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A World Full of Heroes: A WITS Intern Reflects on Event with Lawrence Wright

Akshaya Ajith, a high school student doing a remote internship with the Writers in the Schools program at SAL, attended SAL’s Journalism Series event with Lawrence Wright, investigative journalist for The New Yorker and author of the pandemic thriller The End of October, on February 9, 2021. Read on to hear her reflections.

By Akshaya Ajith, WITS Intern

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep many within their homes and spreads the world at least 6 feet apart, Lawrence Wright attempts to answer the questions that have plagued us—how did it get to this? And where do we go from here? In early 2017, as he sat down to write his novel, The End of October, he had asked himself, “What could bring civilization to its knees?” He concluded that rather than nuclear war, it would be an international pandemic. In the shadow of the pandemic, Wright’s eerily timed and thoroughly researched writing has become a prophetic warning that may have come a bit too late.

The precise nature of a pandemic has led to it becoming at once incredibly fatal and yet disregarded. There is a “notable passivity in the face of such great danger [and] it is reflected in our attitude towards this pandemic,” Wright noted on the lackluster response to the pandemic during his February 9th lecture. While many are preoccupied by the threat of foreign powers and war, the 1918 flu in itself claimed more lives than the combined military and civilian deaths from World War I—the flu caused the deaths of 50 million people, and within America alone, nearly 675,000. While the coronavirus has claimed roughly 525,000 American deaths by March 1st, 2021, it continues to ravage communities.

Yet, “Until recently, […] Americans haven’t had the idea [that they] could fight against nature,” Wright continued, which severely weakens American willpower to combat issues like climate change or the pandemic, as each entails actions that are required to be strict and decisive. Anti-science movements have only increased as social disarray turns inward, masks and vaccines become political, and conspiracy theories flourish. The politicization of preventative measures spelled disaster for the United States as the pandemic worsened, and the mismanagement of federal actions failed to mitigate the surge of cases in the fall and winter. The country split into separate microcosms during the pandemic with drastically different regulations, fostering a divided and seemingly unorganized national response to the virus, and a lack of early, organized, and decisive actions. “It [was] going to happen,” Wright reflected, “but it [didn’t] have to happen at the scale that it has.”

But the story that can be found within the heart of both Wright’s novel and The New Yorker article detailing the events leading to the spread of the coronavirus “wasn’t just about the pandemic. It was about America.” The pandemic has profoundly touched every aspect of American life—it has illuminated racial inequity through its disproportionate effects on Black and Indigenous communities, stirred political tension through its inclusion in partisan politics, and changed the entire concept of the American workplace as many work from home. The story of this pandemic revolves around Americans viewing their lives through a different lens—and it is undeniable that such a shift would continue to have significance even as vaccines are distributed and as quarantine comes to a close.

Wright expects an “explosion of socialization” as Americans aren’t confined within standards set by quarantine, as freedom from being limited to a certain workplace have already been shown to be implemented and have a positive effect on most of the American workforce. But beyond that, Wright hopes that Americans can learn from both the historical and recent past. Following the Black Death in mid-1300s, the Renaissance movement was born from the ashes of the Dark Ages. The Renaissance challenged ideas of confinement as it encouraged exploration, discovery, allowing the science and arts to flourish—it looked to ancient Greek and Roman culture, but also to the future. Perhaps, after a heavily restricting period of human history, we too can enlarge our thinking and address larger nuanced issues that we have avoided. But each act of challenging a norm, or working to understand the world around us, is directly linked to our collective will.

It takes willpower for us to move into the future, so rather than questioning where we go from here, we must focus on taking our first step to a better world. We do not have the time to shy away from confronting the “viral experiences” of alternate realities that we live in, as some lay in waiting for a “prophetical voice” to give them access to power. Indeed, it may require us to both understand “the danger we are [in] as a republic” and summon the courage to face this challenge head-on, rather than wait on a hero.

As Wright deliberated to himself on what could bring human society to its knees, his very next question was “where [he could] find a hero.” In his novel, he settles on an epidemiologist rushing to contain a lethal virus, but one of the many ‘heroes’ featured in Wright’s New Yorker piece was Dr. Deborah Birx, who served as the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, a controversial figure featured primarily in the Trump Administration’s ill-conceived press briefings. Behind-the-scenes, Wright argues, Birx fought against popular theories of herd immunity that would severely increase the death toll, as she encouraged governors and local authorities to take the pandemic seriously and adopt stricter measures.

Is Dr. Birx a hero? Some would agree and others would not, but the fact that remains is that her actions have saved American lives. Either way, Wright believes that journalism has a role to “open minds to a different reality” as it challenges public perception, and to prompt such questions, especially as it becomes all too easy to find a hero and a villain within each narrative.

Heroes cannot be expected, nor can they be waited upon. As the closure of this period of American life looms and another is yet to begin, we must ask ourselves if we have the will to become a hero. We cannot expect a Renaissance without the drive to advance our ideas and work towards progress. Nor can we expect for our country to be preserved without the full commitment of its citizens. But as Wright reflects time and time again, the “world is full of heroes.” It is merely a question of if and when.

Akshaya Ajith is a sophomore at the Overlake School. She is the founder of The TimeTurner Project and the host of the TimeTurner Podcast. Akshaya has been a WITS student for three years and continues to work with SAL as a student journalist. Akshaya has written two published poems, “Imperfect” and “I,” with WITS as well as a short story featured in an anthology of student writing. Akshaya is passionate about promoting political awareness, community organizing, and working to find solutions to social issues. She continues to write in her free time.

Posted in SAL VolunteersJournalism Series2020/21 Season