Pandemic Lessons

On the nature of a virus. On community. And on systems — how they function and how they break.

By Steven Boyd Saum

Illustration by Maria Carluccio 

 

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic hit a sobering milestone in the United States last spring when we marked the death of 100,000 Americans. By September, that number had doubled. The year 2020 concluded with some 350,000 dead in the United States alone, and 1.82 million lives lost worldwide.

The pandemic has driven home some crucial lessons — if we pay attention. Not lessons we wanted to learn. But many of them are hard truths we need in order to face a changed world. Lessons about the nature of a virus, yes, but also about community: how we give of ourselves in times of need, how we listen or how we fail to hear. Lessons about systems: how they function and how they break.

 

In the stories we have put together here are a few lessons for the time of coronavirus from across the Peace Corps community. From an epidemiologist in Los Angeles, whose research has kept her connected with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for years: recognition that the oft-praised but far less supported Third Goal of the Peace Corps — which speaks of bringing understanding of the world back home to the United States — is not touchy-feely stuff by a long shot. It’s a matter of life and death.

 

Bringing understanding of the world back home to the United States is not touchy-feely stuff by a long shot. It’s a matter of life and death.

 

From a registered nurse in Washington, D.C., who found her calling in public health while serving as a Volunteer in Guatemala — and in spring 2020 moved away from her family, including a pre-school-aged daughter, to shield loved ones from possible infection while she tried to save the lives of patients infected with the virus: Know what this means.

From a returned Volunteer who can see the hills of Tijuana from her house and manages a free medical clinic: a lesson in taking part in the trials of the Pfizer vaccine

And across the country, lessons in gratitude and what endures: How the work we do, in solidarity and seeking understanding, echoes across continents and decades. In this case, how service by some 2,000 Volunteers in South Korea in support of education and healthcare years ago translates into the long work of building peace and friendship — and in 2020 brought of hundreds of COVID-19 Survivor Boxes to those Volunteers, to honor and thank them for empowering people in a time of hardship. 

To a cohort of returned Volunteers — some of whom were evacuated from service around the world in March because of the pandemic — now working as contact tracers in Seattle and King County, Washington: messages of admiration and encouragement from Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Peter Kilmarx of the National Institutes of Health.


Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView magazine.