Last March, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic. After 12 months of mixed emotions and disruption to our lives, what have we learned, and where do we go from here?

When Alina Kanji walked into her local grocery store in Kitchener, Ontario on 11 March 2020, every aisle that held soap, hand wash, and sanitiser was completely empty. 

“I couldn’t believe how bare the shelves were,” said Alina. “That was the moment I began to panic, and realise that things were going to be different from now on.” 

We all have our own similar moment, around this time last year, when the realisation began to dawn that life as we knew it had turned upside down. 

“When I got home, I turned on the news, and the WHO had confirmed that the Covid crisis was not only an emergency, but an actual pandemic,” Alina said.

By that time, the spread of Covid-19 was becoming a concern of immense proportions, dominating news coverage, and prompting growing uncertainty across the world. There was a palpable fear of what the future would bring. 

Since then, the Earth has completed a full orbit of the Sun, signalling the anniversary of when life had begun to fundamentally change from the status quo. A sort of pandemiversary if you will. In our own orbit away from the time ‘Before Covid,’ we may have finally reached the furthest point. As the spring of 2021 quickly approaches, some parts of the world seem to be turning a corner. 

At this stage, we have a chance to pause and to reflect. To look back, and look forward to hopefully landing in a safe place, while considering the best route to navigate between now and then.

A year of disruption

In mid-March last year, The Ismaili website published How to cope in a crisis, which became one of our most read articles of 2020. Back then, the world knew little on how to contain the spread of this novel virus, and it was difficult to predict what the social and economic fallout might be.

Soon people started coming to terms with the fact that widespread lockdowns and physical distancing were no longer science-fiction, but actual reality. More than that, our constant doomscrolling told us we were facing the biggest and most complex global challenge for a generation. 

We held our breath when walking past strangers. Some of us turned our homes into offices, classrooms, or yoga studios, and in the process, we all spent far too much time on Zoom.

“During lockdown, it can be hard to know where the week has gone, yet at the same time life seems to have come to a standstill,” said the novelist and historian Marina Warner, articulating well the sense of bewilderment felt by many.

Many tragic tales went untold — overworked health professionals and caregivers have had no time to share their stories. Long-covid patients have suffered quietly, lacking the energy to document their experiences. Some people lost their jobs, savings, and livelihoods. And sadly, many patients passed away in hospital beds, all alone. 

Every person has their own pandemic story. This strange situation has affected us all, in completely different ways. Yet there have been silver linings.

As soon as Jamatkhanas temporarily closed, family WhatsApp groups buzzed into action, programmes were devised, and new teams and committees were formed. Volunteers juggled emails, news alerts, and phone calls, all with a single, shared goal: to ensure the safety and wellbeing of fellow members of the Jamat.

“The past 12 months have been difficult for many communities, including our own. But we came together as One Jamat to support each other and face the challenge with hope and resolve,” said Malik Talib, Chairman of the Ismaili Leaders’ International Forum. 

“Ismaili volunteers and front line workers especially have done incredible work. We can be proud that Jamati and AKDN institutions came together to share knowledge, resources, and successes at a scale never seen before, to ensure we offered help to those who needed it most.”

Video calls kept us connected. The Ismaili TV kept us entertained. And the words of Mawlana Hazar Imam kept us comforted. For many, the initial fear of the pandemic gradually turned into a steely resilience and a newfound hope for better days to arrive.

What comes next?

As the days of spring approach, bringing blossom, buds, and bold colours, we can begin to envisage a time when the pandemic might be over, and prepare to emerge from hibernation out into the world again.

After a year of constantly rising, Covid-19 case numbers are now falling globally. Vaccines are being rolled out in more and more countries, and worldwide there have now been more injections than infections, representing the latest sign of tangible hope, and a turning-point in the journey towards normalcy.

But even as the health crisis is finally being brought under control, there are plenty of associated issues to deal with. Early warning signs of a coming mental health tsunami sound ominous. We have become more reliant on technology than ever before, and it’s not clear whether this is in our best interests. For young people of the Covid generation whose futures were already uncertain, they are now even more so. 

The distribution of vaccines will also be uneven. We are entering a time of limbo as some groups receive inoculations while others have to wait. When your turn comes will depend on how old you are, and where in the world you live. As such, there is still more work to do, more patience to demonstrate, and a bit more fatigue to endure. 

Though gradually, life will begin to feel safer. After some adjustment, we’ll soon remember how to look presentable in public, how to socialise in-person, and how to share a hug again. With some luck, this time next year — the second pandemiversary — we may find ourselves in more familiar surroundings, savouring the joys of dining out, of family get togethers, and travelling to live events.

Of course, we don’t want things to completely go back to how they were before. There is plenty to learn from the past 12 months to take forward into our new world. One is reminded of a passage from The Lord of the Rings, a fictional tale, but with strong parallels to real human struggle.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. 

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkein’s story illustrates that hope doesn’t only keep us going during difficult times — it actually gets us out of them. 

Like all stories, our lockdown experience will eventually come to an end. One day, someone will turn on the news and the pandemic will be declared over. How we spend our time between now and then is up to us.