we move through this and forward into the future.
The word “Apocalypse” comes from the Ancient Greek: “apokálupsis.” But that word in Greek doesn’t mean “end of the world” or “mass destruction”. It means “an uncovering,” “an unveiling,” or, quite literally, “a revelation.” That is why the final book of the Christian Bible can either be called “Revelation” or “Apocalypse.” It’s called Revelation not because it was revealed to John of Padmos (its writer), or even by John of Padmos, but that it describes how John sees God revealing the ultimate truth of creation.
And so, loaded in Christian eschatology (meaning, their mythology and philosophy about death and the end of the world), is a sense that the End Times—as outlined in the book of Revelation—are not a closing of the book so much as a ripping off of its cover. It tears away the things that don’t matter, or the illusions about the world that we hold, and all that remains are the things that are fundamentally true.
I’m not a Christian, and I certainly don’t believe that the world will come to an end in anything like what John described. But in our current moment of disruption, it is useful to think of this as an unveiling of some of the noxious truths that lay hidden just below the surface of our society.
For example, despite the heroic efforts of our healthcare workers in the United States and around the world, it is very clear how fundamentally ill-prepared our system in the United States is for dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. Without minimizing the anguish that the death toll of this disease will create, we are fortunate that COVID is not even more virulent, and even more deadly.
Our little Apocalypse has also shown just how important our health care workers are, and how undervalued and overworked many of them regularly are. This is true of nurses pulling long shifts in hospitals, but doubly so for those who work in our too-few free clinics, our nursing homes, and as home health care workers. They deserve to be paid and treated far better than they are.
It has also shown us who in our society performs a truly essential function, and who does not. The NBA is great, but they were among the first (rightfully) to shut down—especially after Rudy Gobert decided to touch every microphone and recorder at a press conference. (He tested positive for COVID-19 soon after). However our grocery store clerks, garbage removers, delivery drivers, farmers, and many more keep the supply lines that are the lifeblood of our society working.
And as many parents across the country will tell you right now, teachers are far more essential than they have been treated in our society. Parents working from home across the country are discovering how difficult that job really is, and how difficult it is to focus on their work when the kids are at home. In a March 18th episode of “The Tonight Show: At Home Edition” Jimmy Fallon asked Lin-Manuel Miranda whether he was getting a lot of work done at home. His answer probably resonates with many: “I’m not getting work done, I’m learning how to teach math!”
Our little Apocalypse also lays bare the cruelties of the inequalities in our society. Being cooped up in a 4 bedroom house is no picnic, but imagine being quarantined as a family in a one-bedroom apartment, or alone in a tiny studio. It also gives all of us just a shred of a taste of what it is like to be imprisoned, and how harmful imprisonment can be on your mind. Much as we may hate being trapped in our finely gilded cages, those we incarcerate deal daily with far worse. And if ever there was any doubt whether solitary confinement was akin to torture, there should be no doubt now.
And for better and for worse, this little Apocalypse may reveal a bit more about who we really are, and about our relationships with those around us. On the one hand, Chinese officials have said that the coronavirus epidemic (and the citywide lockdown) have driven divorce rates up. Stories across the United States have shown how in a time of crisis, some can become incredibly cruel—like the Tennessee man who hoarded hand sanitizer and other supplies at the beginning of the crisis for the express purpose of price-gouging on Amazon and Ebay. And it shows how we all can go a little bit crazy, as the panic-buying of toilet paper (for no discernable reason) has shown.
But it also has shown how we can be resilient, creative, and giving even in the midst of a crisis. Artists, musicians, chefs, and many others have shared their talents on balconies, on Youtube, and on the streets in order to make life just a little better for everyone. It shows how, when faced with disaster, our society falls together just as much as it falls apart.
The question becomes: what now? In three, six, or twelve months when this blows over, we will be tempted to just pull the cover back over our world and push for a return to “normal”. But as this little Apocalypse has shown, normal just won’t do. We need to make our society fairer and better—both so the inevitable next Apocalypse is easier to weather than this one, but also to show how we have learned from what we saw when COVID-19 pulled back the curtain.