Two Years Later, MacArthur Fellows on What They Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a reckoning for us all, especially as many of us had to adjust to new schedules and realities, carefully follow guidance from public health experts, practice social distancing, work from home, and more.
Two years since much of the world locked down in March 2020, we asked a few MacArthur Fellows what they learned during the pandemic. While many changed their workspaces, admirably balanced (and continue to balance) competing demands, we wanted to know what they gleaned from the past two years, and how it might help us all as we attempt to move forward from what has been a difficult time.
Here are their stories. Tell us what you learned during the pandemic in the comments:
“In Seattle, I only went out to get groceries. I was constantly worried about my husband who is a special education teacher when he had to go back to work in person. This photo was taken a few weeks after I arrived in Leipzig, Germany, in October 2021, by a multilingual poet and translator named Dong Li. As a Picador Guest Professor, I finished teaching two classes in person at Leipzig University. I deeply appreciated being able to teach in person, and the students also really needed this in-person contact after a year and half of online learning.” — Don Mee Choi, Poet and Translator
“This photo from late October 2021 — a selfie which I took at Lake Dorothy, located 12,061 feet above sea level near the Arapaho pass in the Continental Divide — hardly encapsulates life for me right now because I don’t do these hikes often enough. But I do think that traveling less has made me appreciate where I live even more than I did before. Missing out on two consecutive summers of doing fieldwork and being with friends and family in Greece has been painful, but like a lot of Coloradans, enjoying the outdoors has been a source of great happiness for me during the pandemic.” — Dimitri Nakassis, Classicist
“One evening during late January 2020, I recall analyzing some data on one of my (still) ongoing projects relating to the microbiome of fecal sludge and sewage samples from India. Until that point, our focus had been to evaluate these samples to look for emerging bacterial pathogens and indicators of human disease. That very evening, we decided to expand our focus to include the viral content of these samples and also to track the concentrations and diversity of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus associated with COVID-19) in these and other samples. Over the past two years, we have been monitoring sewage streams from a wide array of wastewater treatment plants…in some cases over the multiple waves of the pandemic, we have been able to predict upcoming infections by up to three weeks in advance.” — Kartik Chandran, Environmental Engineer
“This pandemic has been something. And I guess the persistent thing I’ve thought about, as my working space was reduced to my office — still larger than many cells I called home — is all the folks inside whose living conditions always were worse than what the pandemic wrought. It sounds a bit much to say it, a bit too selfless. And I don’t mean it that way at all. I just mean, since the pandemic, I’ve gotten more calls from prison (such as Old Colony Correctional Center, pictured) than ever before and completely shifted my work to focus on those lives.” — Reginald Dwayne Betts, Poet and Lawyer
“I am very excited to be engaging further in the digital components of my work. Last year my film An American Prophecy, taped in the cast’s homes during the pandemic, was recognized in multiple film festivals and won a Michigan Emmy. I am more deeply exploring arts leadership and entrepreneurship with my students at Michigan through digital curriculum, and my two Internet broadcasts, Arts Engines and Artful Science, now engage a monthly audience of over 100,000. And, we have a new puppy in addition to our two cats, who all joined our family since the pandemic began.” — Aaron Dworkin, Music Educator
“After two years on the pandemic roller coaster, I have allowed my focus to narrow and just be present in the spaces around our home. I spend hours with my son, happily chasing crabs. Nature’s classroom stepped up when schools closed to let us hone our powers of observation that we lost when we were too busy racing to the next meeting or activity.” — Stacy Jupiter, Marine Scientist
“The last two years have been tragic and restrictive in so many ways, but they’ve been two of the most productive of my life. Working from home has been an incredible lesson in our ability to get things done no matter where you are — no excuses when it comes to activism and justice! Over the past two years, I released a book called Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret; participated in countless interviews, meetings, and conversations about environmental justice; joined the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council; and met hundreds of new people doing incredible work. I hope that as we continue to fight — and hopefully eradicate — this virus, we’ll return to in-person life with even more fervor to fight for justice and make important systemic changes.” — Catherine Coleman Flowers, Environmental Health Advocate
“The experience of the pandemic largely intensified tendencies I already knew I had. It pushed me farther down a path I was yearning for anyway, towards a quieter, more rural, less frenetic way of life. As a composer, my most crucial work is done in solitude, and I’ve had plenty of that lately, spending most of the past two years in rural Vermont with my husband, Clay, and our two dogs (one of whom, Tiko, is pictured here). This, for me, is life these days: a haze of New England snow, a frozen-over lake, and, very importantly, a little streak of puppy energy darting through it.” — Matthew Aucoin, Composer and Conductor
“The pandemic hit within weeks of my mom passing away. I have no reason to believe she died of COVID-19, she was elderly and struggling with her health, but I joined the millions of people who could not return home to really, truly grieve with their families. Instead, I parked myself in a makeshift workspace in a drafty corner on the third floor of my house in Somerville and dove into work…conducted mostly online, far from most people’s line of sight. I am so glad that the pandemic has given me a chance to reflect on my mom and, at the same time, given me a new way to cope with the grief I still feel when I think about my mom’s ashes still sitting on a chair in her bedroom where my stepfather put them, waiting for when we would be able to gather together to celebrate her.” — Mary Gray, Anthropologist and Media Scholar
“Something I’m noticing two years into the pandemic is a marked uptick in requests for help and invitations. At first, it was thrilling — in-person time, in particular, had been sorely missed. But before I realized what was happening, my calendar was overbooked with things I probably should have declined. Was this how my life was pre-pandemic? It’s hard to remember. To protect myself from my gut reaction to say yes to too many things, I made a decision tree. I’d warmly encourage folks who tend towards excessive yeses to create a similar one for yourself — one that saves any encroachments on your precious time for things aligned with your purpose, gifts, and joy.” — sujatha baliga, Attorney and Restorative Justice Practitioner
“The pandemic has coincided with a point in my life in which I’m seeking a better balance between my work, which has often been intense and frenetic, and the rest of my life. And frankly, I’m also struggling to find a balance between being aware of and engaged with what’s going on in our troubled world and feeling overwhelmed by it. All of this has led me to get serious about my formerly on-again, off-again meditation practice…it’s a good way to invest some of the time that I used to spend commuting to an office, and the effects are both very subtle and very powerful.” — Cecilia Muñoz, Civil Rights Policy Analyst