One year ago today, at the Early Childhood Services Center in the Continuing Education building of UNM, most of the staff gathered together in one of our larger conference rooms to discuss our departmental response to the then new public health crisis caused by the Novel Coronavirus, Sars-CoV-2, and the disease it brought on, COVID-19.
By the end of the day, we packed up our laptops, grabbed external hard drives and chargers, and set out to work from home for a few short weeks to help slow the spread of the virus, which had recently entered New Mexico the previous week. Nobody could have known that we would be sitting in our home offices a year later. Nobody could have known that the decisions we made in that meeting or in the following weeks would shape our entire work life for twelve months to come.
There are clear and obvious lessons learned from this pandemic, like how early responses and social distancing can and does save lives. How public health information can change rapidly as scientists and doctors learn more about a novel disease. How even if a local response is aggressive and robust, it is still hindered by state and federal responses that are lackluster.
Thankfully, New Mexico has been a shining example of how good statewide responses can save lives. We have of course had our issues, as every state and municipality has, but overall, the actions taken by our governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and by the New Mexico Department of Health, saved lives.
But I don’t want to focus on the obvious lessons learned. I don’t want to focus on the lack of response from the federal government and the Trump administration. Instead, I want to focus on the little things I have learned in the past year: about myself, about the nature of work, and about perseverance seen by my community in the face of an unprecedented-in-our-lifetime event.
I hate working from home. Or, at least, I did when we first started. Previous experiences with remote work had left a bad taste in my mouth. During the last of my college years, I moved from Socorro, NM to Albuquerque, NM with my then fiancé. This meant that my commute to and from school was no longer a 5 minute drive to campus, but an hour long drive over 80 miles one way. The ideal solution in this situation was not to commute every day, but to only commute on days I had classes, and work from home on the days I didn’t have classes.
Fortunately, my work at New Mexico Tech was web based and focused entirely on web content for the Academic Affairs Office, which meant I could do my work anywhere I had an internet connection. As ideal as it was, I hated it. The pressures of being a full time student while also working, and not being around people during work or homework meant that it was difficult for me to focus, nearly impossible to find any motivation, and that I was constantly exhausted. Some days I would leave for school by 8:30 or 9:00am and wouldn’t return till 10:00PM, knowing full well that I still had schoolwork or work-work to do, and that I would have to wake up again the next day to work from home. The temptation to slack off in work and in school was strong.
That work-from-home situation was less than ideal for me. Not only because of the odd commute times and lengths and the workload, but because of where I was in academia. I was still figuring out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and still trying to figure out how to pass the right prerequisite classes to help achieve any vague idea of a plan I had. I lacked focus, lacked motivation, and my mental health suffered.
Several years later, in March 2020, I found myself needing to work from home once again. Refusing to accept that I would be working remotely for more than a few weeks, I only took my laptop. A small Macbook issued to me by UNM that I rarely used because of my existing desktop setup in my office. I learned quickly that not all remote work is created equally.
The New Normal
While I struggled with remote work previously, and I still struggled with it in 2020, I found that my full time job offered more fulfillment than a part time job as a student, which helped my motivation. Additionally, the stakes were higher. At the Early Childhood Services Center, in the beginning of a global pandemic, child care professionals in New Mexico were looking to us for up-to-date information on closures, state regulations, and public health order announcements and changes. We were, at the time, the single source of child care related news and information regarding COVID-19. We took turns in the initial weeks of lockdown answering our call lines and hotlines, working overtime, on weekends, and late into the evenings.
If we didn’t do our jobs, hundreds of professionals lacked the resources they needed to do theirs. I learned quickly in the first several weeks that, although we were not frontline workers putting our health and safety at risk to help others, we were essential workers providing much needed support and information access for an entire state that was just beginning to understand the severity of the situation we found ourselves in.
I distinctly remember the six-week point for our “new normal”. One of the directors of our department sent an email to the entire staff thanking us for our hard work, and applauding our can-do attitude despite the continuing grim news that continued to bombard our feeds. This moment broke me in some ways. Having been working effectively nonstop since first packing up my laptop, it wasn’t until receiving this email that I realized things were much worse than we anticipated all those weeks ago, and that this was going to be our new normal for at least the rest of the year. This moment forced a kind of reckoning in me that ended up taking months to accept and overcome.
It was at this point that I decided that my mental health no longer afforded me the luxury of keeping up with the news and closely following local and state announcements. I recognized that if I continued to follow every update with the same intensity that I had been, I would only continue to slide farther into a depression that I didn’t know how to bring myself out of. I blocked several hashtags and words on Twitter to prevent them from showing in my timeline, I intentionally scrolled past news articles and updates on Facebook and Reddit, and I only listened to the parts of the state announcements that explicitly dealt with Early Childhood Education and Family Services, as that was the only piece that directly pertained to my work.
I recognize now that the ability to unplug from news like that is a sign of privilege that many may not enjoy, but nonetheless this ability served to bring balance back to my mind. I accepted that I would not be returning to the office any time soon, that masks would become a new feature of life for the foreseeable future, and that public outings and gatherings I normally enjoyed would continue to be cancelled. I accepted that I couldn’t do anything about the state of the world, or my state, or my city, but I could at least make sure that my corner of it remained as safe as possible.
On one summer afternoon in 2020, I was on the phone with a close friend from Portland, Oregon. As she and I were discussing the adjustments we made to working from home, our new routines, and the profound disappointment we had in current politics, I mentioned the recent stimulus checks that had been distributed to millions of Americans. 1,200 dollars directly deposited into bank accounts or sent in checks by mail. I realized something disturbing about the world we lived in: of the tens of thousands of people who were struggling to pay rent or find work, or who were trying to figure out how to keep their families safe while working with the public, there existed a small percentage of people like myself who would likely end up better off at the end of the pandemic than before.
I realized that there is a group of people who work white collar jobs with the luxury of being able to pack up a laptop and work remotely. Watching as our expenses decreased over time as outings to bars and movie theaters ceased to be an option. Watching as our expenses stabilized, and our income remained vastly the same. All the while still reaping the benefits of a government relief package. I realized that I held a level of privilege that few people I knew held. That I was able to take the stimulus package and pay off my debts and pad my savings. I realized that while people in my own apartment complex struggled with finding steady work, I was able to save money to buy a new desk for my “home office”, and that there was something fundamentally wrong with that picture.
Having been a leftist since college, this revelation didn’t come as a surprise to me, but it continued to shake my already dwindling faith in American democracy and the fallacy of the American dream. How can we possibly tell future generations that if they work hard, go to school, take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and work in jobs that are unable or unwilling to adapt to public health emergencies, that they can succeed as their parents and grandparents did? How can we reconcile the idea of American exceptionalism with the reality that we are incapable of taking care of ourselves and neighbors in times of need and crisis? I realized that social democracy and welfare had to fight every day to continue to exist, where as dystopian fascism and the continued marginalization of the people only needed to succeed once for everything we know to fall apart.
Around August of 2020, I felt as though I had gone through the stages of grief regarding the pandemic and the new normal of the world. The initial shock of having to transition to work-from-home, and the denial that things were as bad as they were, the pain of having to adjust to a life that was so fundamentally different from what I had envisioned, the anger I felt at the government’s lackluster response and at the people who refused to take things seriously, the depression and hopelessness I felt about the entire situation, and finally, acceptance that this is what the world is, and the acceptance of a new normal in the face of continuing chaos and suffering.
By the fall season, I had accepted that not only was my life changed, but the world was changed. In some ways, the world was changed for worse, and in others, the world was changed for better. The hundreds of thousands of lives lost would never be replaced, the realization that the US Government’s response to the pandemic was directly responsible for many of those deaths, but also, the knowledge that work was fundamentally changed for the better for many people. People with disabilities no longer needed to work in an office, and instead could work from their homes where accessibility can be more easily achieved. Single parents could work from home and adjust hours to better care for their children without having to sacrifice one or the other. Companies that refused to offer reasonable paid sick leave now were forced to recognize that the health of their workers adds to the health and productivity of the company. The world seemed poised for a fundamental shift in how we view work, community, and social progress.
It was around this time that I accepted that to best serve my needs for work, I would fully set up my “home office” instead of working from a table or couch. I finished setting up my desk space, re-organized my living room to better fit the electronics I had sent to my home from our offices, and invested the time and money needed to build a space that worked for me. As KC Davis says, I cared for my space so my space can care for me.
I also started seeing a primary care physician, which I had not done in several years, and I was able to take care of some lingering physical and mental health issues. While not perfect, I was on medication to manage my depression and anxiety, and for the first time in years, it felt as if I could take a deep breath and relax.
One of my coworkers was on extended medical leave for surgical recovery at this time, and I took on additional responsibilities at work, knowing full well that I had the support and help of our team, a new student employee under my purview, and the framework in place to continue to do my job and do it well. For the first time since March of 2020, things felt like they were coming together.
The Light at the End
Mid December 2020, the US watched with anticipation as the FDA approved the first two vaccines against the novel Sars-CoV-2 virus. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both requiring two shots spread over the course of several weeks, became beacons of hope and the light at the end of a dark and winding tunnel. I knew that healthcare workers, essential frontline workers, and those particularly vulnerable to hospitalization would be vaccinated first. I knew that as more people became vaccinated, the spread of the virus would continue to slow. Deaths would continue to decline, and the world would begin to adjust to life after COVID.
I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on February 26, 2021. The vaccine was available to me earlier than anticipated, but it also meant that New Mexico was doing phenomenally well at distributing the vaccine through the various groups of qualified individuals. A week and a half after receiving the first dose, I went to a coffee shop and sat with two friends to celebrate my birthday. It was the first excursion I had with friends in nearly a year. I felt a sense of elation at being able to exist in public, at taking part in a social activity, and at the prospect that the world would continue to open up over the next several months.
I also felt guilt. I felt guilt at the idea of being out in public. I felt guilt at the thought that I had only received the first dose of the vaccine, and my outing could still be dangerous to myself and others. And I felt guilt that maybe, just maybe, there was someone in Albuquerque who needed the vaccine more than I did but didn’t register.
As exciting as it was to be out in public, there was still a clear sense that we’re not done yet. An understanding that even if I was fully vaccinated, I still had to do my part by setting an example to others and continuing to wear my mask in public. I understood that even if it was safe for me to be out and about, that the best course of action was to continue to socially distance, work from home, and limit my public exposure for the sake of everyone, not just myself and my immediate social bubble. But there was hope. Among the chaos of the new year, the election results, the insurrection on the Capitol, the itching desire to go to movies and bars, there was hope that sometime soon life would readjust to a new reality where we could once again be close. Where we could once again spend time with friends and family. Where we could once again share moments together in person.
As I write this, exactly one year after we packed up our laptops, grabbed external drives, and set out to work from home for a few weeks to help slow the spread, I know that the world has changed. I know that countless lives were lost. Families torn apart by the virus. Economies crashed. Jobs eliminated. But I also know that there is hope. Scientists and doctors working countless hours to engineer a vaccine using a method never before used at this scale. There were innovations in science that lead to a better understanding of public health and safety. And there was a social movement across America that shed light on systemic issues of race, inequality, health, and safety.
Many people didn’t have to suffer and die for us to learn these lessons. But the lessons are there regardless. We now know what the cost of poor policy making is. We now know the fragility of our society. And we now know how to persevere. Those of us who were fortunate enough to survive the past year will carry these lessons forward, and I hope we can use them to better prepare ourselves for what may come.