Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > What Comes After COVID-19?
It's been almost two months since I've gotten to spend any time with anyone except my wife. Fortunately, even after 43 years of marriage, Melissa still has the ability to catch me off guard, make me smile, make me happy. But it does feel strange being alone with her and no one else for so long, as if we've been marooned on some desert island. And like a maroon, I find myself thinking about things I've never thought about before, things that my generation has never had to think about before. Do we have enough food? Do I really need that extra slice of butter? Can I stretch this pot of soup to last another night or two? What will we do if one of us becomes ill? Will we be able to seek help? And if we are able, will anyone help us? Will there even be a bed available in the Easton hospital? Are we—finally and irretrievably—on our own?
It is comforting when I feel this way to remind myself I live not in New York or Los Angeles, but Talbot County. I know very little about those big cities so full of people that, paradoxically, everyone is alone, everyone a stranger, but I do know Talbot, I know her people… and, knowing them, I feel better.
Several years ago, while stopping in the Hill's on Dover, I witnessed an interesting scene. An elderly, well-dressed lady standing at the register discovered she'd left her pocketbook at home: she would be unable to purchase whatever it was she'd come into the store to buy. The lady behind her immediately stepped forward, opened her pocketbook, and paid for the item. The first lady grew flustered, protesting that she couldn't allow her to do such a thing, but the second lady insisted. Whatever was being bought didn't cost much, the second lady gave the cashier a five and received change back, but, still, I knew that second lady. She was a regular patron in the Talbot County Free Library, a young mother who trooped into our Easton branch on her days off with an entire brood of little ones trailing behind her. She also happened to be one of my favorite clerks in the McDonald's where, once or twice a week, I buy a cup of discounted “senior” coffee. And here she was picking up the tab for a woman who looked as if she could have bought and sold her several times over. And she did so without irony. I remember she clearly was just happy she could help. In Hill's, that most quintessential of Talbot County establishments, I had seen quintessential Talbot County at work.
And now, of course, quintessential Talbot County has come to the fore. For the past month, I've been preparing eBlasts that the library is sending out once or twice a week to make sure everyone is aware of all the emergency services the people of Talbot County are making available to their fellow citizens during the pandemic. Truth be told, it's driving me slightly nuts. It's almost impossible to keep up with all the good that's being done. Every day I receive an entirely new list of services our county's Samaritans are offering people who, for all intents and purposes, are complete strangers: churches giving away free food, Easton Utilities setting up free Wi-Fi Hotspots around the county, Chris Agharabi donating food for a free Farmer's Market in St. Michaels, and, of course, the Talbot County Free Library offering patrons stuck at home all manner of online entertainment and educational eResources to keep themselves and their families from going stir crazy. At this most stressful of times, the most stressful thing I've had to deal with is keeping track of the myriad good deeds being performed by the people of Talbot County for the people of Talbot County. With each new list I find myself amazed and humbled.
COVID-19 doesn't hold a candle to the great plagues that scoured the fourteenth century. It is estimated that between 1347 and 1353 the Black Death killed from one-fourth to one-third of the world. Still, there are similarities. Due to the Bubonic plague's high mortality rate, those peasants that survived the pestilence suddenly had immense value. The great lords had to compete with one another to find workers to bring in their harvests. Similarly, workers deemed “essential” in today's crisis, recognizing that the world suddenly values them as it may not have before, are asking for higher pay, demanding that their personal safety be taken into account as they labor. At the very least, COVID-19 is renewing our appreciation for the honor and sacrifice of America's working men and women, it's teaching us to once again value the people that built this country, the people that, in fact, are this country.
The Bubonic plague broke the back of the old Feudal way of doing things. No more knights errant, but—at least in Western Europe—no more serfs either, no more droit du seigneur. Historians credit the new sense of worth experienced by the common man in the plague's aftermath with ushering in the birth of humanism, the notion that there is something intrinsically special about human beings, that, however figuratively, we possess a spark of the divine. It is generally believed that, at least in part, we have the Black Death to thank for the Renaissance that followed so close upon its heels.
We can't know what will follow on the heels of this pandemic, how, or even if, our economy will recover, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me, given humanity's resilience and ingenuity, if we found ourselves, when all is said and done, better off than we were before. The whole world might end up as loving and caring a place as Talbot County is right now.
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