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CT Examiner’s Emilia Otte on the New Year

If 2020 was a tsunami that made the world hunker down and take cover, then spring and summer of 2021 could be called the period when the waters started to recede. 

And after the euphoria that comes from climbing out of a bunker and realizing that yes, you are alive and intact, comes the realization of the wreckage that surrounds you. The mess that needs to be cleaned up. And for anyone who has ever been in a flood, you know that the residue is filthy, disgusting, and even toxic. 

A few days ago, I was reading an essay written not long after the towers fell in September of 2001. The author, a pastor and writer named Johann Christoph Arnold, described us as living in a “culture of death” and a “culture of fear,” one characterized by poverty, addiction, violence and racism. We respond, he said, by closing ourselves off from the world as much as possible – living in gated communities, buying arms to protect ourselves, creating prisons that he describes as “holding pens” and “morgues.” 

None of these things are novel. But I bring up 2001 because, 20 years later, we are once again faced with an event that is sending shockwaves through contemporary history, exacerbating feelings of fear and death. Perhaps by looking at the fallout of the 9/11 attacks, we can get a better understanding of the long-term response that should – or shouldn’t – come out of this. At CT Examiner, this is always what we’ve tried to do – get beyond the breaking news headlines and try to understand the long-term effects of an event or a policy. 

One of my major philosophies of reporting actually comes from a physics principle: an object is only as strong as its weakest point. Substitute “society” for “object” and the implications become patently obvious when we look at the way the pandemic has affected some of the most vulnerable among us: the kids. They’ve fallen behind in skills they need in order to move on in their education; they’ve been removed from athletics, clubs and social gatherings. So far this year, they’ve had to confront fighting, bullying and threats of gun violence. Meanwhile, the adults are busy arguing over how best to control what they should and shouldn’t be hearing about in the classroom. 

Children and parents aren’t the only ones still struggling. I’ve spoken to restaurant owners who are having trouble getting things like meat and seafood to put on the table. A nurse described to me how some of her colleagues had been met with hostility over COVID policies or physically injured because of the increased number of people coming in with symptoms of substance abuse. The homicide rates in large cities across the country have risen; in April, a sixteen-year-old and a three-year-old were shot in Hartford. Access to healthcare is still a problem – during a public hearing last spring on a piece of health care legislation, a Spanish-speaking woman said through a translator that she waited nine hours in the emergency room because she didn’t have insurance. 

I’ll mention another essay I read recently, this one written in 1945 by a Jesuit priest who was being held in a prison for opposing the Nazis. We must continue, he said, to be shaken and disturbed by the events around us, and not become habituated to the suffering in the world. He said we must listen to the voices of people who are calling for change or pointing out the dangers we do not want to recognize. 

This is what I ask of you now. We talk endlessly of the “new normal,” but many people speak about this as a passive thing – the pandemic forced us to change. What if, instead, we said that the pandemic has shown us that we must ACT for change; what if we were to insist upon certain characteristics of this “new normal” so that it becomes a far better version of what we had before? 

A few Saturdays ago, I watched middle and high school students march in the pouring rain and wind in Norwich to protest bullying in the schools. Some of these teenagers had been bullied, and their stories were heartwrenching, but some of them hadn’t – they were athletes who came to show support despite never having had those experiences themselves. 

What they did won’t stop bullying. However, if more of us were willing to overlook our differences and instead stand together out of respect for our shared humanity, and if we cared so much about the suffering of our neighbors that we were willing to drag ourselves out on a weekend in the middle of a rainstorm just to stand beside them – I have to believe the world would be a better place. 

I’d like to end this by thanking everyone who talked with me this year. Your kindness and your patience meant the world to me. I truly appreciate your time, your expertise and your stories. Can’t wait to see what’s coming in 2022.

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