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Columns

Coronavirus In the Time of the Smartphone

By Patrick M. Magee
Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Philosophy and Physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

It’s official: the end of the pandemic is on the horizon. After months of false starts and shaky optimism, Pfizer announced yesterday that they had developed a vaccine with 95 percent efficacy against COVID-19. With numerous competitors on the brink of their own vaccines, experts expect inoculations to begin as early as December, a bright capstone on one of the most chaotic years in memory.

After months of wildfires, murder hornets, and (no joke) dead people elected to office, the news of an effective vaccine was refreshingly positive. I don’t think I need to rehearse all the reasons 2020’s been so miserable — the list would outstrip my word limit, and there are already websites devoted to that. Instead, apropos of the vaccine, I think it’s a good moment to stop and reflect on just how lucky we are to live in a society with that kind of technological capability.

And I don’t just mean medical technology — though it’s worth noting that the 1918 influenza epidemic, largely owing to clinical deficiencies, had upwards of forty times COVID’s death toll so far. From the connectivity standpoint, we’ve won the cosmic lottery. For people in past major pandemics, iPhones and video chat were the stuff of science fiction. The technology that’s allowed nearly half the American labor force to work from home this year was essentially nonexistent. Zoom University would have been impossible. Even just 15 years ago, the pinnacle of instant entertainment was getting DVDs delivered to your mailbox. And while there’s plenty negative to be said about services like Amazon and Instacart, their networks have made it possible for millions of Americans to obtain groceries and other necessities from the safety of their homes.

In fact, even though the pandemic has significantly limited in-person interactions, it’s arguable that it’s also deepened relationships. With the ubiquity of Zoom and FaceTime, many are realizing just how easy it is to connect with people — and, in a time of crisis, how crucially important.

In my own life, the effect has been dramatic. Before the pandemic, I called home maybe a couple times a month, and despite having two sisters in the Boston area, we rarely made time to meet up. High school friends were rapidly fading from my life, even ones I kept in regular contact with early on in college. With the advent of the pandemic, it’s not all that surprising that these relationships would be rekindled: for those of us taking classes at home, the whole situation already feels like something of a high school bonus track. But the particular way they’ve returned has been striking. Not only did my sisters and I become closer during our shared time at home in the spring, but since their return to the northeast, we’ve instituted regular Zoom calls with our extended family, including relatives we barely spoke to previously. Some of the friends I’ve reconnected with are ones I haven’t seen in four years. And the few in-person meetups I’ve had have been invariably high-quality: owing to social distancing, there’s not much we can do besides talk, which is probably what we should have been doing all along.

All of this is anecdotal, of course. But there are countless other examples of the pandemic having a surprisingly salutary effect on social connectivity. Consider the country’s newfound appreciation for grocers, cashiers, and delivery people, jobs that used to garner little recognition but are now recognized as heroically necessary. Or the way neighborhoods in New York City spontaneously celebrated healthcare workers during the peak of the crisis, clapping and sounding noise makers every evening at 7 p.m. And despite the economic recession, most donors surveyed indicated that they plan to maintain or even increase their charitable giving in 2020.

What’s remarkable, I think, is that many of these activities were just as available before the pandemic as they are now. We didn’t lack the technology for family Zoom calls, or ample reason to appreciate workers in our community. But crises have a way of making people reevaluate what really matters to them. And when the crisis directly affects our ability to socialize, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we see people drawing closer to one another in response.

As we exit the alternate reality of the pandemic, there’s no question that the world we return to will be dramatically different from the one we left in 2019. Here’s to hoping that world will be a better one — and maybe a little more connected than before.

Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Philosophy and Physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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