Story by| Logan Ye, Contributing Writer
Writing anything original about the COVID-19 epidemic is almost as tough as trying not to catch it. Repercussions upon every nook and slice of human experience have been analyzed and foretold. With the sheer number of people stuck at home, a writer faces both the boon of a large captive audience, yet must also confront the deluge of content produced by the same masses now presented with an unprecedented amount of time to create. Luckily, from a cursory glance at social media and an inspection of the goods missing on department store shelves and online catalogues, a large fraction of that time and energy has seemingly been put into cooking and exercise. However, for every person who has decided to spend this newfound time at home on some kind of self-improvement or creation, there is also somebody who has embraced the opposite, binging Netflix shows or video games and consuming vast amounts of food and drink. I’d like to think I’ve managed to achieve an impressive degree of both.
For those of us with the privilege of being able to work from home or generally shelter in place, we face a seemingly everlasting tension. On your left is the self-improvement speaker-coach-mentor telling you to look on the bright side of things, and take COVID-19 as an opportunity to learn a new skill or get in better shape. On your right is the gentle and understanding voice that tells you that you have enough to deal with on your plate, and to take that nap, eat that dessert, or call that friend. I don’t mean to pass judgement on either choice. Instead, I only want to remark that the latter is likely the default for many of us. When the full magnitude of COVID-19’s effects on my daily life became apparent — that my days would be confined to my dorm room and occasional expeditions for food — it was far easier to convince myself to play video games or watch an episode of Breaking Bad (yes, I am very late). It was tempting to treat this almost as a force of nature, with all the stress of finishing my senior year and graduating in a foreign country amidst COVID-19, I could easily chalk this all up to a very reasonable reaction to these testing times.
I’m sure that had I renounced my will to work, and spent the next few months doing what could only be described as chilling, I’m sure no one would be surprised nor disappointed. However, I know that once COVID-19 begins to recede, I will feel some level of guilt in having failed to delay gratification and having chosen to be lazy. The likely justification I would then conjure being that I had no real choice, what else was I supposed to do during the most dramatic downturn in recent human history? This would be lying. Caused by the mother of all forces of nature, yes. The deterministic outcome of this reality, no.
Parallel to this future individual fib lies a present societal fiction. COVID-19 has exposed a vast and deep lie surrounding the fundamental pillars of our personal lives and the institutional structure of society. Far more people can perform their job adequately (if not better) from home, the four-year undergraduate university education model is fundamentally a social luxury first and a mode of education second (Yale-NUS College being a prime example), and the list goes on. Notably, COVID-19 has proven that when push comes to shove, we are capable of living radically different lives, if admittedly unideal.
We are confronted with the reality that many of humanity’s greatest challenges are a fiction. Having thrown vast amounts of money, and spending endless time, energy, and (Earth’s) resources trying to combat societal problems, COVID-19 has shown that many of these problems are not problems of scarcity that require the solution of production or rationing. They are problems of sheer societal convention, stubbornness, and inaction. A majority of business-related travel is unnecessary as firms around the world have found their costs dramatically reduced by moving to video conferencing. Traffic congestion and overflowing public transit is only an issue if we have everyone commuting needlessly at the same time every workday. In general, we need far less than we think to live reasonable lives. Despite the fact that many haven chosen to engage in destructive ways of coping with this new reality such as excessive Amazon shopping, we should keep in mind that the reduction in consumption due to COVID-19 gives us a test of how humanity is able to behave in one particular dimension. This is pertinent in a time of heightened environmental awareness and anxiety, with consumption tied directly to the degradation or use of the environment.
Undoubtedly, the negative effects of COVID-19 are profound, but when the storm eventually recedes, we have to challenge ourselves to reject a return to business as usual. In fact, we can rejoice in all the renewed freedoms of (perhaps limited) social interaction and lessened strain on our medical systems. However, along with these positives, there will be a temptation to bring back the state of yesteryear, but for the sake of humanity itself, we have to resist it. Businesses will likely ask their employees to resume working fully from offices, struggling airlines will be eager to push travel deals, and we will be ever so eager to rejoice in a return to normal life. Similar to the fib of COVID-19 and personal laziness, it will be tempting to treat this societal reversion as a force of nature. Of course society will reconfigure itself into what is familiar and known. COVID-19 was a force of nature, but our reaction has to be the exact opposite. It has to be purposeful and self-directed.
This piece was part of my effort to fight back against the desire to give into the tempting laze of COVID-19. As a member of the Class of 2020, it has also been a chance for me to reflect on my time at Yale-NUS as it has drawn to an end. Many of my close friends know that my experience with Yale-NUS has been tumultuous. At times I have thought that choosing Yale-NUS was the worst mistake of my life, and at others I could not have imagined myself being anywhere else. Undeniably, it was tempting to fall into a spiral of negativity when faced with COVID-19 in my final semester. I will never get all the chances to say a final goodbye to classmates. Nor will I enjoy the freedom and blissful naivety that is supposedly unique to the passable maturity and lack of obligations that lies in the period between graduating college and beginning work. In the face of all of this, I am vigilant to refrain from lying to myself and constructing a false narrative. This semester has been disappointing and stressful, with few reprieves. At the same time however, I will not let this muddle and distort my picture of the past. That was what it was. Now, more than ever, it is important to be exceptionally skeptical of what we treat as a force of nature, both personally and societally.