Ever heard of the COVID-19 pandemic? I kid. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which if so - can I join you?!) you’ve heard of it. And it’s just as likely your life has been impacted by it in some way. From incremental to systemic, the changes we've experienced when compared to a pre-pandemic world is staggering. They have and will continue to impact the way we work, learn, shop, eat, travel, and much more.
In the same vein, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t hear 9/11 mentioned at least once. Sure, this is likely heightened by the fact that I am writing a book on the topic, but even prior to that, the term post-9/11 world has been used by many.
When I started writing Rise from the Ashes: Stories of Trauma, Resilience, and Growth From the Children of 9/11, I never anticipated to find so many parallels being our current circumstances with COVID-19 other than 1) our lives have been impacted significantly by both and 2) they’re both devastatingly tragic events in our history. What I found instead were striking similarities between key factors in both events.
This is in no way, shape, or form meant to be a comparison of the two. The reality is that both of them are devastating in their own right. Instead, I began this analysis as a way to reference how we’ve made it through tough times before and how our world has evolved since 9/11. Below you’ll see a few of my observations on this matter.
Policies and Standards
There’s no denying that the pandemic is set to go down in the history books as arguably the most devastating and defining moment of this century. In fact, many have described the COVID-19 pandemic as the turning point from a post–9/11 world to a post–COVID-19 world. Both events shaped the nation, if not the entire world, and through them, protocols and standards have been set.
For anyone born after 2001, it might surprise you to hear that you used to be able to go all the way up to the gate of the plane without having a plane ticket. In a post-9/11 world, it’s difficult to imagine such a thing. 20 years from now, it’s likely we will be just as familiar with rapid testing and vaccine requirements.
Covid-19 Impacts on the 9/11 Community
9/11 survivors who have acquired 9/11–related illnesses seem to be impacted more than the general population by COVID-19. With as many as sixty-eight cancers and dozens more respiratory issues reported by 9/11 survivors, this group is “uniquely vulnerable to an illness that attacks the lungs and the immune system,” Patrick Rheaume, spokesperson for New York City attorney Michael Barasch, added (Siemaszko 2020).
Fear and Uncertainty
After 9/11, many families encountered weeks on end of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones. Even those not experiencing a personal loss were full of questions. Would travel ever be safe? Can I send my kids to school? What does this mean for my future?
As we live out the impacts of COVID-19, that sense of uncertainty can be felt today. It can be seen in the decision fatigue which is alive and well in a world where we are faced with countless options.
Isolating the “Out” Crowd
The Muslim community, and frankly anyone appearing to by Muslim in any way, faced significant hardship after 9/11. They were collectively ostracized and, despite their own grief for such a tragic event, were excluded and seen as less-than.
We see this blame behavior continue as we witness rampant xenophobia in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. It could be that our constant need to compare and blame comes from our inability to make sense of what we cannot understand. Either way, it does not excuse or change the fact that this behavior is wrong and harmful to the communities it impacts.
On 9/11, the image of the Twin Towers billowing smoke was burned into all of our brains. Today’s burned-in image is a mask, which doesn’t seem to hold the same weight. Is it that we are overstimulated in an endless-scroll world, combined with desensitization from a world that reacts to tragedy with complacency? Today, there does not seem to be the same camaraderie and optimism that we had as a nation post–9/11. Maybe it’s that the human brain just can’t process all of the hurt and pain we’ve suffered collectively this year, so it chooses to ignore it.
If you’re like me, you’ve fallen victim to the mindless social media scroll which leaves you feeling empty and broken. Our overstimulation to media has only exacerbated our desensitization and struggles with empathy.
What about the differences?
The biggest difference I’ve encountered between 9/11 and COVID-19 is the sense of camraderie that some people felt after 9/11. Cat Brennan, 9/11 Surviving Child, sums it up best. She shares, “In my family, we always say to live every day like it’s 9/12. On 9/12 we were united. We took nothing for granted. We put our differences aside and supported each other.”
This is not at all to negate what folks in the “out” crowd experienced after 9/11, but rather to highlight the care and compassion that many Americans experienced. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of unity within the pandemic.
We all said, “Never Forget”, but I wonder if we’ve forgotten the lessons and values we learned from this tragic event. So where does that leave us now, 20 years later, in the midst of a pandemic? Just like the 9/11 Surviving Children have grown, so have we as a nation. We aren’t the same people we were then. Our technology alone has changed in massive ways and impacted how we respond to tragedy. It seems bleak, but the message I want to leave you with today isfull of hope.
In Rise from the Ashes: Stories of Trauma, Resilience, and Growth From the Children of 9/11, we uncover the many ways that 9/11 Surviving Children are leading the way to a better, more compassionate world. Their insights as well as their example have helped me through my darkest moments. They give me hope for the future.
As I’ve been dealing with my own grief, I wondered if there was something all of us could learn about dealing with loss and trauma. What I’ve learned from the 9/11 Surviving Children has changed not only the way I view 9/11, but also loss in general. It couldn’t be timelier as we are all collectively suffering the massive loss that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our world.
In the midst of COVID-19. In the middle of my infertility. In the memory of 9/11. We still have that opportunity to make the world a better place. We have a chance to live for all of those who did not have a 9/12, and to care for the people impacted by this virus.
Siemaszko, Corky. “COVID-19 Has Killed Dozens of 9/11 First Responders.” NBCNews.com. September 11, 2020. Accessed May 09, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/covid- 19-has-killed-dozens-9-11-first-responders-n1239885.