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As we approach the second pandemic Passover, thoughts on a year of plagues

When a particularly distressing topic would arise, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem used to say: “Let’s talk about something more pleasant, like the plague in Minsk.”

Well, now we have our own plague, and it is almost all that anybody talks about.

Some feel the need to understand why we are suffering; answers range from environmental causes and climate change to punishment from the Divine, from modernity and globalisation to bizarre conspiracy theories. Others’ spirits are lifted by observations that we have learned lessons from the pandemic, or that things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Like everyone else, I’ve had my share of personal thoughts on the past year. And as we approach our second pandemic Passover, I think it’s worth reviewing what we’ve learned from this contemporary plague.

To begin on a sobering note, old people are affected more profoundly than the young, not only because they are more vulnerable to the virus, but because they have less time ahead. From the loss of loved ones to the loss of employment or businesses, the intense suffering of this time has touched every age group.

But young men and women will have the chance to look back on this period and remember it as a terrible time, long ago. Old people don’t have that prospect. The pandemic is taking a significant chunk of their remaining lives, which is an acutely painful thought.

Also, as many have observed, the disparities and divisions in society have become more visible. For instance: At the beginning of the pandemic, many who could afford it left for their yachts or country homes, while others could work remotely from home. But everyone from front-line doctors and nurses to caregivers and manual laborers continued to have to work at risky jobs, putting their lives in danger to keep the basic functions of society going.

On a more positive note, in the very midst of all the weighty problems, we discovered that humor isn’t just a joke — it’s fundamental and essential. Never before have I been flooded with so many imaginative, clever and genuinely funny emails. It takes a pandemic to make us recognize that we desperately need to laugh. Whether it was COVID jokes — “I don’t think I’ll count 2020. I didn’t use it” — or memes of Bernie Sanders on the inauguration podium hunkering in the cold with coat and knitted gloves, we created laughter and shared it.

We learned that the world has survived pandemics and disasters of the past because we really are adaptive and inventive. Not only do we find ways to function, albeit not too happily much of the time, we note that good often comes from bad times.

And while Zoom is no substitute for personal interaction, in these dark times it has been nothing short of a miracle. It has allowed schools to run, and people to connect with loved ones across the world. It has made it possible for us to attend talks and events and weddings and funerals in other cities, even as we are unable to leave our homes.

Zoom even gave rise to a new Yiddish neologism:”OysgeZoomt.” In Yiddish, you can be “Oysgemutchet,” or beyond tired, utterly exhausted. Now you can be overloaded and overwhelmed by too much Zooming.

For all the grievances, grudges and animosity that people exhibit during normal times, COVID has made many of us discover in a profound way how desperately we need one another. Now that we can no longer even have a simple coffee with a friend, that first lunch with someone after COVID will feel like life itself renewed. The question is, once those lunches have become normal again, will we remember how much they mean, and still be grateful?

I also hope the pandemic will leave us with more appreciation of all that humanity has to offer. These days, everything in the realm of education and the marketplace is dominated by the ubiquitous acronym STEM: science, technology, engineering, math. Those subjects are and will continue to be critical for our future. But what people miss most now is travelling, or going to a ball game, or the theatre, art galleries and museums. Governments were reminded how much money the arts and entertainment generate in employment, tourism and taxes, and the general public was reminded that the spirit yearns to experience life in all its many forms.

But by far our most important lesson is that of historical perspective. Our loss in economic and emotional terms seems unfathomable right now, but history teaches that it has been so very much worse.

Past pandemics, when sanitation was non-existent and medical knowledge abysmal, meant that the cause of the plague remained unknown and untreatable. Even during more recent events, like the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, penicillin and antibiotics had not yet been invented.

Knowing about the past does not mean that we aren’t suffering. Our loss is our loss and our pain is our pain. But perspective does help alleviate despair.

We have endured much and lost much, but we have also come to understand a lot about the world and about ourselves. If we have truly looked within and gained insight, then we will come out of this crisis prepared to take on personal challenges as well as social ones with renewed understanding and commitment. We will continue to do what humans have always done: turn crisis into opportunity.

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.

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