A man wears a protective mask as Italy's lockdown measures continue to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Venice, Italy, April 22, 2020. REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri
Culture Spotlight

There’s a reason why the post-Covid world seems impossible to imagine

The virus will be gone one day, but the fears threaten to stay with us—especially for those who are worst off. By GIAN LAO
ANCX | Apr 24 2020

It’s a Sunday morning under quarantine and I’m waiting for a Google Hangout.

Outside my window, everything still indicates an entire world. A song proves the existence of birds. The light splattered on my floor suggests a sun that continues burning. This is not how I imagined the war that would alter our fates. The skies are clearer than they have ever been and every day we log on and count bodies on a website. The curve we aim to flatten symbolizes millions of sick people. Every great tragedy did this—turned death into mathematics. But terror has never been so digital.

I’m early. On the other side of the screen is supposed to be Hugo Award longlisted writer Isabel Yap, coming to the aid of a college friend who needs to imagine a world after Covid.

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I asked for help because I was stuck. Too many false starts writing this godforsaken article. There was just something. Something about the pandemic that didn’t allow itself to be grasped. A dose of reality lacking in every post-Covid world I imagined. It didn’t feel real, plausible, professional.

You think you have a grasp on the reality of this era and something surprises you. Something you never saw coming. It could bring delight, like the Italians making beautiful music from their balconies. It could be a harmless viral oddity like the Pope calling whisky “the real holy water.” Or it could be something completely baffling. Stranger than fiction, like the Philippine President talking about his urinary habits during a national address. In any case, the universe sends a message: “You didn’t see that coming, did you?”

Who knows anything about the future at this point? Will that wedding in November push through? Will the outbreak be contained, only to be ignited anew by a group of freedom-loving rifle-toting Americans? Won’t some tasteless Instagrammer start a fashion trend? Quarantine-core, anyone? It depends. The answer to almost every question about the future is exactly the same: It truthfully, astoundingly, surprisingly, expectedly, bloody depends.

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I wanted to ask Isabel if this exercise was hard for her too. After all, fantasy and sci-fi writers often imagine new worlds, alternate countries, and barren, pandemic-stricken wastelands. Why am I having such a hard time applying that practice to the post-Covid world? Is there something about Covid that positions itself beyond our imaginations? And is it possible that it’s too much to ask: What will this pandemic leave in its wake?  

She logs on exactly on time. We catch up the way friends do these days. How are your parents? How’s the quarantine? What do you think will happen? I wonder quickly to myself if any of this will stick. Wouldn’t it be a better world if we asked about each other’s parents more often? Eventually, Isabel offers me some comfort. She mentions that imagining a world post-Covid seems pretty challenging to her too.

“A lot of people who do world-building base it on history,” she says. “They can make Victorian fantasy because they read a lot of stuff from that era.”

“But Covid isn’t something we’ve seen before, where—literally—businesses can’t run. You just can’t be with each other. I think that is a very strange thing. The world now is very different from the time of the Spanish Flu. It’s so long ago. It was pre-World War II. There’s not a lot of historical lessons we can draw from.”

A man waits to cross a street in front of Shinjuku station, a normally crowded street during the weekend, after the government expanded a state of emergency to include the entire country last week following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan, April 19, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

That makes sense. Just read the news. Everyone’s favorite euphemism to describe this scenario is “unprecedented.” It’s the corporately correct term for: “We don’t know what the f*** is going on.” There’s a reason why the post-Covid world seems unimaginable. This entire thing blowing up was a failure of imagination on the wider global community’s part. If it was easy to imagine, then perhaps we could have avoided it.

Yap, who is completing her master’s degree abroad this year, continues by sharing a few telling experiences from school—which maybe reveals the depth of imagination that a post-Covid world demands.

“Before school shut down, we did a snap goodbye session with my class,” she says. “As we were saying goodbye, we were like: ‘Should we hug?’ And I thought: ‘What’s a world without hugging?’ And well… that’s the world now.”

This might be the toll on the writer’s imagination. Oh, hugging. I didn’t think of that. Does it survive or not?

And then we go on. We wonder about the minutest things. Footwear in houses. Holding each other’s hands during the Ama Namin. Elevators as biohazards and the resurgent popularity of stairs.

Isabel mentions her own friends are split. Some say the world will go back to normal—that peoples’ habits are so ingrained that we’ll rubberband back to our old selves once this is over. But others think the impact will last longer.

“I think your culture has a lot to do with it,” she says. “One of my friends in the dorm said this was very normal to him. He’s from Japan. When they had the nuclear disaster in 2011, people were very careful. There were no tourists arriving. And they were in this state of crisis, where no one was going outside because they were afraid of radiation.”

The one lead that Isabel explores is the parallelism made by many world leaders and news reporters: This is a war against an invisible enemy.

“My mom has said twice that this is your generation’s war,” Yap says. “I think a lot about that analogy. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but where it has bones is how we all went into lockdown quickly. We are following protocol, as if there’s an enemy that could drop bombs on us.”

“To me it’s interesting how fast we did it, and how people kind of get used to it—at least the people who follow directions. One day we’re walking down the street and stores are open, and the next day they’re closed. This is what would happen in wartime. The immediacy of it. It does get me thinking about humanity’s ability to adapt to that kind of thing.”

The other parts of our conversation should sound familiar to most people who have had a Zoom catch-up. What do we know about Covid? How have you been passing the time?

But Isabel does mention a book she read that reminded her of this pandemic—Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, released in 2014. The setting is a world where the Swine Flu killed most of the population, where a wandering troupe of actors and musicians recreate Shakespeare plays. They are called THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY. Their tagline: Because survival is insufficient.

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Survival is insufficient. I often think of what wounds we might be left with. There are these seemingly trivial concerns, like the inequality among the love languages. The pandemic has encouraged acts of service and words of affirmation, but it may look like a loveless desert for the physical touch people. There is the sheer number of traumatic events piling up in the world. They add up. They make up that unbearable weight in our heads right now. Imagine that: an invisible enemy leaving all of us with invisible wounds.

Covid is probably the most widespread case of shared trauma in the history of the world. Billions of people around the world are likely to emerge from this pandemic profoundly impacted by this disease—regardless of whether or not they contracted it. So I had another pressing question for another expert: What does an entire traumatized world look like?

Imagine that: an invisible enemy leaving all of us with invisible wounds.

On Twitter I found John Guilaran, a disaster clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of the Philippines – Visayas. This is a person who has literally studied mental health in the aftermath of disaster. When I read through his field of study on his website, I could not believe he existed. But of course he existed. When we see scary things in the news, look for the helpers, says Mister Rogers. There are people out there who had the foresight for these things—so much so that they spent years getting PhDs on the subject.

Obviously, a Zoom call was in order. The first question: Is this real? Are we really watching the global population get traumatized at the same time?

Nicola Contaldi walks to deliver a lunchbox at Palazzo Chigi as home deliveries are the only option to keep restaurants' business running as the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Rome, Italy, April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

“You can consider it collective trauma,” says Guilaran. “By trauma, you usually refer to these overwhelming experiences that challenge your capacity to cope well. I guess, for a lot of us, this Covid pandemic is really challenging our coping with the different aspects of life, especially in terms of the economic [aspect].”

Guilaran adds an important point: This trauma is not distributed equally. The amount of trauma we’ll come away with may well be inversely proportional—to no one’s surprise—to the amount of money we have.

“Not everyone has the same degree of experience when it comes to how traumatic this is,” he says. “For others, it’s [about] coffee, concerts, or enjoying the usual luxuries. But for a lot of people, it’s really a matter of survival. That’s traumatic. Their capacity to survive hinges upon [this crisis].”

“[For the less fortunate], the psychological distress takes a backseat,” he continues. “Because you need to survive first. [The distress] multiplies. It accumulates. And you can’t deal with your own psychological problems brought about by this pandemic because there are more important things to attend to. How do you survive? How are you going to eat?”

“When they say that disasters are great levelers, that is not true. Because while everyone might be affected, not everyone will have the same experience.”

Dr. Guilaran says this and I remember my grandmother, who lived through the Second World War. Because she loved us, in her later years she would make an exception. She would open her cupboard and give us chocolates she had in storage, all delicious, all expired. Wartime mentality, my dad called it. The fear of going hungry that never left, that always dwelled within her, that would force her to dig into her stash only for the grandchildren she loved dearly.

The conversation almost makes me forget I am writing about a world after Covid. And perhaps that adds to the difficulty of it. It is a privilege to even imagine, because it assumes you will not go hungry. It assumes you will survive. It assumes you will do so much more than survive.

The virus will be gone one day, but these fears threaten to stay with us. This is especially so for those who have less. We can’t forget: While Covid is already far too deadly, hunger—if not treated—has a 100% fatality rate. If we maintain this status quo—where governments around the world have been hit or miss in terms of delivering food to quarantined populations—then the lasting emotional damage of the pandemic will be formidable.

You’ll have to imagine the precise trauma of those who are worst off.

Guilaran mentions that it will take a significant time to heal, too.

Surfers are seen off Katase Kaigan beach after government asked citizens to be more diligent on social distancing under the state of emergency in Fujisawa, south of Tokyo, Japan April 23, 2020, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. REUTERS/Issei Kato

 “It’s tricky,” he says. “The Covid pandemic is new for a lot of us. I don’t know if there’s anybody who can call themselves a Covid expert. But I guess there will be a time [period] when our responses will remain heightened. This will probably last for months after we lift the ECQ. We’ll still be wary of touching each other or being in crowded places. Eventually, I believe most of us will recover. We’ll adjust. There might be a portion of the population that reacts late to these things. Others might experience post-traumatic stress symptoms six to nine months after all this is over. We don’t really know yet.”

Guilaran never fails to caution that the plague hits people in different ways. He is right. During our conversation, it’s almost as if we are talking about several different plagues—one for the rich, one for the poor, and perhaps one more for the frontline workers. His advice: Take care of the ones who have it worse.

“People have different degrees of trauma,” he says. “We can focus our efforts on those who are more exposed or more affected by this pandemic. For example, our frontliners—they’re really facing the threat head on. They have higher exposure to these events. Therefore, it would make sense if we can help them deal with that.”

But: How do we deal with the trauma? In a country with very few therapists, how do we make sure that people can mind their emotional states? Guilaran has a simple answer: Just give them what they need.

“Making sure they don’t go hungry is already a form of psychosocial intervention,” he says. “We can also give [our frontliners] proper PPEs, as well as breaks so they can recover. These are things we can do to help them psychologically.”

How do we deal with a trauma? Guilaran has a simple answer: Give them what they need. 

If we acknowledge that the effects of the pandemic will outlive the pandemic itself, we’ll also have to design public policy around our respective traumas.

“Physical distancing is a luxury,” says Guilaran. “For a lot of people, they can’t do it even if they must.”

We imagine the jam-packed MRT, the people hailing buses in the middle of highways just to get home. We imagine the crowded markets that have been crammed into tiny spaces by car-centric infrastructure.

To survive, we are making an entire nation fearful of crowds. Scaring the population into compliance. That is the correct thing to do for now. But how will we be responsible for the fear we’ve nurtured once the poorest among us are forced into large crowds again? Will this be just another fear they will have to live with?

Survival, as it happens, is insufficient. How does one write this story, then, without writing about inequality? If we exercise the privilege of imagining a world after Covid, shouldn’t we also do it for the sake of those who can’t afford to imagine?

Our history is stacked against us. It tells us we are likely to fail the less fortunate once again. But since I insist on optimism, I will insist on using the word maybe. Maybe this changes enough of us. Maybe it helps us overcome our inertia. Maybe we will vote smarter. Maybe the qualified among us can even run for office and defy senseless tricycle bans during pandemics.

This will challenge our national amnesia. We forget many things: the sins of politicians and celebrities, the brutality of Martial Law—but can we really afford to forget the lessons of an entire country under lockdown? I suppose we are about to see.

People wearing face masks are seen on the East Lake after the lockdown in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and China's epicentre of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, was lifted, April 9, 2020. Picture taken April 9, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

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Why am I writing about a world after Covid anyway? These scenarios don’t offer much value. Again, I entertain the maybes. Maybe a good story can serve as a blueprint for our tomorrows. Maybe if we see the world as it should be, we’ll be encouraged to make it the world as it is. If we had 14,000,605 possible outcomes for this, how many of those would have us living in a better world? Maybe I am just trying to convince myself we have a fighting chance.

Maybe if we see the world as it should be, we’ll be encouraged to make it the world as it is. 

This is the part where I burden you, reader, with my failed drafts.

There is a version of this world where none of us emerge from our homes. Covid will be defeated. A vaccine will exist. Politicians will eventually talk about how well they handled the situation. But the streets will remain empty, as if mourning every hero, every beloved member of the community, every shuttered restaurant. We will adopt bowing instead of shaking hands. Going out on a date with a stranger will be an act of courage. Once the virus is gone, we will think even less of the less fortunate. The symptoms of trauma will leave us with a phantom pain in our lungs, and the world will never again breathe as freely as it once did.

There is another version. One where the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 marks the end of an era of global terror. Hayao Miyazaki makes a comeback, directing a skillfully animated story of a world emerging from the darkness. We will mourn. We will relive the earliest days of the pandemic. But we will also remember how we persevered—together. Suddenly, a torch. It is carried not by Japan’s premier athlete, but by a woman in a lab gown. She led the team that discovered the vaccine. Her name will go down in history. She will walk gracefully to ignite the Olympic flame, and when she does, the orchestra comes on. We will all be watching and crying and hugging each other. Some people will call us naïve, but we will lay the foundations to build a world that uplifts everyone. The Earth spins a little faster, with the weight of the pandemic lifted off its shoulders. Weddings are had. Concerts are in person again. The world begins to rediscover what it once was—and everything it could be.

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Isabel Yap is a Filipina writer of speculative fiction and poetry. Some of her work can be found at isabelyap.com.

John Guilaran PhD is a disaster clinical psychologist and assistant professor at University of the Philippines – Visayas. He can be contacted through his website atjohnguilaran.com.