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Is There a Silver Lining to the Pandemic?

Posted on March 30, 2020
Painted green bike lane on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia

By Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH

Dear Dornsife faculty, staff, students, and friends:

Last week after a long day of Zoom meetings, right around the time that would usually be rush hour, we went out for a bike ride. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, sun, blue skies and a gentle breeze. My husband and I picked up two Indego bikes and rode up 20th Street to the Parkway, then towards the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then up around Fairmount Park.

Everything seemed to be in bloom, white and pink trees lined the streets of Center City. I could not remember ever seeing so many flowering trees in Philadelphia. Cycling felt especially relaxing. I could hear the birds singing, as if I were in a park, but it was the middle of the city. The buildings we passed seemed more interesting and beautiful. We stopped a few times to look at houses we had never noticed before. The details on the brownstones were more striking. There was a shiny new building on a corner, and flowers on many windowsills.

And then I realized why I was now seeing all of this, my city more beautiful, the houses more interesting, the birds singing, the flowers on the trees, as if I was discovering all of it for the first time: there were no cars. Market Street, usually packed this time of day, was empty. Only one or two cars drove down the Parkway. It was heaven for cyclists, no worries about the cars pushing up behind you, speeding by on your left, or unexpected car doors opening up in front of you. You could ride down the middle of the street and see the city around you. It was glorious urban biking.

All this of course was because of the pandemic, because of the social distancing measures we are all engaged in to stop the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable among us. It was because of a dramatic and unprecedented situation we and the rest of the world are living through. Both the pandemic and our response to it are having many social consequences that we will have to grapple with and address. The situation we are living through will create hardship for many, and that will magnify existing inequities in many different ways.

But despite all this, I wonder if there is somehow a silver lining. Could we learn from this that there is perhaps a different way of living in cities? Imagine a city with no cars, less pollution, less traffic deaths, more public spaces, more positive social interactions in the streets, more greenery, and simply more beauty. Imagine a life with more walking, less frantic travel, fewer carbon emissions. Imagine a society that comes together routinely to support the most vulnerable as a matter of principle and not exception, that provides food and shelter to those who need it. Imagine a health care system available equally to all. Imagine a coordinated effort to make sure resources (masks, tests, hospital beds, food) are available where and when they are needed. Imagine leveraging all our intelligence and all the power of our social organization to make this happen.

On Girard Avenue we dropped off our bikes and walked back, meandering through the streets, past houses and closed bars and restaurants, some offering take-out through cracked open windows. Like us, many other Philadelphians were outside too, enjoying the beautiful afternoon, making eye contact, sometimes even saying hello as we passed, and taking broad detours to avoid getting within six feet of each other, in an elaborate dance. When we got home, we were relaxed and calm, the tension of the Zoom-filled days and all the threats and problems had drained from us.

It is hard to think of a silver lining when every day we hear of more cases and more deaths: over 2,000 deaths in the United States, and over 30,000 worldwide, many more, I’m sure, by the time you read this. Just over a century ago, in 1918 the flu pandemic killed over 16,000 people in Philadelphia, about half a million in the United States, between 50 and 100 million worldwide. We still don’t really know what the final tally for COVID-19 will be, and there is still much uncertainty we have to live with. The impact of the social distancing measures we are implementing (good and bad) is still not fully understood. But some of the radical changes we are making, what they are showing us about what we can do together and the impact we can have on our society and our world, hold lessons for what is possible in a world after COVID-19.