Shhhhh Everyone and Listen

By Ana Puszkin-Chevlin, Ph.D.

May 22, 2020

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, in April 2020, cities around the world documented cleaner air and water resulting from the dramatic decrease in transportation, factory closings, and retail consumption related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The down-shift of human activity, fewer trains, planes, buses and cars, fewer jackhammers and tractors has been measured by seismologists who have documented a 30% to 50% reduction in ambient seismic vibration of the earth’s crust; allowing them to detect previously unheard noises deep in the planet. Likewise, the silence should inspire us all to listen to the subtle sounds and community voices that typically get drowned out in the din of our civilization’s busyness.

Like others, I’ve observed that my suburban backyard seems to have more birds and butterflies, and the hushed traffic hum allows us to appreciate an evening chorus of frogs and owls.  There is an egret that cries out for a mate nightly from a tree across the canal. The high-frequency buzz of florescent office lights has been replaced by the sound of children playing in the yard and lawnmowers, lots of lawnmowers and leaf blowers – Saturday sounds that now seem ever-present. Affluent suburbanites, some living in manicured gated neighborhoods, walk or bike their residential streets admiring sodded landscapes and the paint colors of their neighbors’ houses. Others have discovered their yards’ potential for growing vegetables, herbs, and starting a compost bin. Suddenly, we appreciate the value of stepping outside to a verdant, if albeit it not new, environment, and taking a deep breath of fresh air. The lush greenery and backyard swimming pools are lungs for home dwellers living in fear of contracting a respiratory virus.

Despite the criticism we assign to sprawling subdivisions, they have proven to provide a comfortable quarantine experience. And, with surrounding destinations shuttered, we are likely to encounter more of the people living around us.  In place of passing cars, we hear the footsteps and greetings from neighbors that stroll the streets seeking exercise or a casual conversation. The cul-de-sac has been converted into a public patio, with neighbors hosting socially-distanced tailgate parties from their driveways and car hatch-backs. From a safe distance, physically, socially, and politically we listen and begin to talk to each other, seeking to discover the common values that overcome the differences we usually ascribe to the people that live in the bright yellow house with the flag, or those with the red pick-up truck in the driveway. The pandemic has driven us to share our fears, debate the cost and benefits of response strategies, and develop common ground on toilet paper rationing and the etiquette of mask-wearing. The revived art of cordial conversations should next be applied talking about climate change.

Urban dwellers seem to have a different experience. Held-up in apartments, some quite small for a handsome rent, people that live in high-rises have abruptly lost access to the museums, theaters, playgrounds, and even some of the public open spaces that give vitality and dimension to urban centers. The affluent have fled to second homes in the country, seeking square footage, access to open space and the presumed protection afforded by lower density. Void of traffic and with sparse pedestrians on the sidewalks, the empty avenues with shuttered stores appear dreary and longing. The piercing ambulance sirens seem louder without the honking cabs and the conversations of commuters and tourists. Urban dwellers have been forced to silence the vibe that animates urban places, but they find solace in hearing the television or stereo of the family on the other side of the wall. Globally, they have found solidarity by saluting the unsung medical heroes from their windows and balconies with a cacophony of banging pots and pans. Expressing our thanks to workers that selflessly toil to ensure that critical services and basic goods are available to all citizens is a first step toward realizing our interdependence; that our survival relies on the varied skill sets and contributions of different types of people in our community. A community’s ability to acknowledge and respect the scarifies of others, quell individualism, champion compassion, and cooperate to achieve the desired outcome are threads of a strong social fabric; one capable of overcoming the adversities of this pandemic, and future challenges like climate change.

 

The tagline of television ads and public service announcements tells us “we are all in this together,” but really, we are in it together but differently. The sights and sounds of the private spaces and public open places we inhabit during this prolonged quarantine vary, but the one universal factor that shapes our experience in these unprecedented times is our level of affluence.  Zoom conference calls, online learning, and virtual birthday celebrations are privileges of those with means.  Easy access to the internet connects many of us to jobs, school, family and friends, while the digital divide leaves lower-income households out of these conversations. Instacart cart deliveries fill the refrigerators of some households, but some middle-class families now spend mornings idling in car lines at emergency food distribution centers and repeatedly attempting to file for unemployment benefits. And while some of us can while away hours quietly reading a novel, the cashier with the facemask hears the repeated dings and slide of the register’s cash drawer. For the furloughed school bus driver, machinist, and waiter the interruption of economic activity is deafening. With 26.4 million people currently unemployed, average Americans will soon confront the indignities chronically endured by the poor – no healthcare coverage, food insecurity and homelessness. The universality of COVID-19 impacts must teach us to address the inequity that undermines the resilience of our communities. Resiliency to the COVID-19 crisis, and future threats like climate change will be predicated on weaving a stronger social fabric, one that is flexible and responsive to change, and swaddles the vulnerable by providing sustenance and unstinting support where necessary