One year ago, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, calling on countries to “take urgent and aggressive action” to stop the spread of the disease. Since March 11, 2020, our world has been transformed: In the United States, more than 500,000 lives have been lost, and economic and social activity have been disrupted in unprecedented ways.
While the public health consequences of the pandemic have been among the most acute, the novel coronavirus has left no domain untouched: The arts have pivoted to virtual performances and programs, religious communities have found new ways to offer services, and lawyers have had to think differently about the government’s role in mitigating the crisis.
Below, nine University of Chicago scholars and experts discuss what they’ve learned from a year of COVID-19, examining how the pandemic has impacted everyday life and transformed how work is conducted in their own disciplines. Their comments help clarify just how much our world has changed—and what challenges lie ahead.
Doriane Miller, Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality
From my perspective as a primary care physician, COVID-19 hasn’t resulted in revelations that have changed my practice so much as it has underscored the severity of the enormous health disparities that we knew existed in Black and brown communities around the city.
I’ve spent much of my career working in settings like community health centers, and many of the patients that I’ve cared for over the years have had chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and COPD. I do what I can to provide care for these conditions, but they stem in part from “social determinants of health” which impact people’s ability to care for themselves. These could be things like their ability to exercise in a safe place; afford the medications that are prescribed for them; buy healthy food; and avoid exposure to pollutants.
When these abilities are limited, health disparities are produced. But it’s important to note that acute illness hasn’t been the only negative outcome of the pandemic for these communities: They’ve also dealt with lost economic opportunities, and mental health challenges in terms of the sheer amount of grief that many communities of color, especially, have experienced.
Many of my patients have lost a family member or friend to COVID-19, in a year that has also been marked by the culmination of structural inequities in other areas. In particular, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have added to a sense of collective grief not only within families, but also about what they see as an extension of their positions in society.
Ultimately, a lack of dignity, respect, adequate preparation and care at a fundamental level has led to the deaths of people who didn’t need to die—not just in Black and brown communities, but other communities as well.
Cynthia Lindner, Director of Ministry Studies and Clinical Faculty for Preaching and Pastoral Care in the Divinity School
A year ago, American religious practice pivoted dramatically, as congregations closed their doors and began to offer services like preaching, prayer and meditation—even hospital bedside visits—virtually. Since then, worshippers have mourned the loss of holy spaces and communal practices, especially during holy seasons like Passover, Easter and Ramadan, and on other occasions when the community normally assembles in solidarity, such as to bless a marriage or to mourn the death of a loved one.
Despite this, people of faith have also been rediscovering powerful truths about human existence and reliable resources for courage and compassion in ancient narratives and practices that were themselves forged in times of human suffering and exile. Without access to the buildings and programs that have identified and sometimes constrained them, many religious communities are redefining themselves and their purposes in more expansive, active ways: cultivating networks that transcend time and space; fashioning portable ritual practices to sustain individuals and families in their homes; and reconfiguring inclusive and accessible worshipping communities in a variety of forms, from online small groups to outdoor sessions.
Most significantly, innovative faith communities are beginning to reclaim the work of caregiving that was essential to their spiritual practice before it was professionalized or relegated to the clergy: sharing the hard work of caring for one another through phone trees, small groups and prayer; supporting the elderly and the vulnerable in their neighborhoods through networks of mutual aid; advocating not only for those in need, but for those essential workers who bear more than their share of the burden of an ever-expanding demand for care; and attending with renewed urgency to the integrity of human interdependence and the healing of our planet.
Marc Berman, Associate Professor of Psychology
COVID-19 has really clarified the crucial importance of green space in cities. During the pandemic, the outdoors has been a safer place for socially-distant activities than indoors, but many cities just don’t have enough space for people outside, and disparities exist between neighborhoods, with higher-income ones having more trees. Our research suggests that this is a big problem that transcends the current crisis, because green space positively impacts our health in all kinds of ways.
We’ve learned that trees, especially, have important benefits for our health: A brief walk in nature, say 50 minutes, can improve your working memory and attention capacity by about 20%. You can get those benefits at any time of the year, winter or summer, and they apply whether or not you “like” nature. We also find that those effects are even stronger for individuals who have been diagnosed with depression, and that more green space in one’s neighborhood is related to lower rates of diabetes, stroke and heart disease even when controlling for income, age and education levels.
Our society still tends to think of green space as an amenity, so it’s not a “front page” issue. But after we think about important topics like vaccine distribution and reopening schools safely, we should also recognize that we need outdoor spaces where people can interact safely and get the cognitive restoration they need. Finally, when it comes to planting trees or rethinking our use of public spaces, a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach to working with communities is best: We should share the benefits of green space, while listening to residents’ own priorities.