Even in Venice, Italy, the church catches and holds the eye. Its imposing proportions, lofty domes and opulent statues, not to mention its location on the Grand Canal, speak to its importance.
The high altar features an elaborate sculpture of the Virgin Mary, from whom the church derives its name — Santa Maria della Salute, or Saint Mary of Health. It’s a name that
provides the key to its origins, for the baroque church was built to commemorate the end of a particularly vicious wave of the bubonic plague that swept through Venice from 1630 to ’31, killing nearly a third of the city’s population.
Santa Maria della Salute is one of two early modern churches in Venice that were constructed to celebrate life and the living following devastating outbreaks of disease, says Lisa Pon, professor of art history at USC Dornsife.
“People back then saw far more death than we have to date, and they saw it much more closely than most of us who are not frontline workers,” Pon says. “And yet, these two votive churches are celebratory in their decoration. They have the power to uplift us.”
But how does one capture that spirit of life, of renewal and recovery, after a disaster? While estimates vary, the Black Death killed at least 25 million people — up to 60% of Europe’s population — between 1346 and 1353. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is not nearly as lethal, it had, as of June 2021, killed more than 3.8 million people worldwide. In the United States, at the time of going to press, more than 600,000 people have died of the disease, which has left families devastated, shuttered businesses and upended our way of life.
But as we emerge from the pandemic, is there an opportunity to learn lessons that can help us recover as individuals, as Americans, as humans? What can we do to help heal our own wounds and those of our communities? And can we use this moment to push for everything from better child care to better access to mental health services? People’s answers to these questions will vary widely, but here are some good places to begin.
GOING TO EXTREMES
Sometimes an epidemic is followed by a period of relief, or even indulgence. In the U.S., for example, the Roaring ’20s — a time when few boundaries were left unpushed — came fast on the heels of the Spanish flu pandemic.
William Deverell, professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies, notes that while multiple factors — including World War I and large-scale urbanization in the U.S. — were responsible for the way the 1920s unfolded, the Spanish flu also played an important role in shaping people’s views on life, death and pleasure. Those who could afford it spent money lavishly as the Jazz Age blossomed, seeking to live life to the full after the grief and deprivation brought by the hardships of the preceding decade.
“The pandemic — the death and the fear and the invisibility of it — made people scared.
And when the fear and the danger and the deaths of the Spanish flu subsided, it had an
influence on the excesses of the 1920s,” says Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
The great unanswered question is whether history will repeat itself: Will the 2020s come roaring back once COVID-19 has subsided and the pandemic is safely behind us?
The jury is out, but experts, including Deverell, say it’s certainly possible.
COVID-19 attacked not just the body but the mind as well. The stress of losing a job, loneliness brought on by extended isolation, depression resulting from a friend or loved one’s death, fear of becoming infected with the virus and other factors ravaged many people’s mental health. Disadvantaged communities have been particularly hard-hit, according to studies by the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR).
The center’s Understanding Coronavirus in America tracking survey shows that since the start of the pandemic, a quarter of U.S. adults have lost a friend or family member to COVID-19, a third struggled to put food on the table, and half have experienced financial insecurity.
“In the face of stressors like these, it’s no surprise that two-thirds of U.S. adults have reported symptoms of mild-to-severe psychological distress at least once over the course of the pandemic,” says Kyla Thomas, associate sociologist at CESR.
“Research suggests that for many — particularly those hit hardest by the pandemic, including Blacks, Latinos and low-income workers — the mental health effects of this kind of trauma will persist long after infections subside and the economy reopens,” Thomas says.
At a time when the need for mental health services is acute, the good news is that more Americans are seeking help. The number of people seeking services from mental health professionals has risen, at least partly due to the convenience of home-based virtual sessions, according to Beth Meyerowitz, professor of psychology and preventive medicine at USC Dornsife.
Meyerowitz says that she hopes virtual mental health services, and people’s willingness to continue using them, will continue after the pandemic. But she adds that there are also several strategies people can employ to protect their mental health during the transition to post-pandemic life. One involves a compartmentalization strategy, in which we focus on the small shifts we might need to make to adjust to our new lives.
“I think one thing we can learn is to break concerns down into manageable pieces so that it’s not, ‘How am I going to get back to life after the pandemic?’ but, ‘How am I going to get the kids enrolled in school?’” she says.
Large celebrations may be few and far between for a while, but social interaction on a smaller scale will also probably look different after the pandemic.
“The prospect of reentering the world is bringing up a lot of unexpectedly ambivalent feelings,” says Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at USC Dornsife.
While some people might be excited to return to in-person holiday dinners or drinks with friends, not everyone is jumping at the chance to gather, party and hug, she notes. And people may be even more hesitant about larger gatherings. Saxbe predicts that people will continue
to watch movies, sporting events and concerts at home, rather than attend them in person.
Temporary work-from-home solutions are likely to become long-term or permanent. And now that we have grown adept at using video conferencing tools like Zoom, we may simply opt to connect virtually more often, instead of meeting in person.“The idea is that we don’t go back to the life we left.”
Meyerowitz says that the isolation and introspection of the pandemic prompted people to reevaluate their priorities, and many may realize that pre-pandemic they had overburdened themselves with commitments they actually cared little about. Some people may have discovered their job isn’t as important to their well-being as they thought, while others might realize that the groups or activities they were previously involved with didn’t really make them happy.
“The idea is that we don’t go back to the life we left,” Meyerowitz says. “We should really think about what we’ve learned and what the important things are that we need to rebuild and what are the things that we can let go.”
REINTRODUCING CHILDREN TO THE WORLD
It’s not only adults who must navigate a post-COVID social landscape. Many children have spent the past year isolated from their friends and peers, relying on Zoom to meet their social and educational needs. Saxbe wonders about the long-term effects of a year spent largely on screens.
“Are we going to be a generation that is more isolated or spends more time on screens than any before? We were already heading in that direction — is that going to accelerate
to where we’re going to have a much lonelier generation of kids?” she asks.
But Saxbe adds that children have lived through worse disruptions — wars, famine and natural disasters among them — and their resiliency and ability to adapt will likely help them recover from the pandemic without too much long-term trauma.
She notes that, unlike adults, young children tend to live in the moment and react to what is around them rather than spend a lot of time worrying about the past or future or what is happening to other people in other parts of the world. This makes it easier for them to adapt and recover from stressful world events.
“Children take their cues from parents and caregivers, and we know that supportive and nurturing relationships offer an important way to boost resilience,” Saxbe says.
A MOONSHOT MOMENT
Individually, people may feel tempted to pull back from public life, to look inward. But self-examination is not enough, we must also look outward, to the chasms that the pandemic has exposed in our society, Saxbe says. Notably, more than a year of disrupted and disparate schooling, coupled with a scarcity of child care resources, have demonstrated the fragility of the work-life balance for today’s families. This is particularly true when both parents work outside the home. Between February 2020 and April 2021, more than 2.5 million women left their jobs, with most of the job losses occurring among low-income women and women of color.
“I think the potential upside is that the pandemic has brought increased attention, awareness and energy to the child care and educational deficits in our system, to the cost of chronic underfunding, and to the importance of policies that support low-income families,” Saxbe says.
But she hopes the pandemic has prompted Americans to view universal child care as part of the country’s infrastructure. “I think we’re in a moonshot moment,” Saxbe says. “There are some once-in-a-generation opportunities to really create new policies around kids and families.”
The dialogue surrounding COVID-19 has been largely political and scientific, but the pandemic had deep spiritual repercussions. For some, faith was a source of solace — or anger — during the crisis.
“Among other things, religion is a sense-making phenomenon. It helps you find your place in the world, and this is what is going to be needed because it’s likely that our world will be changed,” says Dorian Llywelyn, president of USC Dornsife’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies.
Llywelyn explains that he sees religion’s role not as a counter to science, but as a supplement — healing the emotional self as opposed to the physical one. And there’s one aspect of the emotional self he would like to see people cultivate as the pandemic recedes: empathy. The squabbles over vaccine distribution demonstrate that empathy tends to be lost when we lack what we need.
“It’s easier to feel empathy when something is very far away,” he says. “When it’s actually in your neighborhood and resources are scarce — that will be the measure of how empathetic we will become.”
HOPE FOR RENEWAL
The early modern Europeans erected monuments and churches to commemorate the end of epidemics and celebrate the prospect of renewal. While there will likely be a multitude of plaques, monuments and other structures to memorialize the people who died during the COVID-19 pandemic, what shape will our personal recovery take?
In this, too, we may be far closer to the spirit of the early modern Europeans than we might think.
During research she conducted in Rwanda, with survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Meyerowitz held a workshop on recovery. Participants split into breakout
groups to explore different aspects of recuperation. One group addressed finding joy in one’s life.
“I asked people to raise their hands for the group they wanted to join, and two-thirds wanted to be in the joy group. These were people who had been through genocide, and that is what they wanted — joy,” Meyerowitz says. “So, it’s not just a matter of getting past the bad — people really want to seek out joy in their lives.”
The Post-COVID City — A New Quality of Life?
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted us, particularly those of us who live in cities, to rethink our public lives and routines. Commuting, restaurant dining, even neighborhood walks — suddenly the staples of daily life needed to be reconsidered. But such a rethink is not necessarily a bad thing, and in some ways is even long overdue, according to John Wilson, professor of sociology, civil and environmental engineering, computer science, architecture, preventive medicine, and spatial sciences, and director of the Spatial Sciences Institute at USC Dornsife.
Wilson notes that climate change, wildfires and other issues are reason enough for public officials to make changes to create more resilient cities. The COVID-19 pandemic might provide that extra bump to push them from ideas to action.
“I’m hopeful that this year will help generate a reawakening, so that people think, ‘Well, what should the city be like?’” he says.
Wilson expects that a lot of real estate will open up as some large venues, such as movie theaters, conference halls and even office buildings left vacant when businesses moved to a work-from-home model, close or are reconfigured. Those vacant spaces could be transformed into leafy public parks or squares, with plenty of trees to provide shade. This opportunity for urban improvement is similar to how the USC Urban Trees Initiative led by USC Dornsife Public Exchange — of which Wilson is a part — is determining how best to add trees in neighborhoods adjacent to the USC Health Sciences campus. Tree canopies are especially vital in East Los Angeles neighborhoods, often in low-income communities where shade and air conditioning are scarce.
Another big opportunity now open to L.A. and other American cities is to reconfigure traffic and open spaces in order to encourage outdoor dining and walking, as opposed to driving.
“In Europe, there’s a lot of outdoor dining because cities have these large squares with no traffic around them. If we were to do things like that, particularly in L.A., I think you’d find that those spaces would be pretty popular,” Wilson says.
Although he has no simple solution for disease-proofing a city, Wilson notes that making the changes he mentions will help create a healthier, more equitable population.
“L.A., for better or worse, has traveled down a certain trajectory. Is COVID a trigger to help us take a different route? I believe risk and resources go hand in hand, so if you want big rewards, you need to take big risks. I think some of the communities that are now willing to take those risks will find value in that.” —M.M.