On March 11 at 9 p.m., I went for a walk. When I came back an hour later and read an email sent by the University stating that campus would close for the remainder of the Spring semester, I felt as though the trajectory of my college experience had irrevocably and fundamentally changed. As I ran through the gamut of emotions with my peers, I felt anger, grief and a bitter sense of dark humor. But going to bed that night, I realized that where our generation had lost normalcy we had also gained passion. COVID-19 has awoken our generation to the consequences of inaction in the face of global crises and rightly reified the impact of societal upheaval.
Despite the gravity of my and all Emory students’ losses, we should take solace in the fact that this disruption will be temporary. The symptoms caused by COVID-19 are similar to a stronger strain of the flu, this epidemic is not the apocalypse; classes will resume when this passes and life will return to normal. But enveloped in that normalcy will still remain the existential crises we’ve put on hold to fight this pandemic, like climate change, resource shortages, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and mounting international instability.
I am not minimizing the devastation on our lives that COVID-19 has and will cause; in fact, it is this devastation that should serve as a warning to prevent even greater harm as our generations’ crises germinate. The proportional danger of these future catastrophes outweighs the long-term impact of COVID-19, and so it would be a waste of a learning opportunity if the current societal upheaval did not scare us into action to prevent much greater future calamity.
Both those returning to campus next semester and graduating seniors entering the workforce should feel inspired to gather their strength and collectively work with intensity. We face a myriad of immediate crises such as those listed above, as well as larger generational issues, including violence, societal upheaval and environmental collapse. The impact from COVID-19, which is projected to kill almost 3 million, pales in comparison to that which antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as tuberculosis may soon have. Some experts believe these superbugs could kill 300 million people worldwide by 2050, for an average of 10 million a year. While we need to deal with the crises of today before the problems of tomorrow, COVID-19 is only a small taste of the deluge that our generation will face.
It’s easy to pontificate about solutions — so what comes next? We deserve time to mourn; a semester of arrested development is painful and will regress our growth. But we cannot afford to wallow in the pain. These will prove to be the most formative years of our lives, as we’re now building the experience, the knowledge and the work ethic to prepare for the problems we will face. That means we have to take charge of our lives and improve our collective interest. We must vote and become politically involved, challenge ourselves intellectually, and be ready for any threat we may face. These ideas are only platitudes if we treat them as such through inaction and failure to integrate them into in work daily work ethic.
We won’t be able to deal with the future’s global catastrophes if we don’t start by making small, actionable changes today. Before we change society, we need to start with what we can most affect: ourselves. It’s easy to talk about what should be done to prepare for these long-term crises — words are cheap, but actions are not. We have an opportunity to take action. We are in an election year, and class registration is several weeks away, so I challenge you: take the 8 a.m., speak up in class and enroll in a difficult course. Personally, I was going to take 15 credits, but now I’m taking 19. If we do not build long-term personal habits from COVID-19 today — challenging ourselves to discover solutions and grow, set tough but realistic goals, and stare into uncertainty and thrive in it — we will have no one but ourselves to blame when the world’s floodgates open on our heads.
Emory, we deserve a moment of pain. But then let’s put on our boots, saddle up and get to work. The world won’t wait for us.
Sean Anderson (19Ox, 21B) is from Atlanta.