Adaptation became the norm during COVID, including attending Mass via TV or live-stream. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Gerry Turcotte: Celebrating the good born from a crisis

  • October 29, 2021

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Actually, it was Plato who argued that “our need will be the real creator,” a comment that eventually morphed into our more familiar adage.

It is remarkable to consider this bold fact, however — that human beings are often at their most creative during times of greatest crisis, where we find ways to do what was seemingly impossible before. This is, of course, most apparent today in the creation of the COVID vaccines, a modern miracle no doubt, one that defied the usual length of time to develop effective treatments. On average vaccines take many years to develop and yet, when the crisis emerged, four remarkable vaccines were generated in under a year.

Crisis concentrates the mind. It also unleashes our creative energies. And while the vaccine may be the most complex manifestation of that impulse, it is remarkable to remember as well all the other creative moments that developed.

It wasn’t just that science moved quickly to identify a vaccine. It was also that so many other individuals and industries began to explore ways to make our communities safer. Personal protective equipment grew in sophistication by leaps and bounds, with inventors finding ways to make our masks more protective, more comfortable and even more fashionable.

Masks were designed for the hearing impaired that allowed a person’s lips to be visible behind a plastic covering so that lips could be read. A Bluetooth microphone was also incorporated to boost the speaker’s voice. Indigenous communities produced artistic and functional masks at a time when supplies were running short. One fashion entrepreneur even created a smoker’s mask with a removable flap for the cigarette — a perhaps counter-intuitive response to health safety.

Recently one company announced that they were preparing designer cases for future vaccine passports! Finland pioneered hands-free door handles while Singapore introduced robot dogs in their parks to encourage social distancing. Japan, for its part, repurposed pool noodles to create headgear to help school children stay suitably apart.

Post-secondary institutions not only learned how to transfer all of their courses online in a matter of weeks, but also retrofitted their campuses with Plexiglas shields (we called them sugar cubes), improved ventilation systems and directional signage, so that when our communities returned they were as safe as we could make them.

Our Masses, too, were transformed. Gone were the in-person services. Within a matter of weeks many institutions and churches learned how to livestream their Masses, and online services took over. As the pandemic waned, limited numbers of people were allowed to return. Masks were made compulsory and then optional. Change and adaptation were the new normal.

Some have argued that one of the reasons for this creativity is because the crisis has forced people to work more closely together even while socially distanced. It’s difficult to disagree. Our own university response was truly a collective effort, where professors, staff and students all worked to transform how they approached their usual practices and adopted a new way of doing things.

When things got grim, people reached out to one another more conspicuously, making a point to celebrate and acknowledge their colleagues. A similar impulse worked its way through our society in general. We all remember the images of communities throughout the world standing on their balconies to celebrate the first responders. Children the world over painted posters thanking nurses and doctors.

Though the pandemic is still far from over and many hurdles lay ahead of us, it important for us to remember the highlights that this once-in-a-lifetime situation has generated. It is important to celebrate the heroic work of our nurses and doctors, our first responders, our grocery clerks and teachers and so many others who continued to step forward when their community was in need.

We must stand and advocate for individuals and nations that are not as resourced as ours and whose struggles with this virus remain great; our brothers and sisters who deal with this from the theatre of war or famine. And we must call on our two great gifts — creativity and community — to find a way to be stronger together after this pandemic than we have been before or during.

Finally, we should call on the greatest gift we have available to us: our faith. Our prayers should drive our action to be more caring and responsible. Our faith life reminds us of our responsibility for our neighbours and our environment.

There is so much that is terrible about the pandemic, that we must celebrate what good it has enabled. As Pope Francis has argued, the pandemic “has given us a chance to develop new ways of living. … We must use this decisive moment to end our superfluous and destructive goals and cultivate values, connections and activities that are life-giving.” We don’t need to invent goodness — we just have to apply it.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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