I recently returned from my first international research trip since the pandemic sent us all into isolation and into little square Zoom boxes nearly 20 months ago. This was a trip I had been hoping to take for a long time, a much-anticipated return to the libraries in England that house the manuscripts which are the focus of my book-in-progress. When I received University approval to take the trip in early September, I set about booking flights and hotel rooms like I always do before travel, but this time I also had to book appointments for several COVID-19 tests.
As a vaccinated American citizen, a two-week trip to England required three tests: one three days before my departure flight, one within two days of arrival in England, and one three days before my return flight. Every test was a gauntlet I had to pass. One positive result would tank the trip and potentially set back the completion of my book manuscript. International travel reminded me that the stresses of COVID-19 are far from over.
Except, when I landed in England, it seemed the English had decided that COVID-19 was over. There was hardly a mask in sight, and the trains, buses, theaters, and pubs were as crowded as ever. Every morning the news brought a different story of catastrophe: petrol shortages, oil shortages, pork shortages, construction shortages. One in 14 British high school students had COVID-19 over the first week of October. Yet English life was business as usual.
Since I returned to Princeton, I’ve told colleagues how odd it was to move about in a society that took few precautions, all the while knowing I needed to take extra precautions to ensure I could return to the United States when I needed to. That was certainly a stress I hadn’t felt before on research trips. But the testing protocols, by themselves, don’t entirely capture what was off about the trip, or the feeling of disquiet that has followed me since I returned.
It occurred to me only recently that I had experienced what I imagined as life “after COVID-19,” and it wasn’t the joyful picture I had imagined. What made my time in England so disheartening was not that the English decided to return to normal despite shockingly high COVID-19 numbers. It’s that the English chose to return to normal at all.
What does it mean to return to normal after nearly two years of suffering, amplified inequality, precarity, injustice, and death?
Six months ago, it felt like we had a collective understanding of what a return to normal should look like. We had patiently suffered through months of isolation, endless Zoom fatigue, and for many of us, the tragic loss of loved ones. But finally, COVID-19 was in retreat. Vaccines were going into arms at a rapid clip, and a promising summer of freedom lay ahead of us. I recall a feeling of optimism that was nearly limitless. With the lessons of the pandemic fresh in our minds, I believed we would make real change. COVID-19 had laid bare what ails America — well beyond the novel coronavirus — and it seemed impossible to ignore what needed fixing. We had seen too much to return to the way things were. I may even have written a few Op-Eds for this very paper in that heady time, calling on students to support a bill that I believed might finally stabilize the higher education system in this country, once and for all.
But we all know what has happened since then: the Delta variant robbed us of COVID-19 closure, we suffered a fourth wave this summer, and the vaccines that were supposed to end it all have been refused by a good number of Americans. Not only does it look like we won’t fund higher education the way I’d hoped last spring, we won’t even get tuition-free community college, the bare minimum outlined in President Biden’s original plan.
Last spring’s optimism feels like a distant memory.
In our present moment of late-stage COVID-19, I find myself thinking about an article published in The New Yorker in July of 2020 which made quite a stir within the very insular world of academic historians who work on the period surrounding the Black Death. The article was titled, “Crossroads,” and the byline posed the provocative question: “The plague marked the end of the Middle Ages and the start of a great cultural renewal. Could the coronavirus, for all its destruction, offer a similar opportunity for radical change?”
When the article was published, historians rushed to Twitter — the favorite haunt of the enraged academic — to condemn the piece as a gross simplification of a complex set of factors. At the time, I was a little embarrassed by the vehemence with which certain members of my field attacked The New Yorker, in part because I thought they were missing the forest for the trees. If you read the article in full, most of the history cited within it (though not all) is pretty sound. Of course the narrative isn’t as simple as a 5,000 word article makes it out to be. Of course the plague didn’t make the Italian Renaissance inevitable. But the point was to frame our possibilities for us, to widen the scope of our horizons.
As it happens, the years after the Black Death do offer a historical precedent for the kind of stilted and uneven push toward change that we’re experiencing at the moment, though that isn’t what the author of that New Yorker piece chose to emphasize. In England, whose history I know best, the generation of people who survived the first devastating wave of plague in 1349 made bold attempts to remake their society. In the 1380s, the followers of the Oxford professor John Wyclif insisted on the merits of reading the Bible in English rather than Latin, and they demanded a total overhaul of church hierarchy. Around the same time, thousands of peasants marched on London protesting heavy taxes and limits imposed on their wages, and demanding an end to feudal bondage.
Both movements had radical ideas for a more free and equal society, and both were violently put down by authorities. The changes they demanded came to pass anyway. Serfdom ended in England in the fifteenth century, and the demands of the Lollards (the pejorative name for those followers of Wyclif) were largely enacted in the Reformation of the early sixteenth century. (If you’re curious about the details of post-plague economics, a great introduction is Christopher Dyer’s “An Age of Transition? Economy and Society in the Later Middle Ages.”)
By making this historical analogy, I do not mean to imply that change or progress is inevitable, that we can rest easy and stop agitating for the change we want to see. History is not nearly so comforting as that. I only mean to suggest that we continue to think of the pandemic as an event from which to depart rather than as an event after which to return. I wish, as the author of the New Yorker piece intended, to keep the scope of our horizons broad. I want us to stop imagining a return to normal.
In that spirit, my next two columns for The Daily Princetonian will address what life after COVID-19 might look like here at Princeton, beyond unmasking in classrooms or returning to study abroad programs. What might it look like to keep the scope of our own horizons broad? What would it look like to refuse to return to normal? If you have ideas or thoughts about how you hope campus life changes in the wake of the past 18 months, I’d love to hear them. Reach out and tell me what you think, and I’ll address some of them in future Op-Eds.
If the period following the Black Death is any indication of what is possible after COVID-19, then we can probably bet that our ideas will take some time to come to fruition. But, likewise, if the Lollards and the peasants who stormed London in 1381 have anything to teach us, it’s that ideas, once loosed, are hard to contain again — that is, so long as we don’t accept a return to anything like normal.
Melissa Reynolds is the Perkins-Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and Lecturer in the History Department and Humanities Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.